Thursday, 2 July 2015

Will the Lionesses give English football an extra bounce?

Beyond catching the odd game on BT Sport, I started watching the Women's World Cup with very little knowledge of the women’s game.  I have deliberately approached the tournament from the perspective of a newbie. That is eager to learn and slow to judge. As a consequence I've enjoy the football immensely and celebrate its differences from the men's game.

Not that there are too many. Women are as physical as men to my eye. I've detected somewhat less cynical play (glossing over Steph Houghton's penalty in the semi-final) but they players are certainly not frightened of leaving something on their opponents. The ball doesn't travel as far as it does in the men's game but that in itself can encourage passing football and a reluctance to play with a high defensive line which leaves more space.

And of course there has been England. Unfancied but improving England who had yet to win a knock out game in a World Cup. Thanks to coach Mark Sampson's tactics, squad rotation and a teeny blessing from the draw, the lionesses have done a good deal more than that. Also, with the BBC showing all the World Cup games live and the latter England games of the flagship BBC 1 channel, the nation has taken notice of their progress to the third place play off.

Back in England the FA Women's Super League clubs will be anxious to find if the Lionesses success on the 3G fields of Canada will translate into increased attendance figures at Manchester, Lincoln, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest of the clubs that make up the 2 divisions of the WSL. The 2014 season recorded an average attendance of 728 (Source: The FA). This was a significant on the 562 in 2013 but is comparable to tier 6 in the men's game. The medium term aim must surely be to get attendances up to over 1000 for WSL 1 at least. Indeed some may find that to be a modest ambition.

The good news is that the WSL will be resuming their season almost immediately after the World Cup. The opportunity is there to strike while the iron is hot. The bean counters will be examining the attendance figures and TV ratings closely for a bump.

It will also be interesting to see how many, if any, professional men's clubs seek to increase investment  in their own women's teams or partner clubs on the back of England's success. How soon will it be before there is a clamour to expand the WSL to accommodate clubs eager to step up their commitments for their own commercial interests? How soon before Manchester United decide to launch their own women's football club? If and when they do they're hardly going to start from the bottom.

Were women's football to suddenly blossom then its administrators may find themselves confronted with some fresh challenges.  In turn they may have to make some difficult choices as new and more powerful interests become stakeholders.

You may recall when Doncaster Rover Belles were forcibly relegated in 2013 so as to accommodate Manchester City Women. City posted the highest average attendances in their debut season in 2014 suggesting that their place in the top tier is merited. This would be justification to bump smaller clubs out of the league for more well healed newcomers.

Get ready also for the misogyny.  The dinosaurs who think women should be serving pies rather then curling free kicks. Look out also for unflattering pictures of England players entering and leaving night clubs on click bait website anxious to judge them, not on the ability to play football but on their sexuality. Such is the burden that all women athletes must carry.

But let's not dwell on the negatives. Rather let's embrace what we hope will be a golden age of the women's game. In fact let's stop calling it 'women's football' and call it just football instead. After all the beautiful game should know no gender.