How Bright is the Future of Women Football?

Women Football in England is amongst the best in the world The Lionesses are currently second in FIFA’s World Rankings, just behind the USA. 

Success is having a direct impact on the media interest and in turn, participation levels as coverage on mainstream media continues to grow. 

The tide in media coverage started to turn in 2011, when pressure from charities and MPs forced the BBC to show England’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Quarter Final exit to France, despite the broadcaster already showing sport on one of their main channels. 

Since then, the media has slowly started to increase its attention to the sport with UK viewing figures for 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup hitting 12.4m, more than doubling what the 5.1m who tuned in for the 2011 tournament. 

In 2013-14, there were just 91,856 registered women playing football which is a marginal increase on the previous season but by May 2017, there had been a modest increase into triple digit numbers at 106,910.

Last summer saw the UEFA Women’s Euros help the sport hit new heights as a peak of over four million tuned in to watch England’s shock exit to hosts, Netherlands despite Channel 4 having the rights.

That is being reflected in improved participation and attendances alongside media coverage. The FA are also introducing new changes and schemes aimed at benefitting participation and increasing the competitiveness of leagues.

Coaching however is an issue with men dominating the gender split meaning that there is more to do to get women into coaching.

With the beautiful game evolving and new talent emerging, just how far can Women Football go as we draw towards the end of Girls’ Football Week?

 

Participation

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Middlesbrough Women U16s in action against Sunderland Ladies U16s.

Participation is one of the biggest areas to see improvement with a 16.4% increase in women playing football at end of 2016-17 compared to 2013-14.

In pure number terms, the sport has gone from 91,856 participations four years ago to 106,910 at end of last season. 

This improvement has been helped by the Football Association (FA) setting up Centres of Excellence and talent pathway projects, such as Gameplan for Growth

This project is designed to double participation numbers by 2020 with several requirements such as;

  • Building a sustainable and successful high-performance system and a world-class talent pipeline
  • Increasing the number and diversity of women’s coaches, referees and administrators in the sport at all levels
  • Developing participation opportunities and infrastructure
  • Changing perceptions and social barriers to participation and following
  • Improving commercial prospects in the women’s game

Perceptions are already changing on the participation front with Middlesbrough Women striker, Bianca Owens delighted at seeing the sport viewed upon in a more positive light.

Discussing her joy at people being more accepting of her sport, Owens said; “It so nice to see young girls enjoying the sport and not being branded as tom boys for enjoying football.”

Huddersfield Town Ladies‘ Kate Mallin however believes that fan base is a barrier to growing participation levels.

Voicing her concerns, Mallin said; “main problem that I see is the lack of the fan base for the women’s game.”

Whilst the sport is becoming seen as normal, there is clearly concern surrounding the sport’s fan base which could very well feed into the media’s role in growing women’s football. 

 

Media

Since 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Women Football has enjoyed increased media coverage in both broadcast and print.

Despite improved coverage the sport still sadly lacks behind its male counterpart in publicity but some clubs are seeking to break down this barrier, particularly by combining the Social Media accounts or web platforms of both male and female teams.

Helen Rowe-Willcocks, editor and co-owner of The Women Football Magazine singled out Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion for praise on this front.

Praising both clubs for their effort, Rowe-Willcocks said: “I love what both Manchester City and Brighton have done. They have made it their mission to make it an inclusive club for footballers of both genders.

Seeing Brighton share their victory parade for example was a fantastic step for women football.”

Merged Social Media accounts by clubs however was quite debatable with Women Soccer United against the idea because their dream “is that one day the women’s teams can stand on there own.”

Women stand on own tweet by WSU

Rowe-Willcocks however argues that ‘it would be fantastic if we can just describe it as football.”

Women Soccer United in turn acknowledged the importance of social media to the sport’s growth, saying; “Social Media is so important for the women’s game.

WSL uses social media to broadcast games which Rowe-Willock is a fan of because it helps to build up the fan base.

Discussing the idea of broadcasting WSL games on social media, Rowe-Willcocks said; “I actually love the use of social media to broadcast games. I think it is better than no coverage at all and it means that fans can watch more games.

Also the fact that it is free on Social Media whereas you have to pay for BT Sport is a huge bonus when trying to build the fan base of a sport.”

During 2017, Manchester City broadcast some UEFA Women’s Champions League games on Facebook Live. The broadcasts were successful according to the club’s ‘Head of Women Football’, Gavin Makel because ‘had a reach of around 12 million people’. 

Social media therefore has potential to be a platform to grow the sport to new heights.

Mainstream coverage however remains a challenge despite BBC recently expanding their coverage outside of the FA Women’s Cup Final to include the semi finals. They also picked up the rights to both legs of Manchester City Women and Chelsea Ladies’ UEFA Women Champions League semi finals. 

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Should BBC’s ‘The Women’s Football Show’ go out earlier so that the sport can be exposed to bigger audiences?

Rowe-Willcocks however is critical of BBC’s late night scheduling of ‘The Women Football Show’ as mainstream coverage remains limited, despite BBC’s recent expansion of live match coverage both domestically and for European competitions involving English sides.

Arguing that the ability to inspire the next generation is limited by poor scheduling of WSL highlights, Rowe Willock said; “It would be great to see The Women’s Football Show shown earlier in the evening.

The lateness of the hour means many people don’t stay up to watch it – it is hard enough to stay awake for Match of the Day!

Putting it in an earlier timeslot would also give a chance for younger audiences to get inspired.”

Women Soccer United however iterated the importance of the digital age in promoting the women’s game and said; “Without the media coverage on TV, Online and Social Media, Women’s Football worldwide would struggle.”

Offering a player’s perspective, Huddersfield Town Ladies’ Mallin believes that women’s football is heading in one direction. 

Expressing fears for the sport’s future in terms of media coverage, Mallin said; “I think that WSL1 (the super league) will become much stronger but I’m not sure how the championship will progress simply because, for most clubs, a move up to the super league will be beyond their means financially. 

With more TV coverage and the big 6 Premier League clubs backing the super league teams, I can see it only going in one direction. 

I see tiers 3 & 4 remaining amateur as I don’t see the finance being available to progress.” 

Mallin’s thoughts are echoed by Women Soccer United in a tweet saying;

Tweet by Women Soccer United

There is clearly still a long way to go to increase media coverage but social media looks set to be at the heart of that development, given how important it is to increasing audiences.

Hopefully in turn, it will then increase coverage in the mainstream media as more people start to follow the sport via social media, forcing the print and broadcast industries to act to keep with the times. 

 

Coaching

Success of women’s football in England is still dominated to a certain extent by men. This is particularly evident in coaching roles with 14 managers in the Women’s Super League (WSL), where 14 managers are male compared to just six female managers.

One particular issue is the gender divide across the four coaching badges because if look at the gender split percentage from 2016-17 UEFA Women Football Across the National Associations report, 96.36% of English coaches with coaching badges are male compared to just 3.64% being female.

Below you can find the actual figures of the number of women currently with UEFA Coaching Badges compared to men. 

Coaching Badge No of Women No of Men
UEFA Pro License 5 278
UEFA A License 29 1484
UEFA B License 310 10,033
National C License 2941 75,023
Total 3,285 86,818

The stark contrast in the numbers between both genders suggests that there is still work to be done to get more women into coaching. 

Tom Turner of Kick It Out described the appalling stats as “inexcusable” and “to see that 4% of coaches are women is particularly distressing”.

To hear his full thoughts on those stats and how the problem is being tackled, please have a listen below.

UK Coaching have also provided a statement expressing a view that ‘if more women lead sessions, some barriers to participation may be overcome.’

Owens of Middlesbrough Women is particularly keen to see this happen, saying “I would hope that more women will come through to become coaches, as a female player it is nice to see and gain knowledge from other females.

As a young player, I would also like to go in to coaching and gain my badges.”

It’s clear that change is needed if more women are to become coaches and the FA’s efforts are clearly just the start of those changes, but change needs to come at a slightly quicker pace than it currently is.

 

Changes

Next season will see a massive shake up in domestic women football as the league pyramid undergoes a massive restructure.

There will be league rebrands with WSL1 becoming just WSL , whilst second tier will become WSL Championship with the top tier being required to run youth academies.

That meant that clubs had to reapply for their WSL licenses with several clubs retaining their current division placings. 

Women Premier League meanwhile is linking up to the WSL to help create a proper promotion/relegation  league pyramid structure and some clubs have applied for nine WSL places. (four in WSL and five in WSL Championship).

One surprise applicant for a spot is Manchester United, so could we see the big male clubs start to dominate in the women’s too from next decade?

Some members of the public had plenty to say on how beneficial they think Manchester United setting up a women’s team will be for the sport going forwards, particularly  on the gender front.

Press play to hear their thoughts.

 

Room for Improvement

Although progressed has clearly been made this decade, there is still a long way to go on so many fronts.

Participation is showing strong signs of progress but we need to get more girls playing football, if are going to continue to improve and constantly challenge the best in world.

The upcoming changes and arrival of Manchester United will only serve to help inspire youngsters to take up football.

Media and coaching however need a lot of work to get them up onto an near equal level compared to the men’s game.

If we can get those two areas up to a high standard and the Lionesses continue to improve, there’s no reason why the future shouldn’t be bright for Women Football.

 

 

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