Modes of engagement in women’s football: A privilege, not a right

Fans ask for autographs following the Women's Super League match between Manchester United and Leicester City
Fans ask for autographs following the Women's Super League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Leigh Sports Village (Photo by Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

There’s no denying that Mary Earps is now a global footballing star. If her performances for Manchester United in the Women’s Super League didn’t get her noticed, winning the Euros with England and then saving a penalty in a World Cup Final certainly did.

You could forgive her for shirking fan engagement due to being sick of it.

Despite all of this, Earps is perennially one of the first Manchester United players to come over and interact with fans. Whatever the result, she’ll sign autographs, smile for photos and chit-chat. It is a credit to her as a person. However, it’s also understandable that she has limits. It’s no longer one or two people asking for this, it’s hundreds. Every single matchday.

Consequently, it was both disappointing and concerning to see her directly called out on social media about it. This wasn’t just a snide gripe either. It was directly tagging her, doing their level best to ensure she saw it. Shaming her for a perceived lack of engagement — at best clumsy frustration, at worse malicious sniping.

She did reply to it, reacting with clear frustration, with a tinge of sadness. Players are doing their best in this regard, but sadly for a few, their best is no longer good enough.

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Modes of Engagement: The Bursting Bubble

It recently boiled over, with Earps admitting: “At times it’s becoming really difficult to keep everybody happy and to interact with as many people as possible.”

In truth, the only shock is it has taken this long for a player to be so open about this. Women’s football has always had a unique and special relationship with fans. The superstars of the game have historically been accessible for engagement. Rather than shut away in bubbles, protected by PR teams and layers of club-deployed red-tape, they have been free to engage. This has been a beautiful and wonderful thing.

However, like all good things, this will eventually have to come to an end in the current form. It is simply not sustainable for players to be expected to do endless meet-and-greets every single matchday. In a similar vein, it is not realistic that clubs should perpetuate this notion to their fans. It is a security concern for others, and a burden on players who feel obligated to try and make everyone happy — which is impossible.

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Resultantly, it’s clear that fans need to start acknowledging that — for better or for worse — the way they engage with players will have to change.

Fellow Lioness Esme Morgan has also spoken out about this. Her words are stark and laced with caution. Fans would do well to take note.

“You can’t please everyone and you always remember that one person who wasn’t happy with you as opposed to all the people whose day you made and they were really grateful.”

Modes of Engagement: The Fear of Shutting Out

These sportspeople are hypercritical. Even if they do 99 things brilliantly, they will hone in on the one thing they could improve on. While this mentality makes them winners and stands them apart as elite in their field compared to normal people, it also adds immense pressure. Players are already facing increased levels of competition. There are an increasingly diminishing number of ‘free’ games.

With this enhanced competition, it is vitally important that players are able to keep a clear head and a positive mindset. They need to be feeding off the positive energy of the crowd, rather than being beaten and broken down by selfish attitudes for a perceived lack of engagement.

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The resistance to change is palpable. Manchester City Women tried to embrace a slightly different tact with ‘Autograph Alley’ for a select number of people. This exclusive reward for a few lucky fans, however, swiftly shelved due to safety concerns. It attracted criticism on social media too. People were quick to complain they felt shut out.

Unfortunately, some people being ‘shut out’ has to become the new norm. Players increasingly do need protecting from fans. It’ll be a sad day when a club first makes the announcement that there will be no engagement after the match. There will be wails, and anger, and disappointment. No doubt it’ll attract criticism on social media. But it shouldn’t just do this. It should force fans to reflect on themselves and accept that change needs to happen.

A New Future for Fans

The majority of fans are engaging in a positive way and there is no reason this can’t continue. It just needs to change form. Louder chanting in the crowd. Pre-match displays. Camaraderie in the stands. The players are there to put on a show during the match, not provide post-match entertainment.

In exchange, clubs can then look at other opportunities to host proper meet-and-greet sessions, with managed attendances, better security and a stronger feeling of safety for players. Players who themselves feel less confident about doing it can go along with teammates and feed off their energy.

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Similarly, if they are anxious, they can be excused without being shamed. They are playing football because it is their chosen career. Not because they necessarily wanted to spend their time talking to fans.

It will take time and there will be frustration. But ultimately, it’s about providing a better overall product for the fans. In order to do this, players need to be comfortable and happy. And to get to that stage, clubs may need to make difficult choices about how and when they allow fans to engage.

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