The Women’s Super League Thanks You for Attending. Please Come Again.

MANCHESTER, England — Just before she headed back to the changing room, back to the celebrations, Ellie Roebuck had one more job to do. A member of Manchester City’s social media team handed her an iPhone and asked her to record a short message.

Roebuck, a goalkeeper, had been one of the stars of City’s season-opening win at the Etihad Stadium, a hero of the first derby with Manchester United in the women’s top flight, producing a match-defining save midway through the first half. There was an opportunity here for some good, like-harvesting content.

Roebuck, placed on the spot, turned the phone on to selfie mode, held it at arm’s length and spoke for only a few seconds. “Manchester is blue,” she said, with just a touch of glee. She thanked the fans, as is traditional in the genre. But the key message, the crucial part, was the last bit. “Hopefully,” Roebuck said, “you can come and support us over at the academy stadium in future matches.”

Rory Smith On Soccer

This was a triumphant weekend for women’s soccer in Europe. More than 65,000 fans watched games in England, including record crowds for the derbies in Manchester and London, where Chelsea hosted Tottenham. In Spain, Barcelona faced C.D. Tacón, the club that will, over the next couple of years, morph into Real Madrid’s women’s team.

And yet there was something telling about not just what Roebuck said, but the fact that she had to say it. Seeing so many fans pack stadiums around Europe to watch women’s soccer is a milestone, but a milestone is not the same as a destination.

ImageChelsea’s Bethany England, left, with Magdalena Eriksson, scored the winner against Tottenham on Sunday.
Chelsea’s Bethany England, left, with Magdalena Eriksson, scored the winner against Tottenham on Sunday.CreditJohn Walton/Press Association, via Associated Press

That does not detract from what a resounding success it has been. As Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach, said, her team gained far “more than three points” from beating Tottenham. The exposure and the validation count for something, too. It is, by any measure, an opportunity seized.

Women’s soccer has been growing at an exponential rate in the sport’s male-dominated heartlands in Europe anyway — neatly proved by the fact that both Manchester United and Real Madrid, two of the last holdouts among the men’s game’s elite, had teams in place this weekend — but the summer’s World Cup had, in the eyes of many, represented something of a tipping point.

Not simply because of the raw viewing figures — record audiences in England and France and Brazil and almost everywhere else, with a new bar being set seemingly every few days — but because of the way in which the World Cup’s players seemed to permeate the consciousness of those watching at home. The interest was not rooted in idle curiosity or reflexive patriotism but in a slow-burn bond with the characters themselves.

Ellen White, the England striker, has been greeted by strangers in supermarkets mimicking the “goggles” celebration she performed after each of her six goals in France. There is always a boost after a major tournament, but it felt, this time, as if people were paying attention.

The W.S.L., certainly, did not want to waste that. Its opening weekend was deliberately timed to coincide with an international break in the men’s calendar, so as not to have to compete with the asphyxiating, all-consuming attention-seeking of the Premier League. Manchester City and Chelsea both switched their matches away from the women’s teams’ normal homes — the Academy, in Manchester, and Kingsmeadow, in Kingston, in London’s never-ending suburbs — to rather grander stages: the Etihad and Stamford Bridge.

The response was almost overwhelming. Late last week, City said that about 20,000 people had bought tickets for the derby — priced at less than $10 for adults, and nothing for children — while Chelsea, after making the decision to make all tickets free, said that 40,000 had been claimed.

Chelsea made the tickets free for its opening match on Sunday. More than 25,000 fans showed up.CreditPaul Childs/Action Images, via Reuters

In London, not everyone showed up. Still, nearly 25,000 watched Chelsea beat Spurs, 1-0, on Sunday, smashing the club’s record by a factor of five but still feeling, somehow, like a disappointment.

In Manchester, though, the turnout defied even the most ambitious estimate. The announcement on the size of the crowd — 31,213 — was greeted with a cheer as loud as the one for the goal, from the Scotland midfielder Caroline Weir, that gave City its victory.

Just as encouraging, though, were the crowds elsewhere, away from the fixtures that had been heavily advertised and featuring familiar faces from the World Cup (a dozen at the Etihad alone, including Jackie Groenen, the Dutch World Cup finalist). There were 3,000 in Bristol and about 1,500 in Liverpool and, at the newly minted Johan Cruyff Stadium in Barcelona, more than 5,000 to see the hosts beat Tacón, 9-1.

It would be churlish to dispute the assessment of Casey Stoney, the veteran England defender and now coach of Manchester United, that those figures prove “the appetite” of the public to watch women’s soccer, but none in the sport are naïve enough to believe that it is the only factor at play.

Men’s soccer, in Europe, is an exception: a sport capable of commanding huge crowds every week, even for the most marginal or uninspiring fixture. Most other sports can attract thousands for major events but struggle when it comes to the humdrum.

Manchester was also hosting a cricket match on Saturday: Old Trafford, just down the road from the soccer stadium, was sold out to see England on its way to losing to Australia. Lancashire, the team that calls it home, plays most of its matches to a fraction of that crowd. Tennis and rugby and cycling and golf are the same.

Fans turn out in droves when there is a sense of occasion, as there was at the Etihad on Saturday. Some, priced out of Premier League soccer, may have been attracted by the novelty of being able to afford to go to an elite ground, or the chance to take their families at a reduced price.

The challenge, for the W.S.L., is to convert the interest in opening weekend to the rest of the season. “I hope it’s not just the first game,” said Abbie McManus, the Manchester United defender. “I hope it’s the last game, too.”

To do that, Stoney, her manager, said clubs needed to invest in marketing, in facilities, in access. “We need to make sure that you never have to pick between the men’s and the women’s team,” Stoney said. “We need to put it at a time when people want to come and watch it, in a place that’s accessible. We need to remove all the barriers, make sure the football is good, and then it is about visibility.”

Manchester City’s Keira Walsh, right, and Manchester United’s Jackie Groenen were two of the dozen World Cup players in action at the Etihad on Saturday.CreditNigel French/Press Association, via Associated Press

That is what this weekend provided in spades: visibility. Whether playing at the men’s team’s home stadiums was the best method for obtaining that is a matter of debate: Hayes has said she will speak to Chelsea about the women’s team playing at Stamford Bridge more frequently, but Stoney sees it differently. United plays its home games at Leigh, on Manchester’s outskirts. “My opinion is we stay at Leigh and sell it out,” she said. “It’s about having our home ground as our home ground, and making sure people know where it is and when it is on.”

It is that consistency, she argued, that will represent genuine, sustained growth. It is not taking the attendances one weekend and drawing a conclusion based on that; that might be encouraging today but could be discouraging in a week, or a month, or a year. Nor is it using the freakish example of the Premier League, of elite men’s soccer, to declare what a successful sport looks like.

A milestone is not a destination, and it is dangerous to treat it as such. Roebuck understood that in her message, just as McManus and Stoney did. It is unhealthy to gauge the health of a sport every week, to use it to praise or to condemn, and it is unfair to treat the players as ambassadors of a sport, rather than athletes competing in it.

At the final whistle at the Etihad, as the 31,213 applauded both teams, Manchester United’s players did not console themselves with the thought that they had taken part in a tremendous advertisement for women’s soccer. There is not an extra point for playing in front of a record crowd.

Instead, they sighed with frustration that they had matched their opponent and yet come up short. McManus was, she admitted, excited by how many people had come. “The more people the better,” she said. Like everyone else, she would like them to come and watch next week, when Manchester United plays Arsenal, and the week after that.

But that is not her main concern. It is not, after all, her job. Her job is not to promote the women’s game or to track the speed or the scale of its growth. It is not to sell tickets through anything other than her performances and her results. “I just go on the pitch, put my boots on and concentrate on that,” she said. It is time, perhaps, to allow her colleagues to do the same.

Women’s Soccer’s Moment

Post Comment

14 + 13 =