Thursday briefing: England’s women changed the game – but what happened next?

In today’s newsletter: We look back at the sports story of the year, how football finally came home – and how the women’s game has grown since

Good morning. 2022 will be looked back on as a defining year for women’s football in England. It finally came home, and it was the Lionesses who brought it back after a magnificent 2-1 win over Germany in the Euros this summer. The moment was witnessed by 87,192 fans packed into Wembley stadium – an all-time high for a European Championship tournament – and reached a peak television audience of 17.4 million people, with a further 5.9m streams online. The match solidified the status of the Lionesses and manager Sarina Wiegman as legends in the hallowed halls of football history – and helped one of its stars, Jill Scott, to victory in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

The magnitude of the achievement cannot be understated. However, it is also important to note that women’s football has been one of the fastest-growing sports, both in popularity and publicity, in the country for a number of years. Viewing figures for the game have been steadily increasing, and they have doubled since 2017. Last year, the Football Association announced a record breaking £8m-a-year deal with Sky Sports and the BBC for the broadcast rights of the Women’s Super League, hailing it as a “landmark” moment. The dismissive, sexist attitudes that have long stood in the way are now beginning to fall by the wayside and people are being given the chance to watch and engage with it in an entirely different way.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke to sports writer Sarah Rendell about what position the women’s game is in as we head into the new year, and how much things have changed.

In depth: ‘It has made more girls realise where they can be’

Young women play football on Hackney Marshes.
Young women play football on Hackney Marshes, in London. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images for Nike

It’s been just over a century since the English FA voted to ban mainstream women’s football by barring them from FA-affiliated football grounds. It claimed that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. For five decades the women’s game was relegated to small pitches, far away from the view of the media and the general public. The story couldn’t be more different now.


The aftershock of the Euros win

The Lionesses’s victory against Germany felt like a historic moment. “I knew there would be an impact after England won the Euros, but I didn’t expect it to be as instantaneous as it was,” says Sarah. Season-ticket sales for clubs like Reading increased by almost 500% in the weeks after the win. The media coverage of the game meant that would-be fans who did not necessarily know how accessible it was to watch, had it put right in front of them. “I think that’s where the main impact is – more people are actually showing up,” says Sarah.

The Euros win also solidified a wider trend of people tuning in specifically to watch women’s football, not as an additional thing but as a central and singular part of their viewing experience. A report by Visibility Uncovered found that in 2021, 5.9 million new viewers for the WSL had not watched any other sport before the start of the season.


The impact on other women’s sports

The growing popularity of women’s football has had something of a halo effect on other women’s sports too. Over a quarter of the 15.8 million new viewers of women’s sport this year went on to watch more women’s competitions, such as cricket, in August and September. In October, two million people tuned in to watch the women’s boxing match between Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall – it was the most watched women’s boxing match in history. “Even though the Women’s Rugby World Cup was in New Zealand and the games were on at, like, 3:30 in the morning, ITV got 1.7 million viewers for the final that had to kick off at 6:30am. And it’s smashed records,” Sarah says. The previous record for TV viewership of women’s rugby was about 800,000.

Overall though, Sarah says that the scale of the growth has been largely isolated to women’s football. “Each individual sport will have to have their own women’s Euros to kind of bring out those landmark occasions,” she says.


Next year

Sam Kerr volleys and scores the second Chelsea goal during the WSL match between Chelsea Women and Manchester United Women on 8 May 2022.
Sam Kerr volleys and scores the second Chelsea goal during the WSL match between Chelsea Women and Manchester United Women on 8 May 2022. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It is not just the increasing marketing and monetisation of women’s football that shows a shift, there is also a sense that it “is no longer having to prove itself”, says Sarah. “It was frustrating for a long time because people within the sport obviously knew the product was there and now it’s like the rest of the country has caught up.”

The World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is happening after the WSL season, like the Euros, meaning that this momentum will only build going into the new year but the priority is maintaining this steady growth in a sustainable way. “The league is really good at knowing where it’s at and also pushing it on at the same time. It’s not about pressing the accelerator pedal and growing too fast,” says Sarah.

And as more people get involved with women’s football, Sarah cautions against comparisons to the men’s game. “This doesn’t necessarily apply to the WSL but different European leagues are still more amateur – Belgium, for instance, aren’t even paid to play. Other clubs that play in Europe might not even have a goalkeeping coach,” Sarah explains. These kinds of intricacies could be lost on casual fans.


Outside of the big leagues

But it is not all about the big leagues and the international competitions. Despite not being in the championship, Newcastle has been able to draw massive crowds of about 25,000 people at St James’s Park and they’re not even in the championship. “Chelsea had about 38,000 at Stamford Bridge, so these teams are competing among the WSL crowds at the moment, which is impressive,” says Sarah.

There has also been a trickle-down effect to grassroots players – as more people want to take part and more brands want to invest in smaller teams. Earlier this year, Just Eat announced that it was launching an initiative to sponsor 101 grassroots women’s football teams.

“I think what it’s also done is made more girls realise where they can be,” Sarah says. The visibility of the women’s team has meant that more girls than ever before are seeing that pursuing the sport professionally is an option for them. “That’s what putting the players in positions where they can be seen more often does.” A survey, commissioned by the charity Women in Sport and Sports Direct, found that nearly 70% of girls who love playing sport dream of reaching the top levels, up from 50% of girls two years ago.

Things are certainly not perfect. The pay gap within the sport is huge; one BBC study found that the average WSL player earns £47,000 a year in comparison to an average Premier League player who earns £60,000 a week; and there are significant problems with racial diversity in the England team. Nonetheless, many people will be watching with a keen eye where the women’s game will go next because after this year, it will simply never be the same again.

For more on the progress of women’s football sign up to Moving the Goalposts, our weekly women’s football newsletter

Today in Focus

Can I Tell You A Secret?
Can I Tell You a Secret? Photograph: The Guardian Design

Catch up with Can I tell you a secret?

The Guardian’s daily podcast is taking a break over Christmas, so why not use the time to catch up to with the Guardian’s six-episode podcast, Can I tell you a secret? Guardian journalist Sirin Kale investigates the story of Matthew Hardy, a cyberstalker who terrified people in his home town and beyond for over a decade.

His harassment would often start in the same way, with a fake profile posing as a young woman asking a simple question: “Hey hun, can I tell you a secret?” This series attempts to untangle his web of deception to find out how and why he wreaked havoc over so many people’s lives.

The best of the Upside

A look back at this year’s good news

School exam tables.

Thursday 25 August If you’re wondering if it’s too late for a second act, consider this: a 92-year-old man has just passed a GCSE exam after receiving the highest possible grade in his maths paper.

Derek Skipper, from Orwell in Cambridgeshire, may be the oldest person in Britain to ever gain a GCSE. Feeling that he had never fully got to grips with maths as a child, he sat a foundation level exam earlier this year, in a hall full of teenagers. He found out on Thursday morning he had achieved a level 5 (equivalent to a lower B), and professed himself “delighted”.

He used a magnifying glass to help him see the paper because of his poor eyesight, and took along a slide rule he had used when he sat his maths exams at school in 1946. “Maths is a wonderful thing and it is very easy to say you are no good at it,” he said. “Any opportunity to learn and embrace it, great.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday


Nimo Omer

The GuardianTramp

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