Women's football and the curious case of low attendances
Hugging the fan zone, the promotion for the women's final could be found by those looking (Credit: VAVEL UK/Sophie Lawson)

When the ghost of Jim Morrison sagely told Wayne Campbell that if he books them, they will come he neglected to inform the eponymous character that he’d need to adequately promote Waynestock for it to be a success. You can’t just put on a music festival and expect people to turn up, just like you can’t arrange a football match and expect fans to magically beam into the seats in time for kick off.

International Champions Cup (minus a few)

Not just the national sport of England but one of the most loved games the world over, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that people would turn out for women’s football whatever the circumstances.

Yet, the numbers pulled in across the major leagues remain pitifully low with NWSL’s Portland Thorns the only domestic team that routinely has admirable numbers for regular season matches. Other teams will see a spike for one-offs, like when Paris Saint-Germain drew 19,192 fans to the Parc des Princes for their UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in April last year. The Parisiennes out-done four hours later when French giants Olympique Lyonnais recorded an attendance of 19,214 in Décines-Charpieu for their semi-final against Manchester City.

These numbers are the outliers, the cup finals, the matches that sell themselves, or should do. So why, in a country that loves football, are the numbers so low for regular weekend matches? The problem isn’t unique to England but stretches into the countries that have the strongest women’s leagues, promotion not always overly abundant.

From the NWSL partnering with Lifetime, a network not designed to cater to sports fans, to all but no advertisement from the first women’s International Champions Cup right to the haphazardly blu-tac’d posters for the Women’s Champions League final in Kyiv. The matches are supposed to draw people in, a product that sells itself but without shouting from the rooftops few are made aware of what’s happening on their doorstep.

Taking the first matches of the ICC as an example, a photo taken at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami as the North Carolina Courage lined up against PSG showed just how empty the 64,767 capacity venue was. The attendance around 600 for the first match and in the region of 200 for the second of Manchester City vs Lyon. Floridian women’s football fans didn’t know that there was a tournament taking place on their doorstep, nor did Portland based fans when two days previously City and PSG went head-to-head at Merlo Field. Whilst it certainly didn’t help that the matches overlapped with the start of the Tournament of Nations – a friendly tournament featuring the Australian, Brazilian, Japanese and US national teams – a general lack of promotion put a clear damper on the crowd.

The tournament, something that was supposed to be an eye-catcher was left rather disjointed, the three European sides coming into the tournament after a week of pre-season, PSG with a new coach and all three having lost players. As well as PSG and City having to hightail from Portland to Miami, catching the red-eye after their friendly on Tuesday night to be comparatively fresh for their matches on Thursday, both are missing starters due to the U20 World Cup as well as the ToN. Conversely, whilst the Courage are missing half of their starting XI due to the ToN, they’re mid-way through their season, a lack of suitable promotion almost fitting.

A Champions League final, but you wouldn’t know it

The ICC is just one example of many. The Champions League final in Kyiv is year as another, despite the fan zone being set up a stone throw from where the women played their final (at the Valeriy Lobanovsky Stadium), there was little in the way to alert fans to its presence. As Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah dominated the fan zone, the only representation for the women was a wall in the Champions Gallery, neither Lyon nor Wolfsburg given much of a thought.

Even in the official shop, there wasn’t a single piece of merchandise for the women – the only merch’ for the women’s final available just outside of the Valeriy Lobanovsky, with nothing club specific. The fan zone wasn’t much to behold, a few modest sized posters advertising the women’s final stuck to the thick vinyl tarp that wrapped around the zone, separating it from the street. One way or another, the Kyiv locals found their way to the women’s final, many opting to purchase a scandalously cheap ticket as they’d failed to secure one to the men’s final. The chance to say they’d been at a Champions League final in their home town too good an offer to pass up.

Despite Ukraine having two home World Cup qualifiers two weeks after the final, not a word was said about the national team, the odd half-time pageantry the perfect stage for a captive audience. Alas, another chance missed, a shock win for the hosts over group favourites, Sweden played out in Lviv with the country unaware.

The scant representation of the women's tournament in the Champions Gallery in Kyiv (Credit: VAVEL UK/Sophie Lawson)
The scant representation of the women's tournament in the Champions Gallery in Kyiv (Credit: VAVEL UK/Sophie Lawson)

Brand power

Things could yet change in England with Manchester United in the second tier and West Ham in the top flight (among other newcomers) but the numbers don’t lie, few teams average more than 1,000 fans per game. Of course, there are extra things to keep in mind, not just the time of kick off and location of the venue but the shift to a winter season in England has clearly hit attendance figures for more than one reason.

Further afield, the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich struggle to get meaningful numbers through the doors despite the popularity of their men’s teams. Even in Norway this year, a one-off weekend saw all the scheduled Toppserien matches moved to the Telenor Arena in Oslo, three played each day. Dubbed “Superhelg” the spectacle should have pulled in fans from all around the city as well as those travelling down to support their local team, in reality the Telenor saw no more than 600 fans. But with the promotion around the event minimal, it’s of little surprise that the figures were so low, the Telenor having had 5,646 fans in attendance for the final of the women’s league cup only last November.

International not aligning with domestic

The numbers generally remain as damning for national teams too, a recent cross-section of France home games show figures ranging from 6,478 to 24,835 – larger stadiums with better promotion for the match the telling factor. Off of the back of two major tournament semi-finals, England’s number have been on a gentle curve in recent times too, the Lionesses’ last four home qualifiers pulling 7,047 (vs Russia), 10,026 (vs Bosnia), 9,643 (vs Kazakhstan) and 25,603 (vs Wales) at St Mary’s. Whilst some matches will always remain more desirable than others, location and date crucial to getting numbers up.

One of the most successful nations to play the game, the US consistently pulls good numbers for their international fixtures, their nine ties this year ranging from 12,335 to 25,706 (including two sell-outs). Whilst some states and cities are harder sells than others, you can usually put money on the USWNT playing in front of a crowd well in excess of 10,000, yet the numbers in NWSL can fluctuate or just simply tail off for many teams, familiar problems causing the instability.

So too the improved numbers for internationals do little to raise the profile of the domestic league in England. Aside from the general derision that comes with women daring to exist in a male-dominant sport, is it just a simple case that the very existence of women’s teams are failing to reach the collective consciousness? Do you need to be all but slapped in the face with a match to be aware that one is being played?

Having decided to keep their women’s news under the banner of their main Twitter account, the general response of men’s fans to Manchester United Women has been heavily predictable. Across town, City found similar when they decided to move 90% of the women’s social media to the @ManCity account. Again, if you can get over the sexism and general eyerolling at the comments, it’s a reminder that fans from the men’s team are being constantly reminded that their club has a women’s section, but the disinterest continues.

And so it would seem that women’s football (in England at the very least) needs to be approached and marketed differently, a cursory glance suggesting not enough emphasis is put on the actual level football.