Ceylon Hickman discusses how the FA Women’s Football Strategy targets the wrong audience in the attempt to grow the game.
Saturday 13th May was one of those mid-May-warm-but-not-quite-sunny days, the perfect conditions for taking your seat at Wembley ahead of an afternoon of football played at the highest level. It was the FA Cup final. Large barrage-balloon-like inflatables suspended in the sky hung the badges of the finalists over the Wembley grass: Manchester City versus Birmingham City. At each end of the stadium were seas of blue, one shade notably lighter than the other. The rest of the crowd, however, was not quite so partisan. People from all walks of life sat amongst one another, absorbing the pre-match atmosphere with overpriced hot dogs in hand.
But it wasn’t just the non segregation of fans that made the occasion feel unlike a cup final. Rather, it was the fact that there didn’t seem to be many ‘fans’ there at all. That day, Wembley boasted a record attendance for the fixture that consisted predominantly of under 14s: girls and boys football teams clad in their matchday tracksuits, school groups who’d won competitions to secure their tickets, and young families who’d seen the game as an opportunity to occupy the kids on a Saturday afternoon. SSE’s “kids-go-free” initiative had led to an influx of children many of whom were more concerned with timing their Mexican wave to perfection than watching football’s record signing gracing England’s most prestigious turf.
The initiative was evidently induced by the FA’s recently published Women’s Football Strategy, aiming to double participation and engagement in the sport by 2020. A large part of the document revolves around how to market women’s football in Britain so as to achieve clearly defined targets. It’s common knowledge that every marketing strategy needs a target audience, and the FA seem to have chosen young children and families as theirs.
At first glance, the FA’s suggestion to “position women’s matches as friendly and sociable with good player accessibility” seems inoffensive: a positive step in how British football is marketed. Yet once again, the level of inconsistency that has become all too commonplace in the conception of two forms of the game – men’s and women’s – begins to rear its ugly head. Whilst it’s important to recruit a new demographic of fans and make football accessible to all, it borders on insulting that this strategy seems very much concentrated solely on women’s football. Where were the kids-go-free tickets for the Men’s FA Cup Final? Once again, the branding of the women’s game as “family-friendly” presents another way of enforcing a hierarchy amongst the different categories of football that exist in the UK, with the men’s game remaining firmly on top.
To focus so heavily on creating a unique brand for women’s football that centres around family participation undermines the simultaneous attempts by many to professionalise the sport. In her book The Roar of the Lionesses, Women’s Football in England, Carrie Dunn speaks to Matt Cecil, Wycombe Wanderers’ Communications Officer, about Wycombe’s decision to host Reading Women at Adam’s Park. Here, the opportunity for Reading Women is a fantastic one: the use of a 10,000 seater stadium at their disposal. Yet at the same time, Dunn quotes Cecil as declaring that women’s match days are “much more about having a good day out rather than being grossly attached to the football.” Here, Matt Cecil embodies the tone identified throughout the FA Women’s Strategy. The FA’s open declaration that the women’s game needs “branding” implies that the football, in it’s own right, isn’t enough. Fans need more than just the game. They need photobooths, mascots and Mexican waves because who in their right mind would come to a Super League fixture or international friendly just to watch professional athletes compete?
The FA didn’t used to need kids-go-free incentives to get bums on seats. On Boxing Day 1920, 50,000 people flocked to Goodison Park to watch Dick, Kerr Ladies FC take on St. Helen’s Ladies. It wasn’t 50,000 children Mexican-waving, but rather dedicated men and women who appreciated the calibre of football before them. Almost exactly a year later, the FA committed one of the biggest sins in footballing history: they banned women’s football. The game was forced underground, crowds disappeared, and the once hailed Dick, Kerr Ladies were consigned to the dustbin of history. Now, almost a hundred years later, the FA, with their tail between their legs, are desperately trying to make up for forcing thousands of fans and players away from the women’s game. It should come as no surprise, then, that their approach is incongruous with the history of women’s football. As history proves, when games are played at renowned stadiums and the football is celebrated for what it is, the crowds will follow.
The FA’s approach to the women’s game is paradoxical: on one hand, they aim to professionalise the game and encourage that it be taken seriously; yet on the other, they are intent on creating a carnival atmosphere, using everything but the football to ‘sell their product’. The implications of this are complex. Whilst at first, we might see higher attendance figures at WSL and WPL games, we shouldn’t underestimate what can happen to the sport’s reputation. The football being played becomes part of this “family-friendly” brand, it’s not a phenomenon to be celebrated in and of itself. When attendance figures grow further and the commercial aspect of the game expands, it may become impossible to detach from the idea that women’s football is for children and families. This does a disservice to the professional athletes that have worked their entire lives to reach the top, making serious sacrifices along the way in a bid to represent their club and country. It also does a disservice to the fans. Those fans who travel up and down the country, take days off work to meet the sometimes unconventional WSL kick-off times, and support their clubs day in, day out.
Looking forward, it will be particularly revealing to see how the Euros are branded in the Netherlands next week. Perhaps the English FA could learn from the Dutch when it comes to hosting an international tournament that appeals to all: the ultras, the commentariat, the everyday fan and the families. Ultimately, it’s about creating a balance. A balance between increasing audiences whilst protecting and encouraging the professionalisation of the game. Fans of women’s football have not been taken seriously for a long time now. Perhaps it is time for the FA to treat them with the same unquestioning respect that is granted in the men’s game.
Ceylon recently graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a degree in Politics. During her time at Cambridge, she was a stalwart of the university’s first XI. She is also a regular contributor to the podcast, A Team of John O’Sheas. She tweets @ceylonandi.