WSL should keep staging games at men’s stadiums despite small crowds
It would be easy to conclude that the low attendances in men’s stadiums on the opening weekend of the Women’s Super League season means games should not be played there but the opposite is true.
In 2019 records tumbled. On the opening weekend of the season 31,213 watched the first WSL Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium. The following day 24,564 filed in to watch Chelsea beat Tottenham 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. In November the record was broken again as 38,262 showed up for Tottenham v Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. These were showpiece fixtures, scheduled in men’s international windows to maximise ticket sales. At some these were given away; at others the price point was very low.
It was a hugely impressive season where showpiece games were spotlighted incredibly effectively. Why then, two years on, are the attendances significantly lower?
Four of the weekend’s six fixtures took place in clubs’ main stadiums: Tottenham welcomed 4,681 for their defeat of Birmingham; 5,998 watched Everton’s collapse at home against Manchester City; 2,264 saw Brighton beat West Ham at the Amex Stadium; and 8,705 watched Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat of Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium.
There are numerous likely reasons for this dip. First, uncertainty over the return of fans and in what capacity meant the announcement that teams would play in the homes reserved more traditionally for the men was later than in 2019. Manchester City’s match at the Etihad Stadium was announced on 8 July 2019, whereas Arsenal’s game against Chelsea was not announced until 6 August this year. Incidentally, 8 July was one day after the 2019 Women’s World Cup final and two days after England’s defeat by Sweden in the bronze-medal match after their semi-final defeat against the USA. There was undoubtedly a big tournament bump.
Many are still wary of Covid and attending in person may be a layer with which they are not yet comfortable. Yes, they may go to men’s games but for those newly interested in the women’s game these matches will not have been seen as a priority.
Everton’s game against City was BBC One’s most-watched UK programme in its Saturday afternoon slot with a peak audience of 800,000 and an average of 700,000, while a further 100,000 watched on iPlayer. The heavy TV promotion may have meant fewer attended.
In 2019 there was a big push and lots of promotion of the live games. This time that promotion has been lacking and, in the case of Arsenal, there were technical issues. With games being sold block by block (which has its advantages) there were times when tickets were unavailable on the website, which made it appear sold out, with no notice given that more blocks would be opened.
So why advocate for more games at men’s stadiums? First, it is about optics. If you put your best product front and centre it shows people you value it – it tells them “you should watch this”.
For years we have been told women’s games cannot be played in men’s grounds for a variety of reasons: the pitches cannot take the increased use; it is unaffordable; it is logistically unworkable; players do not like playing in empty stadiums. Except these excuses are increasingly exposed, not least by the fact that three WSL teams have committed to playing all or most of their home games in their men’s grounds. Reading have shown it can be done, Birmingham will call St Andrew’s home this season and Leicester will play eight of 11 home games at the King Power Stadium.
This gives them an opportunity to establish consistency and build on their attendances. Fans are more likely to attend the next fixture if it is same time, same place. Location matters: the main stadiums are significantly more accessible than the majority of small grounds that teams call home.
By keeping crowds tight within big grounds by opening block by block a decent atmosphere can be created with small numbers. Arsenal showed that on Sunday. The 8,705 in the 60,704 Emirates Stadium did not feel too small. It was disappointing there were not more there to see a thrilling game, but those there were vocal and buoyant and there was a good wall of fans for players to enjoy.
The WSL is unable to use VAR or goalline technology because the cost of installing it is prohibitive. The majority of the main grounds, though, are also equipped for VAR, goalline technology and provide the superior broadcast facilities necessary for an increasingly professional game with matches broadcast regularly around the world.
Yes, the 8,705 who showed up at Arsenal may not attend a more run-of-the-mill fixture but would more attend that more run‑of-the-mill game than at Boreham Wood? I would argue they would. Even if there is a conservative 500-1,000 increase in the number of fans compared with what there would be at Boreham Wood – where Arsenal’s average home attendance in 2018‑19 was 2,000 – it would be worth it.
This is a growing game. It is a game now on Sky Sports and the BBC and a league sponsored by Barclays. Fans are being asked to buy in wholeheartedly. If we are not demanding clubs to throw in their all in the same way, then how can we expect fans to do it?