There was excitement and anticipation before the 2020-21 Women’s Super League season, World Cup-winning superstars having parachuted into English clubs in search of regular football amid the pandemic and with people desperate for football to return in any form. But there was also a spectre of the unknown. The pandemic was far from over, no fans were allowed in grounds and football’s ‘new normal’ brought tensions and concerns. The impact of Covid on clubs in the long term and the effects on women’s teams were unclear.
The pandemic is still not over. However, the anticipation going into this new season feels less weighted and more jubilant. This is the season we have been waiting two years for. It is not just that the lifting of restrictions has given people a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, or that fans will be filtering into grounds again. It is also that the switch from the game surviving and managing to growing again has lifted spirits and the mood; the switch from worrying about clubs balancing the books to worrying about attendance figures again.
The BBC Sport and Sky Sports broadcast rights deal is set to explode the visibility of the WSL. Sky Sports has made good on its promise to “monster up” the women’s game with billboards, adverts and an unrivalled buildup to Friday’s opening game in which Manchester United host Reading. The Football Association’s head of the women’s professional game, Kelly Simmons, has described the season as “probably our most significant”.
She explains: “I say that because of the new broadcast deal. There’s a minimum of 57 live games across Sky and BBC. We know 18 of the 22 on the BBC are going to be on BBC One or BBC Two, so there’s some fantastic slots for us to build awareness from, build our fanbase and promote the WSL. It feels like a really special and significant season for the women’s game and will really help to break through into that regular, frequent and profiling coverage that we’ve been working towards.”
It is important to be realistic. Unprecedented accessibility will likely not translate to bums on seats instantly. It will probably take time for fanbases to fully embrace and feel enough affinity with their women’s teams to commit to regular attendance at games.
Simmons agrees. “In our fan research there are around six million football followers, passionate players they’re called in our marketing terms, who are increasingly switching over and following and engaging in women’s football. I think the broadcast partnerships, the TV deal, gives us a real opportunity to take the WSL to them and grow their interest, grow their awareness and grow their engagement levels. It’s a long-term plan.”
Aiding that plan is the increasing buy-in of clubs. The combination of the league’s title sponsorship by Barclays and the multimillion-pound broadcast rights deal has sweetened their route to the table by offering a glimpse of the future earning potential of women’s football. Regardless of why they have pulled up a chair, clubs are increasingly working with the FA and invested parties to capitalise on opportunities to accelerate the growth of the women’s game.
The opening round of fixtures reflects the ambitions and collective buy-in. Four of the six games will be at the main stadiums of the home teams, with Everton hosting Manchester City at Goodison Park and Tottenham welcoming Birmingham to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday, before on Sunday Arsenal play Chelsea at the Emirates in the first WSL fixture there and Brighton take on West Ham at the Amex. The season kicks off during a men’s international window to maximise interest. Three clubs will play the majority of home games at their men’s grounds, with Leicester the first Premier League club to commit to that, following in the footsteps of Birmingham and Reading.
“It’s the future,” Simmons says. “I think job one is to sell out the women’s grounds and for the moment clubs are considering putting their bigger games, the bigger draws, in their men’s stadia. Pre-Covid we got to the point where Chelsea v Arsenal [at their regular home grounds of Kingsmeadow and Boreham Wood respectively] started to sell out, giving us a nice problem. Down the line, once we’ve built attendances and audiences, I can see more and more games going into main stadiums.”
What can fans expect? An unpredictable season of quality football that improves and develops the more it is invested in. At the top, it is likely the established top three of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City will not be shaken from their perches. Arsenal finished third and nine points off the champions, Chelsea, last season but have a new manager and recruits that should make them more competitive. Where Manchester United looked most likely to cause an upset last season, this time Everton’s summer of intent has turned many heads their way. At the bottom things are likely to be just as tight, with the Aston Villa-Birmingham rivalry gaining traction after the switch of manager Carla Ward and a few players from the Blues to Villa. With relegated Bristol City replaced by an ambitious Leicester there is no obvious choice for the drop.
Chelsea’s Sam Kerr picked up her third golden boot on her third continent last season, beating Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema by three goals, but it is unlikely to be only those two vying for the title of top scorer, with the exciting Jamaican striker Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw having joined Manchester City, England’s Nikita Parris moving from Lyon to Arsenal and Chelsea’s Fran Kirby likely to be in the mix again.
The league is exciting but it also needs patience from new fans. It will take time for the quality to match that offered by the men’s game, which is decades ahead developmentally. However, there is also huge joy to be gained from watching women’s football. There is skill, there is passion and there is talent.