Women's Super League: Bumper weekend shows league must grow to keep up

Elsie, nine, had travelled up from near Brighton with her parents Rob and Vicky and big brother Olly. She clutched a sign asking her favourite player Lauren James for her shirt, and couldn’t wait to watch her first football match.

Speaking to BBC Sport outside Stamford Bridge before Chelsea and Tottenham’s Women’s Super League match on Sunday, Vicky said: “We watched all the women’s matches through the Euros, they’re both into football a lot.

“I just think it’s a great day out, the women’s game is really escalating and we want to be a part of that. We thought it would be a great occasion.

“We just went to the [club] museum, saw the pictures of all the Champions League matches – we’ll definitely be coming for more whether here or at their usual playing ground.”

What Chelsea – and English women’s football at large – will hope for is that fans like Vicky and Elsie will come back for more, and that it is not just a great day out.

This weekend saw the WSL take the spotlight in English football, between the Premier League taking a break for the 2022 World Cup and Gareth Southgate’s men beginning their campaign on Monday lunchtime.

It produced some great spectacle – Manchester United’s thrilling late comeback at Arsenal, the breathless 3-3 draw between Liverpool and Brighton, Erin Cuthbert’s sumptuous volley as Chelsea bet Spurs 3-0.

It also drew in impressive crowds. Chelsea women broke their home attendance record as they played at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2019. More than 40,000 supporters were at Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening.

Good attendances reached into the Championship too. Sheffield United Women drew a record crowd of 11,137 to Bramall Lane for their 2-0 defeat to London City Lionesses.

The question now is how to do this on a consistent basis, and turn fans from occasional day trippers to dedicated supporters who follow the WSL and its clubs week in, week out. As Manchester United manager Marc Skinner put it last week, getting “brains on seats”.


‘We’re all outgrowing our stadiums’


Things are heading in the right direction. WSL average attendance in August 2020 was 3,092; in November 2022 it is 5,099. The aim is for 6,000 by 2024.

There are growing pains, however. Chelsea’s regular home, Kingsmeadow, only has a capacity of 4,850. Arsenal usually play at Meadow Park, which can hold 4,500 at most.

Women’s football in England, super-charged by the success of the Lionesses at Euro 2022, is starting its usual surroundings. Which raises the question of what comes next.

Reading boss Kelly Chambers believes it is an opportunity the women’s game needs to seize.

Speaking before their 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, played at Villa Park, she said: “Off the back of the Euros, we knew the biggest change we wanted to see happen this year was getting more fans in the door, watching the games, but not only that, grow the fanbase too.

“It’s all well and good having fans turn up to the stadium every so often, but what we want to is ensure they are embedded into our experience, and leave them wanting more.”

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes wants more games at Stamford Bridge, but feels there also has to be a middle ground found between the Champions League arena and the stadium they used to share with AFC Wimbledon.

At her post-match press conference on Sunday, she said: “I’d like to be here [at Stamford Bridge] more. I think we all know that solving the conundrum in the women’s game around what do we do from small stadia, is there a medium-term plan to go to medium-size stadiums before eventually everyone comes home to the large stadium?

“I don’t know, but I’m absolutely certain we’re all outgrowing our small stadiums, that I’m sure of.”

Hayes feels the domestic women game needs to be braver, starting with raising ticket prices to capitalise on its sky-high popularity – albeit without reaching the often exorbitant prices of the men’s game.

Adult tickets for Chelsea v Tottenham cost as little as £9, with under-20s and over-65s able to attend for as little as a pound.

When the Blues host Paris St-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday – a meeting between two titans of women’s European football – everyone will again be able to go for less than a tenner.


‘We have to be more ambitious’


“I think one of the biggest things that perhaps we don’t talk enough about is how cheap women’s football is,” Hayes said. “I really believe we have to increase the overall pricing structure if we’re to play more in these places, because there is a cost implication to it.

“I think the audiences are there, not for every game, but certainly for maybe eight games, 12 games a year. We have to be more ambitious for ourselves. Is it too cheap to watch women’s football? I think it is, especially for the top games.”

As well as Manchester United on Saturday, Arsenal play their home Champions League matches at Emirates Stadium this season. While these games have drawn much lower crowds, they are ensuring the women’s club game at England’s biggest stadia is becoming normal.

They also faced Tottenham at the men’s ground earlier this campaign, winning 4-0 in September in front of a club record 47,367.

Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall said of the Emirates: “I think it’s one of our two homes. And from the time I’ve been here, we feel more and more that this is our home.”

A notable addition for this weekend’s big stadium matches was away ends. Usually WSL crowds are mixed, which can lead to a competitive atmosphere being nixed.

There was no risk of this on Saturday night, as the Manchester United players celebrated wildly with their travelling fans following Alessia Russo’s late winner.

They then went straight to the fans at the final whistle, something Skinner said they made a point of doing rather than entering their usual full-time on-pitch conference.

He said of away ends after the match: “Whether it’s concrete proof or not, if you give us away ends you will get a lot of fans through the door. Tonight was a good indicator of that.

“We just had to go to them at the end, usually we just go into a huddle, it was good to know where they were.”

The WSL is in a unique place, boosted over the summer like never before and continuing through until Christmas as the Premier League sits on pause until Qatar 2022 concludes.

It must now capitalise – to ensure Elsie, and the thousands of others like her with their home-made signs, come back for more.

Original article published 20.11.2022 on the BBC website.

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