Yesterday’s England squad announcement drew a fair amount of attention: some good, some bad. Over the span of four (long) hours, all 23 squad members for next month’s World Cup were individually announced via short videos message by high profile public figures like Prince William, actress Emma Watson and pop star Ellie Goulding as well as former and current pros like Rachel Yankey, Raheem Sterling and David Beckham.
While it may have been a hugely frustrating and inefficient way for soccer purists and traditionalists alike to find out the 23 names – information we’re much more akin to receiving with as much pomp and circumstance as a routine press release – Wednesday’s announcement can just as easily be seen as a watershed moment for the women’s game on English shores.
Whereas the England men’s squad announcement would be top billing of every news bulletin, dominate the back pages of every national newspaper and spark debates in twitter replies and facebook comments sections for days, the women’s equivalent has demanded far fewer newspaper inches, been an afterthought on the news and rarely made much social media impact. Instead The FA has had to go one step further in order to restore parity, manufacturing its own unavoidable level of coverage, pervading the consciousness significantly more than it historically would have. Needless to say, with 23 individual announcements across multiple, high-profile accounts, the team’s reach has significantly exceeded what it normally would have. The official Lionesses twitter account alone has seen a 5.7% increase in followers in little over a day and a half. But it’s more than just maximizing marketing.
In a country that had a ban on women’s professional soccer until 1971, the game is still battling to regain the deficit that decades of stigma has created. Whereas the England men’s team’s 2018 World Cup squad announcement and media-friendly build up was focused on building a rhetoric about how this latest generation has patched up the disconnect of previous iterations, the women’s side has simply had to battle for the explicit acceptance and normalization of the women’s game across mainstream channels. The squad announcement, as England manager Phil Neville explained, was about giving each player “a special moment when their name was revealed, knowing they are going to a World Cup, as I never did as a player. It is the biggest thing in their lives and something they’ve dreamed about.”
Perhaps even more telling was his understanding of the greater implications: “We have to make these players visible, we want everybody around the world to buy in to what will be the biggest Women’s World Cup of all time.” For The FA, the tournament follows on from a domestic season that has seen a fully professional Women’s Super League for the first time following the complete restructuring of the soccer pyramid, including new, stricter licencing criteria. Newly reformed Manchester United entered the second tier as a fully professional side this season and Tottenham Hotspur will also have to go full-time following their successful promotion bid. There is now a real sense of momentum in the country, not only from an increase in quality up and down the pyramid but the WSL also saw a record attendance of 5,265 at the Amex as Brighton hosted Arsenal – although the figure is still some way short of what the likes of La Liga (60,739), Serie A (39,000) and France’s Division 1 (25,907) have seen this year. The recent FA Cup final, subject to controversy as the Premier League refused to move a West Ham Men’s fixture to avoid clashing with the West Ham Women’s game at Wembley, was also a success, attracting a crowd of 43,264.
Add to that the recent £10m Barclays title sponsorship deal, the single biggest investment in UK women’s sport by a brand, it’s a true high point domestically in England but it’s also naïve to think that such investment and development is sustainable unless the latest World Cup, undoubtedly the showpiece event of any sport, is capitalized on as the latest stepping stone and springboard in improving coverage and visibility. Parallels can be drawn to the worries surrounding the lack of NWSL TV deal in America. With such a major event coming round only once every four years, you have to make the most of it. So what at first glance appears to be nothing more than an annoyingly drawn out novelty squad announcement pandering to a social-media reliant society could actually prove to be a defining marker of social change in English sport.