Does the English WSL live up to the hype? | Sports | DW

Sam Kerr celebrates a goal for Chelsea

It has become a habit for Leah Williamson to celebrate victories with her team in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Two months after winning the 2022 European Championship in front of 87,192 spectators at Wembley Stadium, she thought of the 47,367 spectators who watched Arsenal FC win 4-0 against Tottenham Hotspur 15km from London at the Emirates Stadium.

“I think, it [der Anstieg der Zuschauerzahlen; Anm.d.Red.] was already underway before COVID set us back a bit. But now it’s the people who care, those people are fans of the game, and they’ll come back to see us again and again I hope,” Williamson told DW, before adopting a more cautious tone.

“It just has to be the right time and then it’s about the sustainability of the game. I question it because it has to be compatible with the men’s team and there are a lot of things that have to come together for a day like today.”

But the things that have to fit come together more and more frequently in England. The Merseyside derby between Liverpool FC and Everton FC also took place on the last weekend of September in front of 27,574 spectators. That means two of the league’s top four attendances have come from two consecutive days. Tickets for England’s friendly against USA at Wembley on 7 October sold out in less than 24 hours. The demand is clear.

Sold out: but not a full house

But an unexpected consequence of affordable tickets and increased demand is empty seats at sold-out games. Almost 6,000 people, or 11 per cent of those who bought tickets for the north London derby between Arsenal and Spurs, failed to show up for the game. Empty seats in sold-out stadiums could also be observed at the European Championships in the summer.

This phenomenon is now to be feared in WSL as well: several WSL clubs were able to sell their entire contingent of season tickets for their home games, most of which take place in much smaller stadiums. However, it is reasonable to assume that some fans only bought the season ticket to secure entry to a few important games in the season and will not necessarily attend every game.

Nonetheless, viewership at the start of the season is encouraging. The aforementioned derbies between Liverpool and Everton, as well as Arsenal and Tottenham, have seen the average attendance soar to over 10,000. This figure will no doubt drop as fewer games are played in the larger stadiums. Still, viewership has generally increased. However, maintaining this level is a difficult task. As Williamson hinted, viewership skyrocketed after England reached the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup. Shortly thereafter, however, this momentum was severely slowed down by the corona pandemic. Next year the next world championships will take place in Australia and New Zealand. There probably won’t be a better way to get things moving this time around.

The key to progress in England is the increasing willingness of clubs and the Football Association of England (FA) to invest in women’s football. After Liverpool FC rejoined the WSL after years of underfunding and Manchester United finally caught up after similar reluctance, all the major Premier League clubs are now recognizing the value of their women’s teams.

Sam Kerr celebrates a goal for Chelsea

Chelsea’s Sam Kerr is one of the highest paid players in the world

In fact, the funding of a top women’s team is only around 1% of the budget of a men’s team like United, Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal and the contributions do not count towards UEFA’s fair play rules. But even that 1% is unattainable for non-top clubs. As a result, WSL is starting to resemble the Premier League – only WSL’s current bottom team, Reading FC, do not have a men’s team in the top English league behind them.

Emma Hayes: Premier League takeover the goal

“I think we’re now at the stage where women’s football is becoming a business,” said champions Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes after the EURO win. “The next step is for the league to leave the FA and go into the Premier League or an independent body and there is a vision for women’s football so that we don’t just have single big moments – single events every two years or once a year year – but every week.”

WSL has already begun to act more like a big company, securing multi-million dollar deals with Sky and the BBC for domestic television broadcasts and a deal with DAZN for overseas that puts rival European leagues even further in the shade financially becomes. While there is little doubt that the Premier League’s hyper-capitalist model is the way to go to make more money, the question is whether WSL’s long-term goal is a money-only system.

What is clear is that the combination of money, better facilities and larger viewership has made WSL the preferred destination for the world’s best players. Only a handful of clubs in Spain, France and Germany can keep up.

It’s really impressive how the WSL has developed since the European Championship. Austria defender Laura Wienroither from Arsenal FC told DW: “I have the feeling that the quality in WSL in general is much better. And also what’s happening on social media and in public.”

Champions League: Challenge for English clubs

Still, it seems that the generally positive attitude towards women’s football in England is not particularly strong at one of the country’s biggest clubs. Manchester City should have benefited more than most other clubs from the increased market value of the players after the English women’s championship victory. But City lost their regular players Lucy Bronze and – due to the world record sale – also Keira Walsh to FC Barcelona. Georgia Stanway joined FC Bayern Munich and Ellen White, Jill Scott and reserve goalkeeper Karen Bardsley retired. Caroline Weir, another summer departure, even knocked City out of the competition in the Real Madrid shirt with her winner in Champions League qualifying.

The footballers of Olympique Lyon celebrate winning the Champions League

English clubs have not managed to challenge Lyon and Co. for the Champions League

Given that Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners ensure that money is no object at the club, such a churn is surprising. And rumors that head coach Gareth Taylor is not held in high esteem by the players have increased after their shock opening WSL defeat by Aston Villa and subsequent international defeat by Real. The absence from the Champions League will not affect City financially, but it will damage the club’s reputation.

The premier class of football remains the last major challenge for WSL. Arsenal are the only side to have won the competition so far – that was in 2007, four years before WSL was formed and almost a decade before the league turned professional. “As Liga WSL, we could now put pressure on in this competition, in the Champions League,” Williamson told DW, even before Arsenal FC pushed past Ajax Amsterdam and made it into the group stage.

But the draw for the group games showed that the WSL teams will have to work hard to assert themselves. While Arsenal have been drawn to defending champions Lyon and Italian champions Juventus, Chelsea meet up-and-coming Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. With all the hype and current goodwill, the WSL will also be judged by how well it fares against the best in Europe.


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