The Blog

Women's Football Still Riding the Olympic Wave

Although trying to end the country's obsession with men's football may be a Sisyphean task, creating an obsession with women's football may not be so hard if the game keeps developing at the pace it has done since the Olympics last summer.

"You get better games on a Sunday morning with fat, hung-over blokes in their 40's. What a waste of money," was one of many disapproving comments to the news that this summer's Women's European Championship will be aired on free-to-view UK television for the first time in its history.

Others claimed they would "rather watch paint dry", bemoaned the BBC "ramming women's football down our throats" and demanded they give women's football its own part of their website so "those who are not interested don't have to see it."

But whatever the chauvinists say, it seems nothing will stop the surge in interest, coverage and investment that women's football has enjoyed over the past 12 months. Still riding high on the Olympic wave, the Football Association (FA) and the game's top clubs have worked tirelessly to harness last summer's spike in interest into a permanent following that is crucial for closing the gap between the men's and women's game. As part of its five-year plan to make women's football the second-most played sport in the country, the FA have pledged £3.5m into the game which will fund the creation of an Elite Performance Unit, a commercial strategy aimed at attracting more broadcast coverage, an expansion of the FA Women's Super League and a campaign to significantly boost the game's fanbase.

The Olympic legacy

An Olympic record of 740,000 people attended the 26 women's matches at last summer's Olympics, which were hosted at venues across Great Britain. The final, between the United States and Japan, was watched by more than 80,000 and Great Britain's group stage win over Brazil at Wembley attracted 70,000. Almost four million people tuned into the watch the game live on TV.

People may have gone to watch women's football in the same vein as going to watch unconventional British sports such as handball and wrestling and the game may not attract even half the size of those audiences again in the next decade, but London 2012 gave women's football the exposure it needed to prove to the British people that it was worth watching.

Heather Rabbatts, the Football Association's first and only female board member, said the Olympics signalled a turning point in the game's on-going growth and another high-profile figure, the FA's director of National Game and Women's Football Kelly Simmons, called last summer's Games a "watershed moment".

Film director Jamie Whitehead, who has just finished shooting a documentary called A Different League, which charts the success of the women's game over the past 12 months, says the Olympics gave the game the vital springboard it has needed for years.

"The Olympics threw women's football right in front of all of us," he says. "It gave it the exposure it deserved and because of that the game has come on leaps and bounds since last July."

On a late summer's evening last July I was travelling back from the Millenium Stadium after watching the Great Britain women's team thrash Cameroon 3-0 and met a couple of middle-aged, Leeds United fans on the train. They only went to the game because all the men's tickets had sold out and were keen to go to at least one Olympic event. But they told me how shocked and surprised they were with the standard, even joking that the GB ladies were better than their beloved Leeds United players.

And "busting the perception" of women's football is the key to moving the game forward, according to Sophie Hurcom, author of the women's football blog A Beautiful Game.

"A strong barrier for the women's game is the lack of publicity. The more genuine football fans watch women's football, the easier it will be for the game to grow," she says.

The women's game will receive that much needed exposure next month after the BBC announced it would be showing 16 of the 25 games live on TV along with highlights of the remaining nine. Fans will also be able to listen to each of England's matches live on BBC Radio 5 live.

It is the start of a substantial commitment to the women's game from the BBC, which will also show coverage of England Ladies' World Cup qualifiers and a weekly highlights show of England's top club division; the Women's Super League.

Although the BBC did not disclose the cost of broadcasting rights for their significantly increased coverage of women's football, they confirmed the decision was a direct result of the Olympics "winning over new audiences" for the game and the BBC's director of Sport, Barbara Slater, said there is "strong audience appetite" for more coverage of the women's game.

The game has also proved it can attract private sector investment after the FA agreed a new commercial deal with BT. Their new sports channel will become the exclusive UK broadcaster of the top club competition, the Women's Super League (WSL). As part of the four year partnership BT will be the official sponsor of the WSL, England women's national team and the FA Women's Cup. Again, the Olympic effect had a vital role in the decision-making process according to the head of BT Sport, Simon Green who has committed his company to developing the game and "building on the sport's recent success".

Kerys Harrop is a defender for one of the WSL's top clubs and last season's FA Cup winners Birmingham City and has also been capped for England. She and her fellow professionals are indebted to the legacy created by the Olympics which has had such a positive impact on their game.

"The attention and investment within women's football over the years has not been credible to what the sport deserves," she says. "But the media attention the GB women's team received at the Olympics gave the sport the boost it needed, it has raised the profile of the game and finally the FA has recognised the need for more investment."

The FA increased England players' central contract from £16,000 to £20,000 a year in January to in recognition of the "part they have played in English football's recent success". The new salary might only be what Wayne Rooney earns in one morning, but it is a significant improvement on their previous package, which was labelled "embarrassing" by Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) chief Gordon Taylor. As part of their £3.5m five-year plan the FA are part-funding the WSL teams, giving them £70,000 per season to help clubs move towards becoming fully professional.

Investment from the men's game

Not only did the Olympics spark interest in the women's game, but it also convinced investors at some of the top men's clubs to divert a share of their millions into their ladies' teams. This translates into higher wages for players, allowing them to train more at higher quality training facilities and perform on better quality pitches, which all makes for a higher standard and more competitive games for spectators.

"A few years ago, pitches were terrible quality, not much better than park football standard," explains Arsenal and England midfielder Jordan Nobbs. "It stopped teams like us being able to play good quality, passing football. But with the increase in support from the men's side, we've been able to play on much better quality pitches like Anfield, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge which obviously improves the quality of the league and makes the game more entertaining for the fans."

Harrop agrees: "The quality of the domestic game has increased massively within the last year due to the investment from the men's clubs, in particular Liverpool and Chelsea."

Whereas Arsenal have invested strongly in their ladies team for years, it is the emergence of Liverpool Ladies which embodies the commitment that men's clubs are starting to show to their female teams. Having finished rock bottom of the WSL for the last two seasons, Liverpool FC indicated their desire to form a strong commitment to supporting women's football, pumping money into the playing and coaching staff, the facilities as well as a new 13,000-seater stadium. The ladies have even enjoyed training sessions with the men's team led by manager Brendan Rogers.

Liverpool Ladies shocked defending champions Arsenal with a 4-0 victory in the Londoners' first game of the league season and sit top of the league after winning five of their opening six matches. But considering they are the only team in the league who train full time, that should come as no surprise. From being the league's perennial losers Liverpool Ladies have suddenly become the game's standard-setters - they were able to attract 12 new recruits to the team for this season including six from abroad which in itself shows how much the domestic game is developing, and in some cases catching up with continental rivals. Manchester City have already followed in Liverpool's footsteps after announcing their billionaire owners are investing in their ladies team too and as a result they have satisfied the FA's criteria to join the elite WSL teams from next season.

Although it means more competition for Arsenal, Birmingham and the rest, Harrop and Nobbs see the sudden flood of investment in the game as positive for the future of the English game.

"Over time, this should hopefully improve the standard of women's football at domestic and international level and as a country we should hopefully win more competitions and medals," Harrop says.

Nobbs adds: "It just goes to show that the English league is starting to get more well-known across the globe and as more players start coming over it'll step up the quality of our league and increase publicity."

But is the growth of the game all about the money? It seems so, as fans of Lincoln Ladies and Doncaster Rovers Belles are all too aware of. After suffering financial trouble, Lincoln Ladies FC have fallen down the same path as Wimbledon did in 2002 when their club was uprooted 60 miles to Milton Keynes. In order to save its top-flight status by fulfilling the FA's strict financial and structural criteria, the club's chairman Ray Trew, who is also chairman of men's League One side Notts County, has rebranded and relocated Lincoln Ladies 30 miles to the west to form a new partnership with his men's team in Nottingham.

Doncaster Rovers Belles have also fallen foul of the game's new financial rules after the FA announced they would be replaced by Manchester City Ladies next season, regardless of either team's final standing. Promotion via financial might is a dangerous precedent to set but the FA is willing to sacrifice this fundamental part of the game in the greater good of developing women's football.

Future growth

Money, however, can only take the game so far, and domestic women's football in the UK has a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Japan and the United States where the women's game flourishes as a mainstream sport and rivals the men's game in terms of attendance figures. Even Germany and France appear to be years ahead in terms of fanbase figures.

An overriding theme that comes through from talking to people in the game is the cultural advantage the women's game has in these countries.

"There's no football history here," explains Whitehead, who spent time in Germany and France as part of his in-depth research of women's football. "Clubs on the continent have 80-100 years of history along with being part of cities and communities. People have built a strong loyalty towards them - and rather than being just one football team, they're sports clubs. Bayern Munich even have a chess team.

"Lyon are a great example of this - their women's team attract 20,000 and pubs and bars around the Stade de Gerland are full of people watching the game. It's not Lyon Ladies playing, it's just Lyon - they fall under the same umbrella as the men's team.

"It's not so much the clubs that need to change their attitude; it's the people they are trying to appeal to that need to change."

Harrop agrees that it's about changing the culture, opening up society to the idea of women's football and points to our obsession with the men's game as a hindrance.

"Women's football is so much more popular in Japan and the United States because people don't have as much of an obsession with the men's game as they do in the UK. Women's football is at a disadvantage because of our obsession with the men's game, but it shouldn't be because the women's game offers a completely different kind of entertainment."

Although trying to end the country's obsession with men's football may be a Sisyphean task, creating an obsession with women's football may not be so hard if the game keeps developing at the pace it has done since the Olympics last summer.