It’s July 2022. England are playing Austria in the opening match of the Women’s Euros to a packed-out Old Trafford. As I sit in the stands, watching the teams run out onto the pitch to a 70,000-strong crowd, it feels like a huge moment for the sport, the players, the fans.
The Lionesses winning the Euros marked the start of an incredible summer that changed the women’s game forever. Female football players are now household names, transfer fees are on the rise, more and more games are being streamed, and it’s sparked a rise in the numbers of young girls wanting to play and watch football. But how is that translating to the men’s game - and the matchday experience for the female fan?
In the lead up to another huge tournament for the Lionesses, the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, what still needs to be done to make the sport safer and more inclusive for women - both players and fans?
Her Game Too is a voluntary organisation aiming to make football a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. Director Roopa Vyas says women’s football has changed a lot in recent years, gaining recognition and support from fans worldwide. “It’s about time,” she said. “However, challenges persist, such as pay disparities and limited media coverage compared to the men’s game. Just look at the late confirmation of BBC and ITV coverage of the upcoming World Cup.”
The deal to stream live coverage of the Women’s World Cup was only confirmed in mid June, just a month out from the start of the tournament. If it was the men’s game, this would all have been wrapped up well in advance. After the Euros, you’d have thought broadcasters would be chomping at the bit but, after a series of low offers, head of FIFA Gianni Infantino even had to threaten a blackout across Europe’s ‘Big 5’.
It’s worth pointing out that this is actually the first time that coverage of the women’s tournament has been sold in its own right, rather than bundled up as an ‘add-on’ to the men’s game. So, it is progress of sorts. Here’s hoping that a successful tournament this year will lead to higher and more enthusiastic bids in upcoming years.
It’s not only about the women’s game, what about the matchday experience for female fans? Well, thanks to initiatives like Her Game Too, Roopa says the situation is improving: “As a female football fan attending men's games, my experiences have undergone subtle but noticeable improvements. While there is still progress to be made, I've witnessed a shift in the atmosphere, with fellow fans becoming more inclusive and welcoming. From the subtle nods of recognition to engaging conversations about the game, it's refreshing to feel a sense of camaraderie as a female supporter in what was once considered a male-dominated domain.”
With only 11% of board members and 26% of fans at Premier League clubs being women, there’s still a lot of change that needs to happen across different levels of the game. However, gender diversity and equality is becoming more of a priority and we’ve seen encouraging steps in recent years. For example, to make stadiums feel more welcoming and tackle period poverty, clubs like Liverpool and Brighton now offer free sanitary products for fans. Plus, FIFA has announced plans this year to pay male and female World Cup winners equally by 2027.
In 2020, the FA set out the Inspiring Positive Change strategy to create a sustainable future for women and girls in football. Goals included boosting the number of girls football in PE lessons and increasing the number of female referees and coaches, as well as the ambition of winning a major tournament.
The Lionesses ticked off that last one in the 2022 Euros and, since the campaign started, there’s also been a 17% rise in female affiliated players, a 30% rise in women’s teams and almost a 200% increase in women and girls booking football sessions through FindFootball.
The Football Supporters’ Association has also been working in partnership with Kick It Out to celebrate diversity in football through their Fans for Diversity programme. It aims to ensure all fans feel safe and welcome at the game by providing guidance, support, funding information and inspiration for individuals and clubs.
Talking about the future that she’d like to see, Roopa said: “It is crucial to continue fostering equal opportunities for female players, ensuring fair compensation and exposure. Investing in grassroots programmes and academies will help nurture talent and develop a strong pipeline of skilled players. By working together, fans, players, and governing bodies can create an inclusive and thriving environment for women's football, celebrating its unique strengths and elevating it to new heights.”
Making football truly inclusive will need changes at all levels, from diversity on the boards to investment in communities at a grassroots level, making stadiums a more welcoming place for everyone, and providing equal opportunities to all sports people. It’s also about male fans being allies and challenging sexist behaviour as and when they see it.
Roopa said: “Male fans can be allies simply by listening to us and acknowledging the issue of sexism and misogyny that is still so rife in the game. We have a number of male allies involved in the Her Game Too campaign as advocates or advisors, and their role is so important as their voices are still louder than ours. If male fans can call out others who make inappropriate comments, it can be really impactful. That is what I want to see more of.”
While it’s not always easy, questioning discrimination is crucial in creating a welcoming atmosphere for everyone. That means not laughing at with sexist comments, calling out sexual harassment and having those difficult conversations. For more advice on how men can challenge misogyny, check out the Have A Word campaign from the Greater London Authority.
Let’s create an environment in football whereby men and women are seen as equal. Women’s football is just football. And female fans are just fans. For now, let’s hope the World Cup provides a stage to continue to make the beautiful game, a safer and more inclusive one for all.
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Featured Image Credit: Getty/Lynne Cameron - The FA