On the 13th April, 2011, a new era of women’s football began as the very first game of the Women’s Super League kicked off, between Arsenal and Chelsea. Now, a decade later, the league has gone from strength to strength and has been influential in the improvement of the game, revolutionising women’s football in this country.
Back in 2011, the dawn of a new era began, the formation of the WSL seemed like a big move at the time, but nobody realised just how quickly interest in the league would skyrocket. In the very first season there were only eight teams involved, no relegation and just 14 games made up a season. It was played over the summer months, in contrast to the men’s game and in truth, the quality was poor.
The league was not fully professional, with several teams only training twice a week before playing a match on the weekend and the clubs had little association with the men’s team and were certainly never featured in the major sporting headlines. Things couldn’t be more different a decade on and the biggest difference, the rise in popularity, is clear from a BBC report of that inaugural match.
“Arsenal's clash with Chelsea drew 2,510 spectators - a figure practically unheard of in women's club football - including England coach Hope Powell.”
From 2,510 fans being an ‘unheard of’ number, clubs now regularly play in Premier League stadiums with (in pre-lockdown times) Tottenham hosting 38,262 fans for the North London derby in 2019, while 31,213 turned out for the Manchester Derby that same season. Even for non-derby games at non-Premier League stadiums, attendances have steadily increased and so has media interest.
Over a billion people watch some part of the last Women’s World Cup while the WSL’s latest TV deal is not only worth £8m a year, but sees 22 games a season shown on the free-to-air BBC, which is crucial for attracting interest. If sport is on the major channels, people will watch it.
The league has slowly expanded from eight to twelve teams, the season got longer and the quality increased, but one of the best decisions the WSL has made in its ten year existence to date is the move from a summer season to a winter one. In 2017, this move was made, aligning the women’s game with the men’s which doesn’t seem that crucial on paper, but in Britain, we like our football in the cold and wet. It simply added more validation to the top division.
The next year, the league required all clubs to be fully professional and create an academy to support their first team. The increase in quality was dramatic, while the new television deal allowed clubs to attract some of the top players in the world to England.
Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema and Lucy Bronze have all been attracted to the WSL and the quality of the game is increasing season upon season. It truly is a thrilling spectacle to watch and the pace of the progress has been frightening.
Now, Chelsea have emerged as one of the top teams in the world, but they are being pushed all the way by Manchester City and United. The clubs now post a huge amount of content online, United’s women boast 211k Twitter followers and content is often shared under one club umbrella. This is a huge step forward for a division which struggled to attract any interest at all a decade ago.
The Women’s Super League is here to stay, and in the big picture, it has only just started. With this rate of progress, just imagine where we will be in 2031...