Football is the most popular sport in the world, but for the entirety of the 20th century, it was seen as a sport for men. Male football players earn far more than female football players. More people pay for tickets to see men’s football matches than they do for women’s football matches. Women’s football was reasonably popular in America – which is something of an irony given that America is one of the few places on Earth yet to fall in love with the sport – but languished behind the men’s game everywhere else. We still haven’t achieved parity in the 21st century, but there are encouraging signs that things are beginning to change.
Last month, millions of football fans worldwide bathed in the splendour of the men’s UEFA Euro 2020 tournament. After being delayed by a full year by the pandemic – a fact that mysteriously failed to change the tournament’s name – the event was given an enthusiastic reception and was treated as a cause for celebration. In many countries, it was the first time that spectators had been allowed inside stadiums for months. Next year, it will be the turn of the women. Major women’s international football tournaments are always separated from major men’s international football tournaments by twelve months, so the women’s tournament isn’t overshadowed by the men’s. That usually guarantees more interest and more ticket sales than the women’s events would normally achieve, but there’s something special about the women’s Euro 2022 tournament that’s scheduled for next year. Pre-sale tickets have only just become available, and they’ve already surpassed UEFA’s sales expectations.
The tournament will take place in England. That’s a positive factor not just because of the wide availability of excellent football stadia, but also because of the growing appreciation of women’s football in the country. UEFA hoped to sell around one hundred thousand tickets during the pre-sale. Instead, it’s sold more than 140,000 ahead of the end of the pre-sale on August 9th. That’s a huge number when you consider that the first tournament game doesn’t kick off until July 6th 2022 – a full eleven months away. Fifty-three thousand of the sold tickets are specifically for the final, presumably in the hope that England will participate in it. The remainder is split between the ten stadiums that will be used throughout the tournament.
While most of the sales come from supporters in England, fans from 67 other countries have snapped up tickets during the pre-sale. Surprisingly, fewer than half of the people who have bought tickets are female. The split is 47% female and 53% male. This shatters the myth that male football fans don’t appreciate women’s football or aren’t interested in watching it. With so much enthusiasm shown for the pre-sale, UEFA might now revise its targets for the rest of the tournament. Over seven hundred thousand tickets will be available when regular sales begin. It’s probably unrealistic to expect that the organisers will sell all seven hundred thousand, but any number above half a million would be considered excellent. With prices as low as £5 for some of the early games, all signs point to the tournament becoming the biggest event in women’s sport ever to be held in Europe.
This is yet further evidence of women gaining acceptance in aspects of society that were once considered the preserve of men. From football pitches and boardrooms to online slots websites and private members’ clubs, the barriers that used to prevent female participation are coming down. Online slots websites are a particularly striking example of the trend. As is the case with most gambling, it was once thought that women weren’t particularly interested in playing slots online. That changed when female-interest online slots websites were created, and female players moved from playing bingo to playing slots. Now, most big online slots websites have dropped some of the tawdrier slots and created more gender-neutral sites to welcome new players. If the walls around “old boys club” gambling establishments can fall down, so can walls elsewhere in society.
The Euro 2022 tournament is still almost a year away, but it won’t be the only significant boost that the women’s game gets in the next twelve months. To capitalise on the growing popularity of the sport in the UK, more professional women’s games will be shown live on television next year. The Women’s Super League, which is the female equivalent of the Premier League, will be shown on the BBC for the next three years after a lucrative new broadcasting deal was thrashed out between the parties. Sky Sports has also agreed to carry more matches. Twenty-two of next season’s matches will air on the BBC – many of which will be on its flagship channels BBC One and BBC Two – with a further 44 shown on Sky. The BBC deal is seen as a bigger deal because it’s free to air, whereas Sky comes as part of a premium subscription package. It will open the sport up to millions of potential new viewers in a way that’s never happened before in the UK.
Even if only one million people tuned in to watch the average WSL match next season on the BBC, it would be a new high part for female sport on a global level. The biggest professional women’s sports leagues in the world are the WNBA and NWSL in the United States of America, but neither of them regularly attract more than 250,000 viewers on a consistent basis. This new deal will easily make the WSL the most-watched women’s football league in the world, just as the Premier League is the most-watched men’s football league in the world. In theory, the women’s game might get more viewers than the men’s game because live men’s football is almost always broadcast behind a paywall. That might not translate into more people going into stadiums to watch women’s football than men’s football, but it could eat into the difference over time.
This is an exciting time to be a fan of women’s football, women’s sport, or just women making progress in general. More visibility means more people taking an interest in the sport, which should mean even greater possibilities in the future. Times are changing in sport, and they’re setting the tone for changes in the wider world!