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WSL: Is it living up to the hype?

October 3, 2022

Records constantly tumbling, enormous TV deals and the Euro 2022 afterglow, the Women’s Super League appears to be flying. In several ways it is, but Europe’s most lucrative women’s league isn’t without its issues.

Leah Williamson warms up before an Arsenal match
Leah Williamson and Arsenal have started the season well but face a tough test in the Champions League group stageImage: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com

For Leah Williamson, beating your biggest rivals in front of tens of thousands is becoming a habit. Two months after lifting Euro 2022 in front of 87,192 people at Wembley, she was reflecting on the impressive crowd of 47,367 that had seen Arsenal ease to a 4-0 win over Spurs 15 kilometers across London at The Emirates Stadium at the end of September.

"I think it [a rise in attendances] was on its way before COVID hit and set us back a little bit again. But now these are the people that are interested in watching, those people are fans of the game and they will come to watch us again and again and again, I hope," she told DW, before striking a slightly more cautious note.

"It's just got to be at the right time and that's when the sustainability of the game comes in. I question it because it has to be fixture-friendly with the men's team and there's a lot of things [to fall in to place for] a day like today."

Those things are increasingly starting to happen in England. That weekend, September 24 and 25, also saw the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton played in front of 27,574, meaning two of the league's top four attendances were recorded in consecutive days. Tickets for England's friendly against the USA at Wembley on October 7 sold out in less than 24 hours. Demand is clear.

Pay but stay away

But a somewhat unforeseen effect of affordable tickets and increased demand has been empty seats at sold out games. Nearly 6,000 people, or 11%, who bought tickets for the north London derby didn't turn up to the game itself. Empty seats in sold out stadiums were also noticeable in the Euros.

Though several WSL clubs have sold out their season tickets for games that are, for the most part, at much smaller stadiums, there is a suggestion that some fans buy them to secure a few key games in a season and won't necessarily attend every match.

Nevertheless, the signs from a crowd perspective have been encouraging in the early part of the season, with the two bumper crowds pushing the average up to near 10,000. That will inevitably drop once fewer games are played at the bigger stadiums but crowds, in general, are up. Sustaining that is, as ever, a tougher proposition.

As Williamson suggested, crowds spiked after England reached the semifinals of World Cup 2019 only for COVID to intervene. With a World Cup following next July, there may never be a better chance to get it right.

The biggest driver of progress in England has been the increasing willingness of clubs and the country's Football Association (FA) to spend on the women's game. With Liverpool now back in the WSL after underfunding their side for years, and Manchester United finally catching up after similar levels of neglect, all the Premier League's big sides are seeing the value of their women's teams.

Sam Kerr celebrates a goal for Chelsea
Chelsea's Sam Kerr is one of the world's best paid female playersImage: Gareth Fuller/empics/picture alliance

In truth, the gulf between the genders means funding a top women's team only takes about 1% of the budget of a men's side like United, Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal, and the contributions don't count towards UEFA financial fair play rules. But even that 1% is out of reach for clubs outside the elite, meaning the WSL is increasingly beginning to resemble the Premier League – only rock-bottom Reading don't have a top flight men's side behind them.

Emma Hayes wants Premier League takeover 

"I think we've now entered that phase of women's football becoming a business," said the head coach of WSL champions Chelsea, Emma Hayes, after the Euros win. "The next step is the league leaving the FA and going to the Premier League or an independent body and that there is a vision around the women's game so we don't just have single big moments – single events once every two years or once a year – that they're every week."

The WSL has already begun to act more like a big business, signing multi-million pound domestic broadcasting deals with Sky and the BBC and an overseas contract with DAZN that will put rival European leagues even further behind financially. While there's little doubt that the hyper-capitalist model of the Premier League is the way to bring in more money, there are some long-term questions over whether the WSL wants a system where only money really talks.

For now though, with the exception of a handful of clubs in Spain, France and Germany, it's clear the combination of money, better facilities and bigger crowds have made the WSL the destination of choice for the world's best players.

"It's really impressive how it's progressed since the Euros." Arsenal's Austrian international defender Laura Wienroither told DW. "I feel like in general, in WSL the quality is a lot better. And also what's happening around social media stuff and publicity."

Champions League elusive for English clubs

But it seems the positivity about playing in England is not so strong at one of its biggest clubs. Manchester City should have benefited more than most from the increased marketability of England's win, but they lost starters Lucy Bronze and world-record sale Keira Walsh to Barcelona, Georgia Stanway to Bayern Munich and Ellen White, Jill Scott and reserve keeper Karen Bardsley to retirement. Caroline Weir, another summer departure, knocked City out of the Champions League playoffs for Real Madrid.

Lyon lift the Champions League
English clubs have failed to wrestle the Champions League from Lyon and the restImage: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

With City's Abu Dhabi owners ensuring money is no object at the club, such an exodus is puzzling and rumors that head coach Gareth Taylor is not widely respected by the players increased after a shock opening day defeat to Aston Villa followed that loss to Real.

The absence of Champions League football will hurt City's reputation if not their income. And that competition remains the final frontier for the WSL. Arsenal are the only side to have won it back in 2007, four years before the WSL was formed and almost a decade before the league went professional.

"We can now start pushing in that competition as a league, WSL, in the Champions League," said Williamson to DW before Arsenal snuck past Ajax and in to the group stage. "And from our perspective that's where we should be."

The group stage draw on Monday means they will have to push pretty hard to make their mark. Arsenal were drawn with holders Lyon and Italian champions Juventus while Chelsea will face rising powers Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. For all the hype and goodwill, the WSL will also be judged by how well it fares against Europe's best.

Edited by: Kyle McKinnon