England’s top flight has made enormous strides since I started playing and new exposure could make this the best season yet
Last modified on Fri 3 Sep 2021 08.25 BST
I remember returning to England a decade ago for the inaugural Women’s Super League, intrigued by what it would be like and convinced it had the potential to be the best in the world. Ten years on we have reached another milestone as the new broadcast deal is putting the women’s game at the forefront.
When I made my debut in the women’s top flight back in 2001 aged 14, I always dreamed we would reach this point, not knowing whether it would be possible. Back then we trained once a week and played a game on a Sunday. Everything was done by good people working for free, for the love and joy of the game. Two decades on all the teams are professional, with the players paid good wages and supported by strong backroom staffs, helping to make the exciting product that has earned the WSL its landmark television deal with Sky Sports and BBC, something that can only help the progress continue.
The women’s game has gone from a vicious cycle to a virtuous one since the inception of the WSL. Beforehand the lack of funding and exposure meant the product was not what it should have been, but this has changed. Having major international tournaments visible has been a great boost, because it helps showcase the quality within the women’s game, which then attracts sponsors and money into the sport to keep it evolving and improving.
Previously, it was a hard sell to get people to watch a sport that when seen on TV was played in front of small crowds. Getting excited about what is happening on the pitch is not easy when the atmosphere is absent but the WSL has helped this grow in conjunction with England’s successes. The penny dropped in 2012 when 80,000 turned up at Wembley for the women’s final at the Olympics and English football has capitalised on this.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup was another turning point, proving the appetite for the women’s game. For England’s semi-final against the USA there were more than 53,000 inside the stadium and 11.7 million watched a slick, professional broadcast at home, giving a great image of women’s football. It made household names of the likes of Ellen White and Lucy Bronze, which aided momentum.
Clubs have also acknowledged how to accentuate the positives when it comes to stadiums. WSL matches are now regularly played at the clubs’ main venues – we have seen games hosted at the Etihad, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Old Trafford. When I was young I would go to St Andrew’s to watch matches and always dream of playing there. It is now a realistic ambition for other girls to think they can represent their team at huge stadiums, which can only be good. Leicester, for example, are hosting eight of their 11 games at the King Power in their first WSL season and it is fantastic to see them embracing ways of growing the game with a bold vision.
Playing at the same stadium as the men offers proof that the women’s sides are integrated into the club. When you see kit launches, men’s and women’s players are standing side-by-side, with equal footing in the promotion of new products. I was at a Birmingham match recently and the ground was adorned with pictures of players from their two teams, which is a very positive message. Not every woman wants to play but there are lots of female fans, so it is important to make everybody feel part of it. Clubs also now offer women’s shirts; when I was playing we would be in ill-fitting shirts designed for men and it is the small changes like this which help everyone feel respected.
Chelsea and Manchester City have been at the forefront of showing the women’s team is a part of the club, not apart from it. The branding is united and they are all under the same umbrella, bringing joined-up thinking. It was great to recently see that Ole Gunnar Solskjær reached out to his women’s team counterpart at Manchester United and wanted to chat things through when Marc Skinner was appointed as Casey Stoney’s replacement.
Growth off the pitch has aided the progress on it. There were 44 players from the WSL at the Tokyo Olympics, compared with 37 from America’s National Women’s Soccer League. It is an indication of how far the league has come that it has surpassed the NWSL. This summer has seen clubs sign more players than ever, and there is an appetite to come here and play. The draw of the competition is unrivalled and players have a desire to experience it, whether for one season or longer.
There will be new challenges this season thanks to the high level of coverage teams and players will get. I talked to Emma Hayes about how she has been speaking to the players about coping with the profile and having strategies in place to deal with being under the spotlight. It is going to be different but everyone will embrace the extra scrutiny that comes with greater coverage.
This is set to be the best WSL season ever thanks to the strides made by those in the game to make it a product attractive to fans and players, ensuring the highest-quality entertainment possible. It has been great to be part of the journey from where we were to the great situation we find ourselves in now and I cannot wait to see where the women’s game is in another decade.