The Growth of Women’s Football

Women’s football in England has seen an impressive period of growth, reaching milestones that have set new standards for the sport. The popularity of women’s football is evident in the record attendances at matches and the increasing number of fans who follow the sport closely. In 2023, history was made at Wembley when the Women’s FA Cup Final attracted a full house, reflecting the growing enthusiasm for women’s football. Furthermore, average attendances for the Barclays Women’s Super League have surpassed expectations, with figures reaching over 7,000 supporters per game, beating the target set for 2024.

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The success of women’s football extends beyond match day attendances. Social media engagement has transformed the visibility of the sport, with the Women’s Super League becoming the most socially followed women’s football league globally. This rise in popularity has been years in the making, supported by consistent efforts to develop the game at grassroots and professional levels. The Football Association’s strategy aimed to create a sustainable future for the sport, focusing on transformational objectives that have been steadily achieved. The strategy aimed to increase participation, improve the profile of women’s football, and develop elite pathways for players. The concerted efforts have led to a noticeable acceleration in the growth of the game, evidencing the potential for further advancements in women’s football in England.

Historical Development

Women's football evolves: 1800s - informal matches, 1920s - banned, 1970s - revival, 1990s - pro leagues, 2010s - global recognition

The historical development of women’s football reflects its resilience and growing global influence, marked by various phases from its early grassroots beginnings, through a period of official recognition and support from FIFA, to it setting transformative objectives for future growth.

Early Stages

Women’s football has been recorded as far back as the 15th century, where it was played in local communities as a leisure activity. However, the game’s formal organisation took shape during World War I when women’s teams formed in the UK, playing in front of thousands of spectators. Despite facing a ban by The Football Association in 1921, which lasted until 1971, the game persisted at the grassroots level.

  • Significant Figures: Baroness Sue Campbell, a prominent figure in women’s sports, played a crucial role in the development of strategic initiatives like the ‘Gameplan for Growth’.
  • Grassroots Initiatives: ‘Wildcats’ and ‘Let Girls Play: The Biggest Ever Football Session’ are examples of programs aimed at encouraging participation from an early age.

FIFA’s Role

FIFA officially recognised women’s football in 1986, which set the stage for the first Women’s World Cup held in 1991. This recognition was pivotal as it signalled a commitment to the growth of the sport on a global scale.

  • First Women’s World Cup: Held in China, it was a significant moment for the sport, leading to increased visibility and support.
  • FIFA’s Investment: FIFA has subsequently increased its investment in women’s football, providing more opportunities for development at both professional and grassroots levels.

Transformational Objectives

The recent years have seen a strategic focus on transforming women’s football with clear objectives to ensure its growth and sustainability.

  • Gameplan for Growth: Launched by The Football Association, it aims at doubling participation and fanbase while improving commercial viability.
  • Global Reach: Women’s football continues to expand its influence with objectives to grow the game worldwide and make it more accessible to girls and women of all ages.

Through these targeted efforts, women’s football has seen substantial progress and continues to move forward with the aim of achieving parity with the men’s game.

Growth Dynamics

The growth of women’s football is evident through rising participation rates, league expansion, and increasing professionalisation, marking a significant shift in the landscape of the sport.

Increasing Participation

Participation in women’s football has seen substantial growth, with girls and women engaging in the sport at unprecedented levels. This surge is partly due to successful initiatives like the Inspiring Positive Change strategy by The Football Association (FA), which aims to boost involvement at grassroots and amateur levels. The FA’s efforts have been supported by the Lionesses’ performances, inspiring a new generation to take up the game.

League Expansion

Club licensing and league structuring have played crucial roles in the expansion of women’s football leagues. The Women’s Super League (WSL), England’s top tier for women’s football, has undergone transformation, welcoming new clubs and extending its reach. This league expansion is a response to the rising interest and investment in the women’s game, creating more opportunities for competition and development at the club level.

Professionalisation

The professionalisation of women’s football is accelerating, with clubs embracing full-time professional structures and standards. Following major tournament successes, particularly the impact of winning a significant trophy, clubs have been motivated to upgrade their facilities, coaching staff, and player support systems. Club licensing requirements have further emphasised the need for a structured approach to professionalisation, ensuring sustainable growth and better career paths for women footballers.

Social and Cultural Impact

Women’s football has seen a shift in social perception and cultural acceptance, increasingly embraced for its contributions to diversity and inclusion, reshaping the landscape of sports leadership through women in refereeing, and spearheading initiatives for inspiring positive change across communities.

Diversity and Inclusion

Women’s football serves as a catalyst for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within sports. Initiatives like ‘Let Girls Play’ advocate for equal access to football in schools and local communities. Empirical evidence suggests that when commercial partners back women’s teams, it signals a commitment to diversity, contributing not just to the sport but also reinforcing the importance of female participation across all levels.

County FAs play a significant role in this by providing resources and football for fun programmes that aim at inclusiveness, ensuring that football remains accessible during unprecedented times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a push for innovative means to keep the football community engaged.

Women in Refereeing

In the sphere of refereeing, there is a conscious effort to increase the visibility and presence of women. Refereeing is no longer male-dominated, as more programmes are being developed to equip women with the skills and opportunities to excel in this role. Women referees are essential role models, inspiring others by breaking barriers and setting new standards for professionalism and skill in football.

Inspiring Positive Change

Women’s football has become instrumental in promoting positive change within society. It provides an exemplary model for other sports by actively promoting positive health outcomes, fostering community cohesion, and demonstrating the social benefits of involving women in sport. The sport’s success stories often extend beyond the pitch, serving to empower young girls and women to pursue their ambitions in various domains.

Economic Aspects

The economic landscape of women’s football is transforming, with advancements in sponsorship, broadcast rights revenue, and the implementation of a club licensing system driving the sport towards greater professionalisation and financial stability.

Sponsorship and Funding

Women’s football has seen a significant increase in commercial partners and sponsorships. A notable 90 per cent of leagues now have a written strategy for the women’s game, leading to enhanced strategic investments. The Football Association and member associations report that title sponsorships have grown, indicating a strong market interest. Female youth teams are likewise benefiting from this surge, exemplifying the investment in the sport’s sustainable future.

  • Key Sponsors:
    • Barclays: Title sponsor for the Women’s Super League
    • Visa: Partner for FIFA Women’s Football Development

Broadcast Rights Revenue

Revenue generated from broadcast rights has played a crucial role in the growth of women’s football. The increasing viewership has made the Women’s Super League the most socially followed women’s football league globally. Enhanced broadcast agreements reflect a growing appetite for women’s football, providing a solid revenue stream for the leagues and clubs.

  • Broadcast Partners:
    • Sky Sports
    • BBC

Club Licensing System

The introduction of a club licensing system ensures that structural and financial criteria are met, bolstering the game’s integrity and economic health. Reports like the FIFA Benchmarking Report aid in setting standards and expectations for the leagues. The club licensing system is crucial for long-term development, ensuring that clubs provide adequate support for their women’s teams, reinforcing professional standards across the board.

  • Core Components:
    • Governance
    • Youth development
    • Financial management

Competitions and Events

The success and reach of women’s football have been magnified through the increasing popularity of its competitions and events, drawing in crowds and nurturing talent at every level, from grassroots initiatives to global tournaments.

Domestic Leagues

Domestic leagues form the backbone of the women’s game, providing a platform where players can regularly compete and hone their skills. The Barclays Women’s Super League (WSL) in England, for example, has witnessed a remarkable growth in league attendances, with an average now standing at 7,457, surpassing the initial target of 6,000 set for 2024. This increase in spectators underscores the league’s rising prominence and the growing appetite for women’s football.

International Tournaments

At the international level, tournaments like the UEFA Women’s Euros and the FIFA Women’s World Cup serve as the pinnacle for national teams. Notably, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 will likely further escalate interest and investment in the women’s game, just as previous tournaments have done. These events not only showcase top talent but also inspire nations and create a lasting legacy for the sport.

Grassroots and Youth

Grassroots initiatives are vital in cultivating the next generation of talent and fostering a passion for football among young girls. Noteworthy among these initiatives is the FA’s “Wildcats” programme, targeting girls aged 5 to 11, offering them recreational opportunities to get involved in football. Through these programmes, the talent pathway is enriched, contributing to the doubling of registered women’s and girls’ teams in England and the Channel Islands from 5,632 in the 2016-17 season to 12,150 by the end of 2023.

Current Challenges

The expansion of women’s football faces significant hurdles despite its increasing popularity, including issues surrounding equity in the sport, the need for a sustainable future, and the ongoing evolution of its media and public perception.

Equity in Football

The journey towards equity in football reveals a complex landscape. Women’s professional game advancements are juxtaposed with persisting gender disparities. Key findings from surveys indicate that, while there has been a marked improvement in attendances and investments, the professionalisation of the women’s game still lags in terms of equal pay, facilities, and access to training that mirrors the men’s game.

Sustainable Future

Building a sustainable future for women’s football is paramount. The Women’s Championship and other leagues are strategizing long-term growth that can weather challenges like those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The implementation of a COVID-19 relief plan and solid financial foundations are critical to ensuring that clubs can operate effectively and continue to grow.

Media and Public Perception

The portrayal of women’s football in media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perception. Despite the Women’s Super League’s increase in social media followings and viewing figures, there remains a necessity to enhance media coverage consistency and quality. This will validate and elevate the women’s professional game, encouraging a more informed and engaged audience.

Global Outlook

The women’s football scene is witnessing a significant upsurge, with a marked increase in players, dedicated investments, and educational efforts driving its international expansion and professionalisation.

International Growth

Women’s football is seeing a remarkable surge in both professional and grassroots levels globally. FIFA’s survey reveals that the number of women and girls participating in organised football climbed to 16.6 million, a 25% increase since 2019. Notably, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup set a new record for attendance and broadcasting, underscoring a growing fan base and a broader audience reach.

Investment in Development

Investments in the development of women’s football have grown substantively, with member associations receiving greater support from FIFA. This backing has facilitated the establishment of new leagues and competitions across different continents, including Africa, where the sport’s popularity is rapidly ascending. Organisations have also increased funding for improvements in infrastructure and facilities to nurture and sustain the women’s game.

Education and Workshops

FIFA places a strong emphasis on coach education and the provision of workshops to improve the understanding of the women’s football landscape. Such educational programmes are pivotal in elevating the quality of coaching and supporting the influx of volunteers dedicated to the sport. These initiatives, along with efforts to enhance the development pathways and governance frameworks, are essential for the sport’s enduring growth and success.

Frequently Asked Questions

The recent years have seen notable strategies and milestones contributing to the growth of women’s football, reflected in increased participation, attendance, and visibility of the women’s game. The following frequently asked questions address core developments and future needs in women’s football.

What measures are being taken to increase female participation in football?

Efforts such as The FA’s strategy to grow women’s and girls’ football have shown positive results, with initiatives to make football more accessible at grassroots levels and improve professional opportunities. These measures aim to sustain participation numbers that have been rising after significant events and campaigns.

How has the popularity of women’s football leagues in London influenced the game’s growth?

The popularity in London, especially following sold-out events like the Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, has set attendance benchmarks and driven media coverage. It also inspires younger generations, further fuelling interest and participation rates across the UK.

What strategies are being implemented to enhance the profitability of women’s football?

Strategies include brokering lucrative sponsorship deals, enhancing media rights agreements, and optimising matchday revenues. The Barclays Women’s Super League’s increased attendance and viewership are significant steps toward enhancing the league’s commercial viability and profitability.

In what ways has women’s football revenue changed in recent years?

Revenue streams have diversified with higher ticket sales, more competitive broadcasting contracts, and sponsorships. The remarkable attendance of 59,042 fans at a Barclays WSL match points to a trend of revenue growth linked to the commercial attractiveness of women’s football.

What are the main factors contributing to the rising popularity of women’s football?

Key factors include successful international tournaments, greater media exposure, societal shifts towards gender parity, and increased investment from football associations and clubs. These elements combined have elevated the game’s profile and drawn in audiences worldwide.

What changes are needed to further advance women’s football?

To advance women’s football, there is a need for sustained investment in infrastructure, youth development, and equitable pay structures. Additionally, continuous engagement with fans through improvements to the matchday experience and media content is essential for long-term growth.


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