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The Women's Super League currently finds itself caught in a curious dichotomy: booming television audiences, but an alarming slump in match-going crowds.
The numbers tell their own story: an average turnout of just 2,282 across the first five rounds of fixtures is significantly down on last season's figure of over 3,000 for a curtailed campaign, while fewer than 2,000 attended each of the recent FA Cup semi-finals. Two years ago, 38,262 were at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to see the record-breaking north London derby; on Saturday, to kick off 'Women's Football Weekend', Spurs host Arsenal at their more regular stadium of the Hive, shared with Barnet, with a capacity of less than a sixth of that.
But how to explain it? It is surely down simply to a lack of interest, given the soaring TV audience figures which include more than a million people watching the Manchester derby on the BBC.
“The FA’s done a really great job of positioning the WSL as an elite, world-class product but, in reality, the women’s game is still in its infancy, so it is quite easy to get carried away," said Lisa Parfitt, co-founder of sports marketing agency The Space Between.
“Attendees is now a really important measure – the barriers associated with attending match days are far greater than watching it on television. And there is an added layer simmering below the surface post-Covid, some nervousness around attending big events.”
Such concerns jar with the launch this week of the Football Association’s new three-year strategy which includes targets of selling out the Women’s FA Cup Wembley at Wembley and getting WSL crowds to average 6,000 – both by the year 2024.
Harnessing the legacy of hosting the Euros next year will be key to meeting that target, but not enough by itself. As Parfitt notes, the women's game needs to be more front-foot with its approach to marketing.
"On a club level, hyper-local marketing is really important, so people know where it is, when it is, how easy it is to get there, and that means going back to marketing basics around school connections, local grass-roots clubs, using the players, and mail drops," she said.
'The Hundred was marketed it brilliantly'
In this sense, football could learn much from the marketing of the Hundred in cricket. The new competition was divisive in the sport's heartlands but one thing which did attract common consent was that it delivered a major boost to the women's game, where attendances shot up.
A report from the Women’s Sport Trust, published in October, found that 45 per cent of the women’s Hundred audience watched it on TV more than once, compared to 31 per cent who tuned into the 2020-21 WSL season more than once. At the same time, The Hundred saw its women’s final’s 17,116 attendance set a new record for the world’s highest domestic women's cricket crowd.
“The Hundred marketed it with the stadiums, pop stars and a family experience, which really benefited the women’s competition, albeit it had the benefit of being in the school holidays," Parfitt said.
'We need to open ourselves up to new audiences'
The WSL, which has used a winter calendar in the darker, colder months since 2017, has seen clubs come under criticism this term for not doing as much as possible to promote games to the vast swathes of supporters who follow the men's teams.
For the first three rounds of games this term, posts from clubs’ primary social media accounts relating to their female side were often hard to find. Similarly, Tottenham supporters received an email from the club on Wednesday with a ‘ticket bulletin’ outlining how they could buy seats for their men’s games against Stade Rennais and West Ham in December, but there was no reference to Saturday’s WSL north London derby.
"There needs to be a consistent push across the platforms," says Jo Tongue from Tongue Tied Management. "There is a ready-made fanbase this weekend for live football. There is no live Tottenham Hotspur men’s football this weekend so, as a Tottenham fan, my weekend is free, so target me, make sure you capture me, and make me feel as though I’m missing out if I’m not there."
Stadium size is another issue, with the trend of women's teams playing at the men's grounds having somewhat dried up. Brighton have chosen to play at the Amex Community Stadium – the only Premier League ground being used this weekend – on Sunday while Birmingham are expecting their biggest crowd of the campaign so far for the local derby against Aston Villa at St Andrew's. Both games are being marketed with discounted tickets to attract families.
How Skinner has given Spurs belief ahead of north London derby
By Molly McElwee
In just one year Tottenham have gone from relegation crisis to a potential Champions League spot. Ahead of facing Arsenal in the north London derby on Saturday, Telegraph Sport looks at how mastering the basics with Rehanne Skinner at the helm has cemented the club's place in the top half of the Women's Super League.
The Rehanne Skinner effect
At this point last year, Karen Hills and Juan Amoros were managing their final game in charge of Spurs and on a six-match winless run in the league. In the club's second season in the top division, they were teetering just outside of the relegation zone in 11th, and on a downward spiral. Fast forward to now, and Rehanne Skinner's Tottenham is in contention for European football, in third place with four wins from their first six.
Though some questioned whether the club acted too ruthlessly in sacking Hills and Amoros last November – the former of which had spent 11 years building the team, from amateur all the way to the top division – Skinner now looks like she arrived just in time.
After 10 years working at the FA, including as Phil Neville's understudy with England, Skinner has adjusted well to the WSL. The second half of last season was about survival, which Skinner successfully achieved, and now her influence is finally on show.
Over the summer she culled 10 players from the set up, adding eight of her own signings – including Maéva Clemaron from Everton who has become a regular fixture in midfield. She also secured the permanent signature of Canada international Shelina Zadorsky last January.
It is also no small detail that at the same time Skinner joined the club, the women's team moved from training just once a week at Tottenham's main 77-acre training ground, to being based there full-time. It is a long way from just a couple of seasons ago, when they did not even have a team fridge at the Hive, and players were bringing their own packed lunch of jam sandwiches to training. The bump up to state-of-the-art facilities will have had an impact on team morale and the culture as a whole, and the results on the pitch are evidence of that.
Last season, scoring was a major issue for Tottenham. The team managed just 18 goals over 22 games, and finding a reliable target-woman up front was an issue. The major signing of Alex Morgan on loan last autumn attracted countless headlines, but the World Cup winner never completely gelled for the north London outfit.
Even now, there is no single player who is leading the front line for Tottenham – Rachel Williams, Ria Percival and Kit Graham among those sharing the spoils – but getting on the scoreboard is coming more seamlessly for the team. With eight goals in six games, they have scored double as many as they did at this point last year, and have had nearly double the number of shots on target with 35.
Creating more opportunities is paying off: Percival scored a 95th-minute equaliser against Manchester United last weekend and Jessica Naz put away an 85th-minute winner to better Reading. They are results against other mid-table sides that can swing a season.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic to mark Tottenham's season so far is how few goals they have conceded. Their record is second only to top-of-the-table Arsenal, with just four goals going against them in six matches – one fewer than reigning champions Chelsea can boast.
Their well-organised defensive line has impressed so far. The addition of central defender Molly Bartrip, previously at Reading, has given them a good foundation, while Kerys Harrop – who was signed by Hillls and Amoros in 2020 - has shown the value of her extensive experience along with Zadorsky's quality.
Behind them in goal is Becky Spencer, who is one of the most in-form players so far this season. The 30-year-old has saved nearly 80 per cent of attempts she has faced and brought a confidence to the squad that lacked over previous seasons.
The test for Tottenham will be reproducing this form against the traditionally stronger sides in the WSL. Though they snuck a controversial late win over struggling Manchester City, they are yet to face Arsenal or Chelsea in the league. A 5-1 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-finals in September was a reminder of the gulf that may still exist – and something they will not want to repeat on Saturday.