Despite the sensational recent rise of women’s football, there are still a number of barriers holding back the growth of the game, with the scheduling of matches currently front and centre.
Understandably, there is a strong desire from those at the top of the game to avoid clashes with Premier League fixtures, given the obvious impact this would have on both attendances and TV viewership.
However, the side product of this is that Women’s Super League fixtures are often shunted to the fringes, impacting not just viewership numbers, but matchday attendances as well.
The 6.45pm Sunday slot is particularly unsociable, an issue exacerbated by the out-of-the-way stadiums in which many WSL games are still played. Borehamwood, Kingsmeadow and Leigh Sports Village are all far less accessible than their male equivalents, meaning fans may often not return home until after 10pm on a Sunday, a big ask for young families in particular.
With all this in mind, taking the hallowed Saturday 3pm slot can appear a no-brainer for the women’s game: it’s an available, lucrative window for broadcast, with no competition for TV viewership, and is much more sociable for the match-going crowd.
Yet dive a little deeper and a few concerns arise, particularly for smaller clubs. The 3pm slot is protected for a reason, with real concerns that match-going attendances across the rest of the pyramid would be impacted by a readily available alternative in your living room.
Despite its upwards trajectory, driving attendance is still a key challenge for the majority of women’s clubs, and the prospect of competing not just with the broadcasted WSL fixture, but the other men’s games taking place at the same time, is not one that many clubs would relish.
Arsenal may well be confident enough in its ability to continuously fill out Meadow Park, but what about Reading, Leicester and even Liverpool? These are clubs that still fall below capacity at most of their games.
At a time when the WSL is finally making great strides in growing matchday crowds, to immediately force clubs to compete with their Premier League equivalents would feel a massive own goal – particularly when a significant proportion of the smaller sides’ commercial revenue is driven by ticket sales.
Not only would this drop in attendance impact the fixtures themselves, it would also dilute the broadcast product that this switch is meant to champion. Any realistic women’s football fan is aware of the stereotypes that still exist around the game from less educated fans, and TV screens full of empty stadiums would only perpetuate that, and undo the great work the Euros did to change those perceptions.
A possibly significant increase in broadcast revenue and TV viewership is a natural counterpoint to these arguments of course, and that resulting investment could provide a huge boost to the development of the domestic game.
Yet it is hard not to think that this shift would benefit broadcasters most, the big clubs who can take the hit to attendances (and whose games will be televised the most) second, and the rest of the pyramid least of all.
At a time when women’s football is facing a significant crossroads in its development, with a new company set to take on the running of the top two divisions, any decision that seems to prioritise broadcast revenue and super clubs, over matchday attendances and the pyramid, should be interrogated closely before it takes place. Not quite the no brainer it might seem.