THEY are age-old questions for women’s football in the UK — how can the game develop? How can it make the leap to mainstream? How do we get more people playing and more people watching?
After watching endless hours of the women’s game in England — which while making huge progress still faces many obstacles — it was interesting to investigate how they do things on the other side of the pond.
To get a taste of it, I watched four women’s league games in three US cities: Boston, New York and Chicago.
Having attended women’s football, or “soccer” as it is routinely known in America before, and having witnessed first-hand the fanfare surrounding the national team at last summer’s World Cup in Canada, the level of support and interest in the sport is both impressive and enviable.
As a quick example, two of the games I caught were in Boston, one of which featured a side coached by former Liverpool Ladies manager Matt Beard — The Boston Breakers — and featured a host of ex-Liverpool players.
The support for those matches numbered 3,743 and 4,379 fans, with the latter a sell out. Those figures were made all the more eye-opening because those attendances came at the end of a seven-match streak of failing to pick up a win — and made all the more sweeter as Boston went on to secure a 1-0 victory. The goal came courtesy of a familiar face, as Natasha Dowie netted the winner on her debut.
Meantime, while I was away, Liverpool hosted a crowd of 643 at the Select Stadium in Widnes for a 0-0 draw with Notts County.
Despite the gulf in attendance figures both sides boast passionate supporters, who sing throughout and bang drums to create an atmosphere. When Boston scored the fans even set off flares, though I doubt that would go down well in Widnes.
Why is it, though, that America can pull in these larger crowds? The average league attendance for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in 2016 is over 5,000. Compare this to the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) in England, where the average league attendance last year was 1,076.
A couple of months ago on The Anfield Wrap we recorded a women’s football special alongside Liverpool Ladies Development Squad coach Vicky Jepson that prompted an email from subscriber Barry Beattie, who is currently coaching at high school level in the United States.
In his email, Barry highlights just how seriously the game is taken over there, the volume of professional coaching companies and how from a very young age there is a clear pathway in the sport.
That pathway leads to high-school students securing scholarships to play at the country’s top colleges as the institutions search for the next big star, the next Alex Morgan or Hope Solo.
At the games, there are a large amount of families and youth soccer teams, wearing a mix of their own club apparel or that of the team they’re watching, and a huge number of USA shirts — and these are generally emblazoned with names of women players.
This is something that is creeping in in the game in England, especially over the last year. The focus is increasingly on getting local girls’ teams and schools to the games and now in the stands there are a number of players represented on the back of fans’ replica shirts.
The success of the national team in America must also play a big part with the aforementioned Morgan and Solo being household names. Wearing my United States shirt in a Boston diner resulted in the owner initiating a conversation about the team’s chances in the upcoming Olympics.
The USWNT, as they are called, have won three World Cup titles since its inception in 1991 and four Olympic gold medals out of five (finishing runners up in 2000). Up until the Rio Olympics they had finished in the medal positions in every tournament entered.
Another interesting point Barry made was that women’s soccer is the main sport for girls in the States, whereas the sport competes against basketball, baseball, American football and lacrosse for boys.
The pathway in England is also becoming more defined — just this last year the Centre of Excellence system has been revamped, and replaced by the Regional Talent Club (RTC) programme. Liverpool were one of 13 clubs to be awarded ‘Tier One’ status.
At Liverpool there are, currently, 80 players enrolled in age groups from Under-9s to Under-16s, at which stage players are considered for the club’s development squad.
Whereas in America the options for playing full-time after college are limited and the pay poor, the top clubs across England have turned fully professional over the last couple of years. Liverpool pioneered the move back in 2013, allowing players to quit their day jobs to become full-time professional footballers.
USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo slammed conditions the players face in the NWSL in a blog post on her website in July. The number one, currently on a six-month ban for calling the Swedish national team “cowards” after the US were beaten by the Swedes at the Olympics, was writing in the wake of a media storm as Western New York Flash played Seattle in a league fixture on an absurdly narrow pitch.
Her post highlighted that although America leads the way in some aspects, widespread support of the national team, league attendances and live streaming of every league game on YouTube to name a few, overall the professionalism of the league leaves a lot to be desired.
To gain a license to play in the FAWSL in England, clubs must adhere to a strict set of guidelines and the teams that win promotion to the top tier must ensure they can meet these or they remain in the league below.
This hasn’t been without its controversies. Shortly after the 2013 season began The FA announced the introduction of a second tier to the WSL — and that Doncaster Belles would be demoted with Manchester City Women taking their place.
Manchester City had met the requirements for a WSL1 license while Doncaster had not. Rightly or wrongly, this careful management by The FA has encouraged the steady rise of professionalism and the number of full-time professionals. It has undoubtedly benefitted those now progressing through the RTCs.
From 2017, the FAWSL will be changing to a winter league format, aligning it with the rest of the football pyramid. The FA hope the move will bring the game to a new audience — wanting to double attendances, inspire participation and, ultimately, bolster England’s chances in tournaments.
This change should also improve the scheduling of the league, which has been poor this season. Teams have 16 league games, then at least one in each of The FA and Continental Cup. If a team is knocked out in the first round of either cup, then they would play just 18 games between March and November.
At present, Liverpool Ladies have three games left to play between now and November 6 — including a four-week gap between the penultimate and final game of the season.
As a supporter of the women’s game in general I hope this move helps increase the support, and when comparing the two leagues in America and the UK against one another I can’t help but believe each could take something from the other. If the two leagues were to merge ideas and best practice we would likely end up with the perfect women’s league in England.
The streaming of live NWSL games, the crowds inside the stadiums and stadiums that are usually the right size for the crowd they draw, matched by the professionalism of the FAWSL and the management of the English league — with promotion and relegation throughout the pyramid pending — could help to further grow a game on the rise.