Late in April of this year, I found the dying embers of the Monday Night Football show running, long after Leicester City had come back from a goal down to finish off a decent Crystal Palace side 2-1 in the evening’s only game. Normally, the post-game debriefs from Carragher and Neville follow the same cliché: tasteless analysis, Leicester being a ‘well-run club’ with a ‘good recruitment process’, or speculation about a 74-year old manager keeping a club like Palace in the top flight for another season.
This evening, however, there was a distinct difference. Carragher was not joined by Neville, and although extras like Henry and Pochettino had gone on the show before, this time there was a face from the women’s game. She was speaking at a critical moment for the sport, and her very presence was a sign of the immense progress that ladies’ football has made over the past decade, ever since Eniola Aluko made her debut as the first female Match of the Day pundit back in 2014. It was none other than Steph Houghton, England and Manchester City captain, a stalwart of the English game for the past 15 years and perhaps the nation’s most recognisable face when it comes to women’s football.
Houghton was speaking in the context of the announcement of a new partnership between Sky Sports, the BBC, and the FA to broadcast the Women’s Super League live on terrestrial television for the first time in its history. This was part of a wider £7-8 million pound deal with the clubs that would see them receive a portion of the broadcasting revenue, with that money now available to pay players and invest in the necessary infrastructure. Houghton said on MNF that “We needed something to give [the league] that push in the right direction, and obviously the new WSL broadcast deal with Sky Sports is fantastic for the game … [it] really pushes us to where we want to be”.
Such funds will be partly merit-based, and the WSL will receive 75% of the money, with the Championship the other 25%. This was also the first time that the TV rights to women’s football had been negotiated separately from the men — in 2009 for example, ESPN secured the rights to the FA Cup, England Under-21 games, and the WSL in a collective four-year deal. The lunchtime slot on Sunday will be used to broadcast games, with other slots including 11.30am on Saturday, and 6.30pm on both Friday and Sunday. Crucially, this all takes important steps towards remedying the lack of exposure that has plagued women’s football for so long. This is the biggest commercial deal for any female sports league in the world and will make the WSL the most watched women’s sports league globally. The FA’s director of the women’s professional game, Kelly Simmons, has called it a “landmark moment for the women’s game and a massive breakthrough for women’s sport”.
The most significant consequence of all of this is establishing some manifest equality of opportunity in football — which naturally any fan of the game should seek, for the betterment of the sport we all know and love. For the first time in English footballing history, there is a degree of parity between the number of games shown, on the same platform, between the men and the women. Highlights too, shown on the BBC and Sky YouTube channels respectively, will level up accessibility, of which the women’s game has been deprived for so long. It’s worth noting that the commentators we normally hear on Super Sunday, like Martin Tyler, will be covering the WSL — a strong vote of confidence from broadcasters that such fixtures are worth the time
Very rarely does something like this create an appeal for an entirely new demographic. Extra coverage either entails further engagement from an audience that already exists, or fresh engagement from a latent, peripheral audience with a real but untapped interest. This should not be viewed negatively or restrictively however, as engagement from this latter group can lead to tremendous growth. The most recent example of this can be seen in the Hundred, the new fast-paced, 100-ball franchise-form of cricket that took the sporting world by storm this summer. Heavily criticised by purists (I, among others, thought the idea was a farce), the event turned out to be a huge success, particularly for what it did for the women’s game. Each men’s game was preceded by the same fixture of the women’s teams at the same venue, and this attracted cricket fans, perhaps initially only interested in the men’s game, to the women’s games too. I for one had one of my best days out watching cricket at Lord’s in early August, seeing both the men and the women of London Spirit and Trent Rockets fight it out in an intense and enthralling evening. Crucially, people like me who were interested in cricket but had never really watched women’s cricket before finally got to see it in its best light. The Hundred managed to tap into an unrealised audience, and the women’s fixtures became more popular.
By increasing the exposure of the WSL through this new TV deal, I’m certainly optimistic that the female game can see some kind of bounce in viewership from general fans, just trying to get as much football as they can whatever the shape or the size. This ultimately was behind the success of the games in the Hundred — as England legend Michael Atherton said “If you put games on in high summer at reasonable prices, people will come and watch”. He’s an intelligent man our Atherton, and he certainly wasn’t wrong. Yet, we find ourselves in 2021, with a deeply ingrained sense of moral self-righteousness, living an in era where the ills of inequality surely can no longer remain, and it strikes me that this ‘landmark’ deal has been a long time coming, and perhaps that women’s football in this country is slightly behind the curve. Of course, it’s certainly on the right track — but it’s nowhere near where it should be. We see Emma Raducanu and the women’s tennis game attracting similar attention to the men’s (if not more, in light of her astounding win at the US Open this year). This begs the question, why has such a deal only been reached now? What more do we need to do to bring more football-lovers into the women’s game? How can we elevate the status of ladies’ football? It seems as though there’s a wealth of potential left untapped, hindered by years of lurking in the shadows, not receiving the attention nor investment it so needed or deserved. Lessons can be learnt from the Hundred and Raducanu, but crucially only time will tell. As we see the end of another round of fixtures in the WSL, we take valiant steps in the right direction, and the sporting world awaits the results of this most noble of tasks.
Image credit: Ailura