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Record breaking weekend in WSL: Tip of the iceberg or feel-good outlier?

Is this a lasting marriage or a blissful honeymoon period in England?

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

England had to get to the final and win the whole kit and caboodle in France; that was the only way of driving women’s football into the collective consciousness and keeping it there. Or at least, that was sentiment of a fellow English journalist at the World Cup. England had reached a World Cup semi-final four years previous and the boom was only a temporary one following the Lionesses’ return to domestic play.

Europe has its only full-time professional women’s football league in England’s WSL, with the English national team drawing the biggest federation investment on the continent; The FA pours £17.7M ($21.8M) per year into women’s football. Women’s football in England isn’t taken lightly by those at The FA; the vision is of success, of desperately needed sustainability, the WSL intended to be a pacesetter, a premier league. But with the increased investment and call for more comes the increased pressure to grow - after all what is a league without [paying] fans?

With the first weekend of the new season down, it’s still not particularly clear whether the league has found steady ground underfoot with its World Cup boost or if it’s still trying to walk along a crumbling path. Two blockbuster ties drew handsome crowds but the uncertainty of stability and repeat fans pervades as other games had paltrier showings.

Fill ‘em up, lads

The new season kicked off with the first ever Manchester derby of the WSL era (although the two teams had tangled 20 times before in their convoluted lives and various incarnations). The so-called curtain raiser would be held at the Etihad Stadium across the road from Manchester City’s CFA (City Football Academy) Stadium. CFA was the usual home to the women’s team, with a capacity of 7,000 that had yet to sell out.

The announcement came with an immediate fear: the Etihad would be a ghost town. The oversized stadium would see a handful of fans rattling around and it would be an embarrassment. Despite the fact that City have one of the best attendance records in the league, there was no way a WSL crowd could come close to filling up a Premier League stadium, especially not one of the bigger ones. You only had to go back to the most recent UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final the Citizens reached in 2018. The crowd was a diminutive one with just 2,876 through the doors on a day the men were playing across the road two-and-a-half hours later. If City couldn’t get numbers in for a Champions League semi-final, what hope did they have of filling a 55,000-seater?

Manchester City Women v Lyon - UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

But the news was positive: by Friday the club had announced over 20,000 tickets had been sold, with over 31,000 the reported attendance on the day.

A different derby

The following day the women’s footballing community ambled down to London as Chelsea took on Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge, a location the Blues had stayed clear of since their last outing in 2016. Opting to play their UWCL round of 32 tie against VfL Wolfsburg at the men’s stadium had done little to help the then-WSL champions as they sagged to a 3-0 loss. With just one stand open, players have since spoken of the strange atmosphere and lack of noise across the pitch, the home tie feeling nothing like home to the Chelsea players.

This time was different however; as with Juventus’ match at the Allianz Stadium, the tickets were given away, with fans gobbling up the allocation as soon as they were available. Initially not intending to open up the top tier, Chelsea found the demand higher than expected and duly gave away each and every ticket. Yet even with the “sales” flowing before the match and fans getting swept up in the World Cup haze, many opted not to turn up on Sunday morning – there were return and reallocation procedures in place, yet over 15,000 seats remained vacant.

Even still, the 24,500+ fans who filtered into the stadium in Fulham made sure they were well heard, with the match quite the departure from the Champions League clash three years previous.

The two matches had seen an incredible amount of promotion, the weather was fine, men’s football was lost in a FIFA window and people still had a warm glow from the World Cup. But for the other four matches in WSL that weekend, the outlook was less rosy: Birmingham City failed to attract more than 900 people to their tie with Everton, less than 1,500 fans turned up to Liverpool’s Prenton Park home to see the Reds take on Reading and back in London, Arsenal only managed to pull 1,795 fans in to watch them spar with West Ham.

Liverpool v Reading - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Maybe most glaring was the other match that took place on Saturday afternoon, another relocated to a men’s stadium. Bristol City vs Brighton was always going to be a hard sell when it clashed with the Manchester derby, and the match at Ashton Gate was announced long after City’s move to the men’s stadium. Whilst managing to draw just over 3,000 fans should be commended as the Robins aren’t known for box office numbers, that still equates to 24,000 empty seats and a disjointed feeling on the pitch.

Momentum? We’ll see

With the inception of the FA’s streaming service for women’s football, increased matches shown on British TV, and a better broadcast time for the Women’s Football Show on the BBC, it will be hard for even the casual fans to escape WSL, but the early signs aren’t as good as the “over 62,000 supporters” tag suggests. Neither Manchester City nor Chelsea are back at home next match day so there is no immediate momentum to be built for either team. But the bigger question is what happens when men’s domestic football returns? When women go back to their out of the way home stadia and the weather turns sour?

Both Manchester City manager Nick Cushing and Chelsea boss Emma Hayes are aware their first priority is respectively filling the CFA and Kingsmeadow, building on an existing fan base and growing what they have. For Hayes, championing women’s football and getting it to a place where it’s regarded in the same esteem as the men’s game is a personal mission, as she said after the match:

“For us, it’s about recognising the opportunities. First we’ve got to build off getting people to Kingsmeadow, then when the opportunity comes to play here [Stamford Bridge] we will have a blueprint of how to market this game and our CEO will make sure every club in the country has it. It is about osmosis, it is about sharing information and driving standards and I’m pretty certain that’s why I was put on this earth.”

Chelsea made the match a whole event, with a DJ, pyrotechnics, t-shirt cannons and thunder-sticks. It was a package all could enjoy, but the product will always be 90 minutes of football. The matches at both the Etihad and the Bridge were entertaining, close and engrossing, but for anyone who’s covered women’s football in England, there is the underlying uneasiness of knowing most of those fans will never be seen again.

However, it’s still early days in the season and there is yet a gentle wake left by the World Cup that could be ridden. Whilst not every person who made their way to a WSL stadium over the weekend will return, 55,000 football fans won’t just disappear into the ether either. There was a small win to be had for women’s football over the weekend but as ever, the future of the sport remains a vast uncertainty.