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Would you pay to watch women’s football?

The World Cup showed that the women’s game has definitely improved, but interest in it is still more token than real.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Thank the Lord for the Women’s World Cup. It has restored English football to its rightful place. England’s quarter-final defeat to France provided a nostalgic reminder of what the men’s team used to be like under Sven Goran Eriksson. Nick an early goal, run out of ideas, hang on desperately, concede an equaliser, play for penalties and choke on penalties. It was a defeat which had ‘Golden Generation’ written all over it.

The 2011 World Cup provides a much-needed showcase for the women’s game. You’d think it was a good opportunity for sneering chauvinist hacks to write lazy articles about rubbish football, comical goalkeeping and dykes. Except that there seems to be very little evidence of sneering. Most of the press coverage of the tournament has – believe it or not – focused on the actual football. Take, for example, the fallout from England’s penalty shoot-out defeat. Hope Powell, the England coach, accused her players of ‘cowardice’ for not volunteering for penalties. England players weren’t happy about this and expressed their views on Twitter. Football pundits were dismayed that the England team appeared ill-prepared for penalties. Regardless of who was right or wrong, the media story was all about football. Not sports bras or PMT or Playboy photo shoots. Just football. A sign, it would appear, that the women’s game is now being taken seriously.

The degree of public interest in the tournament in Germany has been pretty phenomenal. Germany’s opening match against Nigeria was watched by 16million viewers. The tournament hasn’t received the same degree of media attention in Britain. Until the quarter-finals, England’s games were only shown on the BBC red button. However, the TV viewing figures for England’s quarter-final against France on BBC2, which peaked at three million, were pretty impressive.

So, does the widespread media coverage of England’s quarter-final exit show that women’s football in this country has finally arrived? Are the images of a distraught Faye White a Gazza moment for the women’s game? (By that I mean Gazza’s tears not the plastic breasts.) I’m still not convinced. Women’s football has been a phenomenon waiting to happen for the past decade. How many times have we been told that it is the fastest-growing sport in the country? It is undoubtedly thriving as a participation sport but it has yet to take off in Britain as a spectator sport. Crowds rarely exceed 100 and there is still no professional league. Five of the England World Cup squad play professionally in the US while the rest are semi-professional only by virtue of central FA contracts.

On the evidence of the current World Cup tournament, the quality of the women’s game is showing signs of improving. Some teams, notably Japan, play reasonably attractive passing football. The teams are more evenly matched than at the last World Cup and there are fewer cricket scores. The goalkeeping is – I’m afraid to say – still rather comical while some of the refereeing has been abysmal. Fitness isn’t brilliant either. It’s a bit like watching FA Cup finals from the 1970s with players dropping like flies with cramp in the latter stages of the game, but I guess this is inevitable given that the sport isn’t fully professionalised.

Whether the game can make the transition to a mass spectator sport is the million-dollar question. It’s difficult to see how the women’s game can break out of the vicious cycle that it finds itself in. If there are no spectators then a professional league isn’t viable. Without professionalism, the quality won’t improve sufficiently to attract spectators.

Women’s football is championed because it is the right thing to do, not because it’s a great spectacle. Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham was instrumental in pressurising the Beeb to switch England’s quarter-final against France from the red button service to BBC2. However, there is still a strong whiff of tokenism about his patronage. Essentially, Burnham wants the game to be given a higher profile because of its potential value as an instrument of social policy. ‘My interest in this from a policy point of view is to get young people interested in sport and inspiring more girls to play sport’, he said. ‘As the national broadcaster, the BBC should have a proper strategy.’

Even if more girls are inspired to play football, it doesn’t follow that more people – male or female – will start watching the women’s game. England’s World Cup and Euro 2009 campaigns have generated a flurry of public interest. But a buzz around an international tournament won’t necessarily boost the paltry attendances at league games. Most women I know would take umbrage at the suggestion that women’s football is rubbish. But how many of them would ever pay to watch a match in the new Women’s Super League? In fact, how many women know that the Super League even exists?

The nation briefly became hooked on curling when the British women’s team took gold in the 2002 Olympics. It didn’t translate into long queues for tickets to UK curling tournaments. There’s nothing we enjoy more than sitting in our armchairs watching the English bid for sporting glory (and more often than not fail heroically). But would we fancy watching women’s football on a freezing cold Tuesday night in Stoke? I think you know the answer.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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