If you’re someone that is involved in the women’s game of football at all then I am almost certain that you will, at some point, have had a conversation that goes something like this:
You: *likes women’s football*
Some guy: Wait what? Women don’t deserve rights. It’s SIMPLE ECONOMICS.
Some guy: I have proof! No one goes to women’s games. When they do, it’s free or cheap tickets.
Some guy: I am the first person to ever have these thoughts. I am the most intelligent person in the entire world. Please pay attention to me.
It’s conversations like this that are so frustrating and so easily countered. People clearly do care about the women’s game. You can see that in crowd figures such as the sold out World Cup semi-finals and finals of over 50,000 people each, the almost 63,000 people who attended the opening weekend of the WSL this season, the over 60,000 fans who attended Atletico v Barcelona in March, and the 39,000 people who watched Juventus beat Fiorentina that same month.
Nonetheless, I would argue crowd sizes are not the be all and end all for the success of women’s football. The biggest thing is access – where are your fans coming from?
It is clearly true that on average, crowd figures for the women’s game cannot sustain professional leagues on their own. In our beloved W League this season, crowd figures seem to have nosedived even as more and more people take an interest in our game (see: Sam Lewis in the Guardian for some reasons). Club figures around the world, even for the most popular clubs, generally only average around the 2 to 3 thousand mark. Even Lyon, probably the most well-known and well-resourced women’s club in the world, averaged 3215 people last year.
The United States is the exception, as it is with many things in the women’s game. The lowest average attendance in the league was Sky Blue with 3338, followed by Houston with 3615 – although with the caveat that both clubs were far from exciting on the field. Beyond that, every club averaged over 5,000 fans, with the high points of Utah with over 10,000 and the peerless Portland Thorns with over 20,000.
What is different in the States that draws more people to the ground?
I believe that there are a few key differences between the United States audience and the European audience that are incredibly important to understand, particularly if women’s football (and football in general) is going to flourish in Australia.
Arsenal Women have 228,000 followers on Twitter. Their tweets get huge engagement. Anything about Vivienne Miedema gets retweeted faster than you can blink. Many prominent fans of the men’s club seem to have jumped on board with the women’s team and fully embraced its players. Arsenal Women’s, Man Utd, Lyon, Barca – these clubs have so much more international reach and social media presence than Sky Blue, Houston, even Portland. Yet their crowds are so much smaller.
Who is more successful? Who is the bigger club? No one can get near the 20,000 that the Thorns pull every week. But does that mean that they are a bigger club than Lyon? Who sells more shirts, I wonder, Amandine Henry or Christine Sinclair? (Genuinely, I’d be curious).
It’s not the same thing, but I can almost compare it to a club like Hashtag United, one of these YouTube teams that have sprung up. They get barely anyone at the games themselves but have such a huge digital reach that it doesn’t matter. They keep the club afloat based on that digital reach – and their sponsorship money has nothing to do with the 300 people at the game.
So, how do we move forward in the women’s game? Do we try to go down the road of a YouTube team? I wouldn’t go that far – but we should ponder if there can be a middle ground.
In my view, crowd sizes are good, but they are not how the women’s game is going to become profitable and stand on its own two feet. The fans of these mega clubs will pick going to their men’s game over their women’s every single day of the week. The United States doesn’t have the same culture – the audience for the women’s game is often different to the audience for the men’s game. Therefore, they’re going to get the crowds, but not necessarily the eyeballs.
The world is changing. In the men’s game, crowds in leagues across the world are going down as people would rather watch the Premier League at the pub than go to their local club down the road. In Australia, we know all about this. How do you fight the tide of these mega leagues? How do you create your own stories?
Crowd numbers on their own mean nothing. The sustainable long-term future of the game doesn’t depend on getting 30,000 people to magically show up every week. It depends on utilising what we already have – which is social media presence, and stories – monetising it and distributing it equitably.
Market the game differently. It is a different game, with a different audience coming from a different angle. Don’t think about the game in terms of bums on seats, think about it in terms of engagement, in terms of stories. If you get these things right, people will come.
It seems like we are trying to go the other way around – crowds, and then engagement. I just fundamentally disagree that this is the right strategy for every market.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m a latte sipping hack, and I’m far from having any sort of business brain. I just think that we are banging our heads up against the wall trying to get the women’s game to look like a replica of the men’s game. It is not, and the trends show that clearly. Let’s focus on the stories that get people engaged. Growing the game doesn’t necessarily mean drinking beers and ripping flares on a cold Saturday afternoon – it can mean a kid clicking on a video of Vivienne Miedema as well.
Matchday experience will take care of itself from there.
By Taryn Heddo