In July 2022, Isobel Dowler joined us on work experience just one week after England’s record-breaking Women’s Euros group match against Norway. Inspired by the unprecedented levels of attention on the sport, Isobel explored the impact women’s football is having on GenZ and what this could mean for the future. At the time of publication, the Lionesses were still preparing to take on Germany at Wembley in the final.
In 2021, Everton and Manchester City made history when they played the first ever women’s domestic league game to be broadcast on terrestrial television. Now televised regularly by both the BBC and Sky Sports, as well as streamed live on YouTube, women’s football attracts over a million viewers per game across 230 countries. The sport has never received this much publicity. So, what is the impact of this growing platform for women’s sports on the younger generation?
The Power Of Visibility
The most obvious benefit of broadcasting women’s football is the increased representation of women in sport, which proves extremely important when encouraging girls to participate. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland and Aston Villa forward, Simone Magill, said, “There was always this saying going around, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ Well now kids can see it, and they can be it if they want to be.”
Since 2017, there has been a 54% increase in women and girls playing football, with 3.4 million involved as of 2020, which is definitely something worth celebrating. This can largely be accredited to the increasing publicity surrounding the sport and the opportunities that arise from it.
Women’s football is also a great point of reference for openly gay role models, something still too uncommon within professional sports. In the 2019 World Cup, 41 female players, including five Lionesses, identified as either gay or bisexual, while no elite male players openly identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The safe space that the Women’s Super League (WSL) has created by encouraging acceptance over hate shows a willingness, rarely seen within football, to embrace everyone, regardless of sexuality. This is particularly profound for Gen Z, who have been labelled the ‘queerest generation ever’ by a 2021 survey.
How Is The Game Improving Engagement?
In another survey conducted in 2021, only 63% of 13–39-year-olds would consider themselves sports’ fans. When asked what change needs to happen within the sporting industry in order for more youngsters to get involved, the second most common response was that there needed to be greater evidence of diversity, inclusivity and equality. With mainstream representation of women athletes, the fan growth we have seen throughout the Women’s Euros has been revolutionary, attracting new fans who may have previously shied away from getting involved due to the traditionally ‘laddish’ culture of football.
Although the women’s game has high levels of LGBTQ+ representation, there is still a lack of representation of players from diverse ethnicities. To address this, positive initiatives to get girls from a variety of different backgrounds into the sport are underway.
An example of this is Football Beyond Borders, which is a charity that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are disengaged with school to fulfil their potential through football. One of their patrons is Troy Townsend, Education Manager for anti-racism charity Kick It Out.
Racism continues to be a significant issue in sport, as in society, and there are specific and intersectional challenges that women of colour face in football. In fact, of England’s current 23-woman squad, only three players are Black or of mixed heritage. Initiatives like Football Beyond Borders will hopefully provide the access and the opportunity for girls of all ethnicities to find a pathway into professional football if they choose.
How Investment & Infrastructure Is Changing The Game
An often-overlooked aspect of the increasing visibility of women’s football is the financial implications. Since the WSL became professionalised in 2018, Barclays has contributed £15 million to the sport through its sponsorship. After extending its sponsorship contract to 2025, this figure will double over the next 3 years. This constant investment creates a virtuous cycle, with funding reaching all the way down to grassroots and academy level, creating more opportunities and access for younger players to get involved.
Sponsorship of individual players is also extremely important for creating greater representation and commercial appeal, as demonstrated by Lucy Bronze’s campaign with Pepsi where she features alongside footballing great, Lionel Messi. This level of exposure not only highlights the great sporting achievements of female players (something that is hardly done enough!) but is also symbolic of society accepting women’s sport, which is monumental considering that the FA only lifted their ban on women playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs in 1971.
Furthermore, Gucci’s partnership with England captain, Leah Williamson, is extremely important in helping break stereotypes around the type of woman we may expect to see playing professional sport. We shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the kind of platforms sponsorships create.
However, there is still a long way to go. Following the start of the Women’s Euros this year, misogynistic misconceptions surrounding women’s football have re-emerged. Lord Alan Sugar complained via Twitter that a symbolic male presenter wasn’t put on the commentary panel of England vs Austria, and #whocares once again trended on Twitter during the games, demonstrating a clear issue. These views can damage younger girls’ confidence and may serve as a hindrance to them getting involved in the sport. The fear of criticism and judgement is real and this needs to change.
Despite this, there is no denying that progress is being made. With every game played throughout the tournament, the Lionesses are making history and changing the course of the future, inspiring girls from all backgrounds to get involved. This is an England team we can be proud of.