Recently I took a break from watching a lot of football in England to watching a lot of football in America, taking in four women’s league games in Boston, New York and Chicago.
Having attended women’s football, or soccer, games in the U.S. before and witnessing first-hand the fanfare surrounding the national team at last summer’s World Cup in Canada, the level of support and interest in the sport is both impressive and enviable.
As a quick example, two of the games I caught were in Boston, to watch as a side coached by former league winning Liverpool manager Matt Beard –and featuring a host of ex-players – was supported by 3,743 and 4,379 fans.
The latter figure being a sell out and made all the more eye-catching because it came at the end of a 7 match streak wherein the team had failed to pick up a win, and made all the more sweeter as Boston went on to secure a 1-0 victory. This courtesy of a familiar face as Natasha Dowie netted the winner on her debut.
Back at home while I was away Liverpool hosted a crowd of 643 at the Select Stadium in Widnes for a 0-0 draw with Notts County.
Despite the gulf in attendance figures both sides boast passionate supporters who sing throughout and bang drums to create an atmosphere. When Boston scored the fans even set off flares, though I doubt that would go down well in Widnes.
Why is it though, that America can pull in these larger crowds? The average league attendance for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in 2016 is over 5,000. To compare to the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) in England, the average league attendance last year was 1,076.
A couple of months ago on TheAnfield Wrap we recorded a women’s football special alongside Liverpool LadiesDevelopment Squad coach Vicky Jepson that prompted an email from subscriber Barry Beattie, who is currently coaching at high school level in the United States.
In his email Barry highlights just how seriously the game is taken over there, the volume of professional coaching companies and how from a very young age there is a clear pathway.
That pathway leads to high school students securing scholarships to play at the country’s top colleges as the institutions search for the next big star, the next Alex Morgan or Hope Solo.
Indeed while at the games there does seem to be a large amount of families and youth soccer teams, wearing a mix of their own club apparel or that of the team they’re watching and a huge number of U.S.A shirts – and these are generally emblazoned with names of the women’s players.
This is something that is creeping in in the game in England, especially over the last year the focus is on getting local girls teams and schools to the games and now in the stands there are a number of players represented on the back of fan’s replica shirts.
The success of the national team in America must also play a big part with the aforementioned Morgan and Solo being household names. Wearing my United States shirt in a Boston diner resulted in the owner initiating a conversation about the team’s chances in the upcoming Olympics.
The USWNT, as they are called, have won 3 World Cup titles since its inception in 1991 and 4 Olympic gold medals out of 5 (finishing runners up in 2000); up until the Rio Olympics had finished in the medal positions in every tournament entered.
Another interesting point Barry made was that women’s soccer is the main sport for girls in the States, whereas the sport competes against basketball, baseball, American football and lacrosse for boys.
The pathway in England is also becoming more defined; just this last year the Centre of Excellence system has been revamped and has been replaced by the Regional Talent Club programme, Liverpool one of 13 clubs to be awarded Tier 1 status.
Currently at Liverpool there are 80 players enrolled in age groups from under-9s to under-16s, at which stage players are considered for the club’s development squad.
Whereas in America the options for playing full-time after college are limited and the pay poor, the top clubs across England have turned fully professional over the last couple of years. Liverpool pioneered the move back in 2013, allowing players to quit their day jobs to become full time professional footballers.
US goalkeeper Hope Solo slammed conditions the players face in the NWSL in a blog post on her website in July. The number 1, currently on a 6-month ban for calling the Swedish national team cowards after the US were beaten by the Swedes at the Olympics, was writing in the wake of a media storm as Western New York Flash played Seattle in a league fixture on an absurdly narrow pitch.
Her post highlighted that although America leads the way in some aspects, widespread support of the national team, league attendances and live streaming of every league game on YouTube to name a few, overall the professionalism of the league leaves a lot to be desired.
To gain a license to play in the FAWSL clubs must adhere to a strict set of guidelines and the teams that win promotion to the top tier must ensure they can meet these or they remain in the league below.
This hasn’t been without its controversies, shortly after the 2013 season began The FA announced the introduction of a second tier to the WSL and that Doncaster Belles would be demoted with Manchester City Women taking their place.
Manchester City had met the requirements for a WSL1 license whilst Doncaster had not, rightly or wrongly this careful management by The FA has encouraged the steady rise of professionalism and football as a career for those now progressing through the RTCs.
From 2017 the FAWSL will bechanging to a winter league format, aligning it with the rest of the football pyramid and The FA hope the move will bring a new audience – wanting to double attendances, inspire participation and ultimately bolster England’s chances in tournaments.
This change should also improve the scheduling of the league, which has been poor this season. Teams have 16 league games, then at least one in each of The FA and Continental Cup; if a team gets knocked out in the first round of the each Cup, then they’d play just 18 games between March and November.
At present Liverpool Ladies have three games left to play between now and November 6th – including a 4 week gap between the penultimate and final game of the season.
As a supporter of the women’s game in general I hope this move does help to increase the support, and when comparing the two leagues against one another I can’t help but believe each could take something from the other. If the two leagues were to merge, we’d likely have the perfect women’s league in England.
The streaming of live NWSL games, the crowds inside the stadiums and stadiums that are usually the right size for the crowd they draw, matched by the professionalism of the FAWSL and the management of the English league – with promotion and relegation throughout the pyramid pending – could help to further grow the game.