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Women's football flying in England, but too fast?

Matt Pearson Manchester
April 1, 2024

Huge attendances have quickly become commonplace in the WSL, the top division in English women's football. While the league is held up as an example to Germany and others, there may be dangers in such rapid growth.

Manchester CIty and Manchester United players battle for the ball in a WSL game
Both Manchester derbies in the WSL have drawn crowds of more than 40,000Image: Gary Oakley/Sportimage/IMAGO

Queues of sky blue shirts snake from the tram stops to the turnstiles as Manchester City fans make their way in to the Etihad Stadium for one of the season's biggest games – the Manchester derby against United. This crowd, of 40,086, is increasingly becoming normal for women's matches across England.

Less than a decade ago, the present situation was close to unthinkable. The league was not professional until 2018 and United, arguably the biggest men's club in England, didn't even have a women's team until that same year. Now, the WSL is held up as an example to follow: Arsenal average crowds of over 35,000, all but one of the division's 12 teams have played at their club's main ground and the cumulative league attendance record has already been broken with multiple games remaining. In contrast, attendances in the Women's Bundesliga are growing but only by 6%.

"I do think it's a really good league," City coach Gareth Taylor told DW. "The amount of changes that have happened in the three seasons that I've been here is huge. Moving in to the main stadiums, the exposure of all of the players and playing on the big stage, the TV coming on board more, I think it's amazing. And I can only see it going in one direction." 

Rising attendances not everything

Attendances are far from the only measure of success, though. Among those at the Etihad there were significant concerns, mostly from those who have followed women's football more closely and for longer than most, about the rapid pace of change robbing women's football of some of the qualities that have made it special for them.

"I feel like if you consistently play at the biggest stadiums, it will just create a divide between the fans and the players," Manchester United season ticket holder Anya told DW. "And the prices could start outpacing what fans can afford. If you look at the prices, it's already gone up quite a lot. While I do think the girls deserve it, how much of that money will they actually see?"

Anya watched the derby with her dad, Graham, a City fan. The two sat together in red and blue, something they wouldn't feel comfortable doing at a men's match and Graham added that the "beauty” of the women's game at smaller grounds was that players "actually chat and sign autographs, so the fans are appreciated."

That proximity to players, closeness with clubs and sense of community are among the things that have fueled the successful resistance to outside investment in the men's Bundesliga. It's also a factor in why Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany's best supported men's clubs, started their women's team in the regional leagues in 2021 rather than being parachuted in to the top flight, as City were when the WSL was restructed in 2014.

A big screen shows the attendance at the Etihad Stadium
Huge crowds have become commomplace in the WSL but not everything is perfectImage: Cody Froggatt/News Images/Sipa USA/picture alliance

Marketing and facilites poles apart

While the on-field competition between English and German football continues — England can still boast a team in the Champions League (Chelsea), but Germany are the only one of the two heading to Paris this summer — marketing of the two domestic leagues is noticeably different.

The Manchester derby was broadcast live on BBC One, with WSL games constantly visible on major channels in the UK, and matches, players and merchandise heavily promoted. By contrast, the Bundesliga has next to no international presence or footprint.

Julia Simic, a Germany international who moved from the Bundesliga to West Ham in the WSL in 2018 before retiring after a spell at Milan in 2021, told DW that she was taken much more seriously as an athlete even back in the early stages of the WSL.

"It doesn't matter really where you go because you have such good infrastructure everywhere. We had everything we needed; the best pitches, we could use the men's gym, we had access to nutritionists. This is something I didn't even experience playing for Bayern Munich, playing for Wolfsburg and for Turbine Potsdam, at the time when they were a serious side in Germany. We didn't have anything like the infrastructure that WSL teams have."

German FA holding back Bundesliga?

Simic is also among a number of prominent voices in the German game calling for the DFB to allow an outside group to take control of the Women's Bundesliga. Despite, and indeed because of, the recent growth, that is exactly what is happening in England.

From the start of next season, the league will be operated by a so-called Newco, outside the jurisdiction of the English Football Association (FA). The theory is that this will allow the WSL to grow still further, as the men's Premier League did when it split from the FA in 1992 to eventually become the most lucrative league in the world.

For many fans, authenticity, community and closeness was lost in the scramble for investment on which the Premier League thrives. And there are fears the women's game could head the same way without careful curation.

At this point, even in England, it's those that travel the country week after week to follow their team, at great cost, that still form the bedrock of the WSL. Growth and investment are welcomed but tradition also holds value. Navigating a path that satisfies both is the next challenge for both leagues.