It’s been an incredible 20 years for women’s football, going from the fringes of the sport and unfairly criticized and compared to the men’s game. Some of the top female games now see the viewing figures and attendances that some of the biggest men’s games do.
For those overly vocal critics on social media who use platforms to besmirch and downplay women’s games, this year has shown more than ever that the argument that women’s football isn’t popular is a fallacy and holds less and less weight by the day.
Unlike the male game, which dates back 200 years, women’s football rose to prominence over a much smaller period. For large sections of women’s football history, even top players didn’t make enough money to turn their skills into full-time jobs. Although this year’s World Cup was a monumental success, the first Women’s World Cup back in 1991 didn’t have quite the same cultural impact, and it would be years before the legitimacy of women’s football began to get the notoriety it deserved.
Women’s football in the United States made some significant changes in the 1990s, becoming one of the first to introduce professional programs for female football stars. This momentum slowly built from the early 2000s until the middle point of the last decade. Several countries followed suit, but England’s Women’s Premier League started to see serious investment. Teams like Manchester City & Everton built academies for promising female players and existing professional teams, and the number of people in attendance grew from the hundreds to the thousands during this period.
Earlier this year, Australia & New Zealand played host to the Women’s World Cup, and although the last tournament in 2019 brought in good numbers, they paled compared to the sort of audiences we witnessed this year. The Women’s game between the hosts Australia and England brought in a TV audience above 11 million, the highest sporting audience in Australia ever. Inspiring Australian female athletes and sports stars built the foundation for a lot of this success. While it might seem as though these numbers have exploded overnight, a concerted and orchestrated advertising and marketing approach has helped bring women’s football to a much larger, mainstream audience.
Millions of English fans tuned in to watch their Lionesses fall short in the final, losing narrowly in a close game to the pre-tournament favorites Spain. However, this year’s World Cup was a real key breakthrough in highlighting just how much potential the women’s game has, and it’ll continue to strike while the iron is hot, with more people than ever taking an interest in the women’s game.
The record Australian audience wasn’t the first time the English Lionesses have played in front of a colossal TV audience. Following a landmark victory at Euro 22, the hosts became the first English team to win a high-ranking professional tournament since the men’s team in 1966. An immense number of people watched it unfold live, and for many fans of female football, this was the beginning of the current golden era that the women’s game is seeing.
The men’s game sees a shift in dynamic, with several high-profile players leaving the Premier League for the immense money currently on offer in the Saudi Premier League. In addition to this, some high-profile managers stated they believe they will work there in the near future. Women’s football in Europe could be in an excellent position to hoover up some of the waning popularity, especially if many of the world’s top talent moves to the SPL (Saudi Premier League) and weakens the strength and global appeal of the English Premier League in the medium to long term.
There’s still a long way to go for the women’s game, as a significant wage disparity exists between the men’s and women’s games. Detractors have long speculated that the reason for this is due to the fact that there are more fans of the male game. Although the men’s World Cup was the most-watched global sporting event in the world during 2022, women’s teams in Australia and England are selling out the largest arenas in their country.
The argument that women footballers should be getting better pay is now rightfully gaining more momentum, which correlates with the popularity of the sport growing and likely to continue growing over the next decade. Men’s soccer is the most popular sport in the world, so it’ll be a long time before the women’s game can even aim for those sorts of levels, but the last five years have been exciting, promising, and show the scope and potential. If it continues on this trajectory, the next decade could be pivotal in shaping the game over the next 50 years.