PEEP PEEEEEEP! The Women's Super League (WSL) kicked off last night with a match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Tooting & Mitcham's ground (1-0 Arsenal). What, you didn't know? Actually, that's unsurprising given the complete lack of fanfare surrounding it.
It was only spectated by about 2,500 people, but for female footballers, the launch of the WSL is a pretty big deal: it's the first semi-professional football league, sowing the seeds for women to finally have a hope of making a proper living out of the sport. I say hope because, as it is, no more than four players per squad of 20 can earn more than £20,000 (that's per year, not per week). But anyway, it's heading the right way and the hope is the potential will keep rising female football stars on these shores.
Being played by (according to the FA) 1.38m women and girls in the UK, football is the most popular participation sport among females. Even so, when the BBC asked online: 'Is 2011 the year that women's football will become mainstream?' I found myself thinking, it's about time, but it's not very flippin' likely. The vast majority of people I know had no idea the match was happening, what the WSL was, or that England's team are heading into the FIFA Women's World Cup in June.
While the UK's media has given the WSL some coverage, it has been lost, buried by other sports news that people seem to care about. If women's football in the UK ever has a hope of becoming mainstream, it needs to be boosted by our national press and TV channels, not just mentioned in passing. This was, or should have been, a bigger deal.
The BBC sort of made an effort online in the lead up (though the story was sitting at the bottom of the pile on the sports homepage), and there were mentions on its dedicated news channel – but on its breakfast show yesterday morning, at prime time, there was nothing telling viewers is was happening, not in the sports bulletin and not in the bulletin for London, home city to the two teams playing that all important first match. Coverage this morning was limited on BBC Breakfast to a minute or so – nothing on ITV Daybreak. In fact I think both channels gave more airtime to a photo of Serena Williams wearing a tight pink catsuit.
I would love to think attitudes towards women in the football arena are changing after the furore sparked by Richard Keys and Andy Gray and their sexist comments about female referee Sian Massey. But then, an online Daily Star page from a few days ago begins: 'Sexy stars are set to take the football world by storm... And they're women." It's accompanied by four of the best looking players in the England squad, wearing tight tops or baring their midriffs. I know male footballers get their pecks out for the ladies too – but is this a good way for the England Women's World Cup Team to be introduced?
It seems that some traditional male football supporters are rather protective of the game they see as one of the last true male domains. Some, some! Not all! I know there are some who just love football, and would watch it played by men, women or llamas as long as it was an exciting match. But others, many others I think, will not ever take women's football quite as seriously. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether the female supporters will. Our women's teams really need the majority of their clubs' fans to get behind them.
The FA has been doing all the right things, but there's a long way to go. Perhaps it is better than women's football never reaches the 'heady heights' of men's – perhaps, even as it progresses, it will remain more about the game and not get lost under the 'love cheat!' and 'booze and drug binge!' headlines. But while there are many sports in which the female game or race remains lower profile than the men's equivalent, football is our national sport – and that's why women deserve a level playing field.
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