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Why does putting WSL games in big stadiums feel so hollow right now?

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Playing matches at men’s stadia during a pandemic feels performative.

Tottenham Hotspur Women Visit Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

The cheers from football fans and pundits were audible when, last week, Manchester United announced that they’d moved their home fixture against West Ham United to Old Trafford. A drawn-out whine of, “Finnnnnnalllllly!” followed the praise. The senior women’s team had, after all, existed in its current form for just under three years and there was a sense, with the growing regularity of one-off matches at men’s grounds, that the Red Devils were once again dragging their feet.

The Theatre of Dreams, one of the most iconic grounds in English football would finally host a domestic women’s match. But my reaction was a far cry from the, “So overdue!” sentiment from the masses and much more of the, “Why? Why now?” Even as Casey Stoney admits, it’s a ploy to get people to stop nagging the club about it. But, speaking to the media ahead of their clash with West Ham, the coach was also frustrated that no one had picked the match up for broadcast.

Well, why not?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of women being treated equally and being privy to the same norms that men expect but there’s such a disconnect in moving women’s matches to Premier League grounds given the current sanctions regarding fans.

I know everyone enjoys a nice day out at a match played at a men’s ground; it is a great occasion for both players and fans, and even journalists get the luxuries of a desk and plug sockets (don’t knock it), but in a pandemic… Each week we get to deal with the cognitive dissonance of football being played across England, the news tells us the current death toll and then we plug into whichever pre-match press conference.

The argument is that whilst fans are verboten from attending matches, why not move them to the concrete behemoths that litter towns and cities all across the country. Why not? The costs won’t be extreme for a team on a tight budget, the ghostly atmosphere of a fan-less match is the new norm’, hell, it might even look more natural than a match at a non-league ground on television. But then it becomes easy enough to argue that Premier League teams should be playing at their training grounds and not bother about opening up their stadiums for matches with no spectators.

Manchester United v Cardiff City - Premier League Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

With BT Sport and the BBC usually picking which matches they want to air about a month a head of time, and the FA having staggered the kick offs of this weekend’s matches – allowing fans to watch all if they so wish – the announcement came all too late. The match is also – and with no disrespect to either team – not a sexy tie. It’s neither a derby nor a six-pointer, it’s a team pushing for Europe against a team battling relegation, and in a less polarised league, that would be more likely to prompt 90 breathless minutes, but in WSL… It is however, also worth noting that BT Sport opted for the least inspiring match of the weekend: Chelsea vs Aston Villa (the reverse fixture finished 0-4 earlier this year).

However, if we look at the other side of the coin, great strides have been made in women’s equality for the sake of good PR. Maybe it wasn’t the persistent haranguing from fans, pundits and The FA that finally pushed United into reforming a women’s senior team and setting them up to push for silverware, but it probably didn’t hurt. Chloe Morgan alluding to the poor treatment of Spurs Women when she left the club after six years might have ruffled a feather or two but Alex Morgan threatening to expose some home truths to her hoards of social media followers has certainly had a day-to-day impact for the Lilywhites.

So, no, token gestures aren’t necessarily meant to have a deeper, long-felt impact but they can do just that, they can see others push for more and normalise positive changes at all levels.

Women’s Football Weekends

On what is another mini Women’s Football Weekend – an idea seized upon by The FA in 2019 to capitalise on weekends that fall in men’s FIFA windows to showcase the women’s game with no competing men’s top flight action on television – United are not the only team to be playing an irregular home. Just as they did on the inaugural WFW, Spurs will be hosting Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and whilst it might be the permanent home for North London Derby, it too carries the question of why.

Just as there is at Leigh for Manchester United, there is a sense of The Hive being home for Spurs – although the Lilywhites do boast a slightly more nomadic history – and playing at what is not their regular home always carries the risk of throwing a team off; they lose their advantage. And without 40,000 odd fans in the stands, urging the hosts on, there is the worry that Arsenal will collectively remember how to play their best football and overrun a team who’ve had unrelenting misery in front of goal this season.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Which takes me back to the nagging feeling that the decision to move matches to men’s stadia is more about good PR than giving women’s teams a plush carpet to play on once a year.

Such matches will remain a special occasion for players, especially if it’s a ground like Old Trafford that they’re walking out into. But without family and fans in the stands, the gesture strikes a sadly flat chord for me. Due to the pandemic, these aren’t matches that The FA can hold up and shout from the rafters about in regards to attendance figures that hoist up the average, but that hollow sound continues to resonate as I’m left with the sense of performance.