Football is arguably the biggest phenomenon in the United Kingdom. Just look at the outcry in the face of the recent European Super league proposal. If baseball is America’s pastime, then football is the UK’s all-the-time. Football in Britain is something to be proud of, with many proclaiming the Premier League to be the greatest league in the world, and there is a strong point to be made to this effect.
Where this pride has often fallen away, however, is in the face of women’s football. Not only does the United Kingdom have a rich men’s footballing history, but it also has a rich women’s footballing history too. And whilst many throughout time have done their best to wipe out and disregard this fact, we are now finally beginning to see a rebirth of the women’s game.
For as long as men have played football, so have women. These roots can be definitively traced back at least as far as the late 18th century, when football was a casual affair.
The 19th century saw the introduction of Association football. The rules were finalized and standardized and the sport took off. Just as men set up teams, women looked to also. As women took more of an interest in football, the resistance to them doing so grew. For them it was deemed a hobby; playing for fun was fine but regulating it as a formal sport was not in the eyes of the Association.
In the face of this objection, two teams managed to establish themselves, but they faced harsh press. Much was aimed at their appearance and their intrusion into a man’s game. This ugly model has long informed the dialogue surrounding women and football.
The first club to arise was Mrs. Graham’s XI, established in Scotland in 1881, by Helen Graham Matthews. On the 9th of May that year they played their first game, but in just their second game they faced violent protest and pitch invasions and were forced to abandon their project.
The second club came three years later in the form of British Ladies Football Club, set up by Alfred Hewitt Smith, with Scottish writer and feminist Lady Florence Dixie as patron and Nettie Honeyball as captain and face of the team. Helen Matthews, too, joined as a player. Honeyball was defiant in her calls for players and challenges to those around the men’s game.
People were unconvinced of the team even before their first game. There were generally two schools of thought when it came to women playing football; those who found the idea funny and those who felt more threatened by it.
Mainly their arguments consisted of much of the usual anti-feminist rhetoric around all sport at the time. They claimed it was bad for women’s health, that they would dress ridiculously or immodestly, that they may profit from the monetization of football, and ultimately again, that football was a game for men and men only.
Despite the critics, Honeyball was again defiant and announced that a match would be put on for the public in 1895. British Ladies Football Club was divided into two teams, North vs South, in a game that the North won 7:1, and was watched by a crowd of 10,000, with more turned away at the gate.
In the face of what appeared to be a success, the press was negative, the women had “looked silly” and many of the crowd “left at halftime due to boredom.” Whilst there was undeniable bias in the press, interest in women’s football did fade in the face of men’s.
It wasn’t until around 20 years later that women’s football had its first big comeback. With the First World War raging, female factory workers began to play in their breaks, and as more joined in, they started forming teams and arranging fixtures.
In 1915, the FA suspended men’s football due to many the players going off to fight and, in the absence of association football, the popularity of the women’s matches soared. The FA offered support and the women began playing in stadiums, assisted by male coaches and players.
With this new spectacle, crowds regularly turned out in their tens of thousands to see women play. The matches were reported in Football Special Magazine weekly, and a new light was shone on women’s football.
This popularity continued beyond the end of the war. A 1920 Boxing Day fixture between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St. Helens Ladies, England’s top two women’s teams, at Goodison Park drew in crowds of 53,000 and saw a further 10,000 turned away at the gates.
By 1921, every town had a women’s team and most cities had multiple. A movement began to establish a Women’s Football Association. However, the FA saw the success of the women as a threat, they were bringing in more crowds and headline stories than ever before, even in the men’s game.
Women’s football was a great fundraiser during war time, some clubs alone raising millions, and some were worried that since the war had ended, these funds may now be used to pay players, thus entering into an era of professionalism in women’s sport. This was deemed unacceptable.
Ban of Women’s Football
In December 1921, the FA banned women from playing football, and from using league facilities. The media framed this as a move to protect women, football was “too taxing for women’s bodies.”
With no facilities, the sport became unsustainable, and its credibility was destroyed. Women’s football in the United Kingdom sat in a state of limbo for the next 50 years, with this ban only officially lifted in 1971. The women’s football league in England turned professional in 2018 and now, 100 years after football was banned for women in Britain, we are seeing some resemblance of the heights women’s football could once again reach.
From the start of the 70s the women’s game again began to grow. We saw the first women’s FA cups and international fixtures for the home nations. The WFA was established and joined with the FA in 1983, and 10 years later the Women’s Football Committee was set up to run the sport. In 1991 the WFA launched a 24-team league and in 1997 a grassroots plan was instigated to progress the sport.
By 2002, football was the leading sport by participation in women and girls. The UK hosted the UEFA Women’s Championship in 2005 and just over 29,000 spectators turned out for the opening match. They were accompanied by a further 2.9 million watching from home on BBC2. Overall, the tournament attracted over 115,000 over its 15 games, something that, until this tournament, was unprecedented in women’s football in the United Kingdom.
The popularity increased further with the success of team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games and, ahead of the 2018-19 season, the league structure in England changed, rebranding as the FA Women’s Super League. This was the first introduction of a fully professional women’s football league.
This year the Women’s Super League (WSL) signed a deal worth 8 million pounds per season for broadcasting rights, which will see games shown on BBC1, BBC2 and Sky Sports channels. With this increased accessibility, research has found that this could mean an increase in viewership of up to 350% globally and of up to 296% in the United Kingdom.
These studies, carried out by RunRepeat and reported in the Guardian, also found that in the UK 61.9% of the women’s football audience is male, and that 34.4% of men and 27.1% of women would watch women’s football if the access were more straightforward.
This step to increase the audience takes the onus away from fans who may previously have had to find alternative platforms or services such as the BBC Red Button. Taking away the extra steps is seen to encourage casual sports fans to engage more regularly and more fully with the WSL, and women’s football in general, especially given the lack of top tier football in any form on terrestrial television.
The 2019 World Cup was a great success for women’s football, both globally and in the United Kingdom. The tournament drew in a total global audience of 1.12 billion and the final alone capturing 263.63 million viewers. In the UK, 11.7 million people, or 47% of the total population, sat down to watch England’s semi-final against the USA and no England game had less than 4 and a half million watching (England’s 2-0 win over Japan had the lowest viewership at 4.7 million).
The effect of this was a 34% rise in attendance in the Women’s Super League from the 2018 to 2019 season to the 2019 to 2020 season. With pushes to get women’s football back into the biggest grounds and capitalize on the new audience women’s football had gained, individual game attendance records were smashed.
The first ever women’s Merseyside derby to be hosted at Anfield drew in crowds of 23,500, Chelsea’s first game of the season saw them watched by 24,564 fans and 31,213 filled the Etihad Stadium to watch Manchester City take on rivals Manchester United. The highest attendance of the season was set in Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur.
This was the pinnacle of consistently growing crowds for WSL matches until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that curtailed much of the growth, not only in women’s football but much of the competitive sport around the world.
The attendance record for a UK-based international side was set in 2019 when 77,768 fans turned out at Wembley to watch England’s tough 2-1 defeat at the hands of Germany. However, this was not the first time England had posted huge attendance figures for a women’s football match; the final of the London 2012 games saw 80,023 turn up for the game between the USA and Japan. This still holds the record for the largest attendance at a women’s football match in England.
Rise of Pundits
This growth is not confined to just the pitch and we are now seeing increasingly more women stepping into the worlds of both punditry and commentary. Karen Carney, Alex Scott, Eniola Aluko and Rachel Brown-Finnis, to name but a few, have all appeared on major broadcasts to cover both men and women’s football.
Earlier this year BT Sport broke new ground with an all-female broadcasting team as presenter Lynsey Hipgrave was joined by Eni Aluko and Faye White for coverage of both Premier League and Women’s Super League action. This was backed up by co-commentary from Lucy Ward alongside Darren Fletcher. BT Sport were clear in saying that this was not merely a “one-off” but rather an indication of the channels more inclusive intentions moving forward.
To take a look at this as a cultural event, it is a statement of intent that encourages a change in social perspective. More women visible in and around football furthers its growth and begins to break down preconceived gender roles. Rather than tipping the balance in favour of women, broadcasters are in a process of balancing the scales, levelling out screen time equally between genders so that when any one of them is seen on your screens, it is no longer a surprise.
The role of a pundit is to share views and provide insight into the sport in which they are involved, and this is where the audience is being focused, as opposed to who is saying it.
In the last few days, it has also been announced that Alex Scott is to take over from Dan Walker as the new host of Football Focus on the BBC. Since the announcement, she has commented on the amount of support she has had on social media, showing a further change in the landscape of women and football media.
Anthropology: Football’s Social Relevance
Football in Britain has long been a great subject to study anthropologically as it is, in many ways, a microcosm of the wider culture in the UK. It highlights issues of identity, race and gender and can be used to investigate public feeling and opinion.
With this in mind, the revival of the focus on women’s football offers up an example of the direction in which the UK could head, providing the right backing is given. If football can begin to demonstrate a shift in its attitudes and begin to shed the “man’s game” label it adopted all those years ago, then perhaps there is the chance of these attitudes filtering further into a wider, more inclusive, society.
Of course, this is a long road, full of many deeply engrained potholes, yet given the history and perseverance of women passionate about the sport they love, we may soon arrive at a more universally beautiful game.