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Stadiums are headache for Euro 2022 organizers

Dave Braneck in Manchester
July 9, 2022

Record-breaking attendance numbers, half-empty grounds and cramped academy stadiums at Euro 2022 highlight the challenges of organizing a tournament amid the uneven rise of interest in women's football.

UEFA | Frauenfußball EM | Norwegen - Nordirland
Norway celebrate Caroline Graham Hansen's goal at a sparsely populated St. Mary's Stadium.Image: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Though the tournament has only just begun, Euro 2022 has already set high-water marks for women's football. England's somewhat-unconvincing victory over Austria in the opener was one of them. Played in front of a record 68,781 fans at the hallowed Old Trafford, it was a vibrant occasion that felt like a major event and set a sterling standard.

"It was unbelievable. I think the atmosphere speaks for itself, and the amount of people that turned up was amazing," England midfielder Georgia Stanway gushed.

This high standard was bound to prove unreachable at points in the tournament, but the second match already fell short. Only about 9,000 of St. Mary’s Stadium’s 31,000 seats were full for Norway’s 4-1 triumph over Northern Ireland in Southampton.

Nine thousand fans is a decent turnout, and attendance improved at other early group-stage matches, with 16,891 at MK Stadium and 15,746 at Brentford Community Stadium. Still, supporters being vastly outnumbered by empty seats removes much of the spectacle from a Euros match. It’s a factor even players consider.

"I’ve heard there's been some complaints about venues being too small. But I'd rather play in a small stadium with a lot of people than a big stadium that is half full," Sweden defender Nathalie Bjorn told DW.

Nathalie Björn on the ball for Sweden
Nathalie Björn plays for English club Everton in the WSLImage: LOIC VENANCE/AFP

Uneasy balancing act

Tournament organizers, the English FA and UEFA, face a difficult challenge. While interest in the women’s game has exploded in recent years, growth has often been uneven. Top teams have toppled numerous attendance records, but interest in smaller sides has grown at a slower clip. That makes estimating demand for non-marquee matchups difficult.

Record ticket sales of 500,000 make it easy to forget that there are still plenty of tickets left to move. And for the tickets that have been sold, even something as straightforward as pricing can have big knock-on effects.

According to the BBC, about 1,000 people who bought tickets to the match at St. Mary's didn't go. Family-friendly prices, starting at £10 (€12), mean there is little financial barrier to skipping out at the last minute. Yet if tickets were costlier, the tournament would be inaccessible.

Tournament organizers have also faced criticism about the venues selected for the tournament. While some stadiums are likely to be partially full, others are too tight to fit crowds befitting a European Championship.

A tight squeeze

The gleaming, 53,000-seat City of Manchester Stadium is about 7 kilometers (11 miles) across town from Old Trafford. Fans will have to look a further 300 meters, past a parking lot and into the literal shadows of Manchester City’s stadium to find Manchester's other host stadium.

The Manchester City Academy stadium in England.
The Manchester City Academy Stadium will only hold 4,400 fans at Euro 2022Image: Lexy Isley/PPAUK/Shutterstock/IMAGO

The Manchester City Academy Stadium, which typically holds 7,000 for Manchester City Women's Super League games, will host three group stage matches. Since two of its ends are standing only and therefore noncompliant with UEFA standards, capacity has been slashed to a miniscule 4,400.

"I'm not going to lie, when we first saw that it was there it was a disappointment. But then we can't change that, it is what it is. I hope they learn from it. We are here to play games and entertain people, and we will fill that stadium," Iceland's Gunnhildur Yrsa Jónsdóttir told DW.

Iceland, famous for hordes of traveling fans descending on host countries despite regularly being the smallest nation at major tournaments, play two matches at the Manchester City Academy Stadium. The tournament's mix of venues means demand for some matches has been underestimated while some games will be played in half-full stadia.

Building more marquee moments

This is indicative of a wider challenge stemming from women’s football’s uneven development. The opening match and England games (all of which are sold out) will clearly be headline events for the Euros. Other matches don’t feel quite as gripping.

England fans smiling before the Euro 2022 match against Austria.
All of England's group games at Euro 2022 have sold outImage: Martin Rickett/empics/picture alliance

"[Our strategy] was never to just focus on England," the Football Association's head of tournament delivery, Chris Bryant, told a press conference.

"We always knew we had to sell out the England games to move demand for other fixtures, because we want all teams to experience a great atmosphere in all the stadiums. And we felt having the right balance of stadiums was the best way to do that."

Building buzz and ensuring the competition comes to life outside of England’s matches is a bigger issue than stadium selection. On the ground in Manchester, branding for the tournament exists but is fairly muted. Outside the hours leading into England’s opener, it hasn’t really felt like a host city or a central hub of the tournament.

With the final at Wembley already sold out and poised to break yet another attendance record, it's clear Euro 2022 will be bookended by magic moments. But organizers still have a lot of work to do to ensure the high-water mark of excitement set by the opener is matched throughout the Euros and not just at its finale.

Edited by: Janek Speight