by Rachel Cohen (27/4/23)
Above: The crowd at Tottenham Hotspur home game at Brisbane Road this season. Photo: Spurs Women.
The focus of women’s football on inspiring young girls limits the growth of the game.
When Usain Bolt ran the 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. I was mesmerised. It was spectacular. It did not mean my own 100m speed increased.
When Jessica Ennis got an Olympic gold in the heptathlon or Beth Tweddle a long-deserved bronze in gymnastics I cheered. I did not throw a javelin nor swing on a high bar.
When Lucas Moura completed his miraculous hat trick against Ajax I was dizzy with excitement. I spilt beer and then drank beer. I did not go out and kick a ball, nor did he become my role model. Rather Bolsonaro-supporting Lucas has turned out to be deeply problematic.
Sport is beautiful, unbearable, and heart-breaking. It has the capacity to send us from euphoria into despair.
Elite athletes produce awe because they do things that mortals like me cannot. Some of them are wonderful people off the field of play, but not all of them.
To appreciate this and, in the case of women’s football, to appreciate elite women footballers as sportspeople, does not require that we turn them into role models. Nor less that we are inspired to replicate their actions. It requires that we admire their sporting prowess.
Yet women’s football in the UK seems stuck in an ‘inspirational’ narrative that positions footballers (and football clubs) as primarily responsible for inspiring future generations of players. As part of this, it frames today’s fans as proto-typically very young girls, or ‘future Lionesses’.
On the bus to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this season, two young women sat behind me and speculated nervously, “Are we the only people here without a child?” They were not. But when games get promoted in ways that infantilise fans – ‘a day of footballing fun’ (Spurs); ‘meet Peppa Pig’ (Aston Villa) – it may sound welcoming to some, but it puts off other supporters, the majority of whom (as visible from a cursory scan of any WSL ground) are teenagers or adults unaccompanied by very young children.
We can all agree that it is past due that historically excluded groups (women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, and disabled people) have pathways to get into sport, including football. And we all want to see people ‘like us’ participating in all types of sport. That said, the links between watching elite sport and resourcing the grassroots are convoluted at best.
And unfortunately, a marketing strategy around inspiring young girls (at times involving non-footballing content) is too often prioritised above developing and meeting the needs of a regular match-going mass fanbase. Yet this fanbase is essential to drive revenue into and grow all levels of the game because even if the big money comes from growing TV audiences, larger crowds produce the atmosphere necessary to market games and generate excitement.
In broad terms, the fanbase for women’s football includes not just families with young children, but the various people who do not want to, or cannot, play competitively; generations of women who missed the chance to play; adult women and LGBTQ+ fans who have not always found a home in men’s football. But also adult male fans, who should be welcomed at women’s games, even while women haven’t always been welcome at men’s games.
Clubs becoming more accessible for parents is to be applauded. It’s great that football-loving adults can bring their daughters, granddaughters, and nieces to games. Inter-generational bonding over football (men’s or women’s) is a long-cherished formative experience. Albeit one that is, sadly, increasingly out of reach in the men’s game, given the escalating cost of tickets.
Moreover, there are undoubtedly, among the young girls brought to games, some who love playing football, who see the elite players as important role models, who want to follow in their footsteps. There will, however, also be girls brought to games who primarily enjoy the spectacle just as there are young boys who like to soak in the atmosphere and watch men play.
If support for Spurs and other WSL clubs is to grow, with games regularly attracting crowds in the tens of thousands and many times that watching at home, the fraction of the crowd that goes on to play football at semi-professional or professional level will become vanishingly tiny.
Last month a friend’s son went with school friends to watch Arsenal women at the Emirates. While I am not condoning his Arsenal fandom, I love that they did this. They were not accompanied by a parent or teacher, but rather a bunch of teenage boys, old enough to make their own decisions, chose to take themselves to the game. Clearly part of it is that women’s football is affordable. But that it has become an option for teenagers, or for other groups of football fans, is a seismic shift.
So far Tottenham have done relatively little to capitalise on this shift. In the aftermath of the Euros, without a ‘Lioness’ to undergird their marketing, the club has been at a disadvantage. Yet, even allowing for this, attendances this season have been poor: two WSL games rearranged onto Wednesday nights attracted fewer than 400 fans to Brisbane Road. Even the North London Derby saw only 3,754. It is, therefore, time that Tottenham, alongside other WSL clubs, become more strategic.
The first step is recognising that the majority of fans are not currently, and will not in the future be, very young girls looking to be inspired. Once those blinkers are off, the second step is to ask what the demands are of a fandom that may primarily want to spectate, that is looking to be mesmerised, and will alternately moan, criticise and cheer as our team eeks out a draw, fights relegation or scores a ridiculous goal.
For the most part that means attending to the simple stuff: kick-off times that don’t change last-minute, tickets that are easy to buy for both home and away fans, with away ends available, schedules that coordinate with our men’s teams, incentives for groups of teenagers and young adults to attend games together, pitches that allow the game to be played to the highest level, support for the development of fan communities online and at matches (with chants, songs and flags), and sufficient information to follow our club and get to know our players, even the Academy teams.
That does not include an automatic right to a player’s signature or a selfie, nor less a match-worn shirt. But it does mean that at big games the club sells shirts with women players’ names and it requires that clubs proof-read the women’s team merchandise.
The men’s game survives and grows without Peppa Pig or a requirement to inspire, women’s football can do the same if given the support.
None of the above means discouraging footballers from using their platform to speak about matters beyond the pitch. Not least because, in women’s football what happens on the pitch is frequently intertwined with widespread social inequalities off the pitch: whether we are talking about women’s unequal pay and conditions; struggles over the visibility of LGBTQ+ athletes; a lack of diversity rooted in structural racism; cases of exploitatation and harassment that are perpetuated by those in positions of power; the lack of proper maternity (or sickness) cover; or the ways in which athletes’ bodies are represented and judged.
I hate that players have to keep campaigning about these things even while I love that so many feel able to speak out and have done so powerfully.
But the game will be a better place when players’ social and political eloquence is prized but not needed; when players are not required to inspire a generation, even if some of them do it anyway; when a player doing mind-bending things with a ball is plenty.
This article was originally published on: https://spurswomen.uk/