There have long been calls from Arsenal fans for a landmark women’s match at the Emirates Stadium. But with ticket sales estimated to be at just 7,000 with two days remaining, it’s clear that securing the fixture is only the beginning.
Hosting WSL matches in the men’s stadiums is a battle between optics and sustainable growth. The 2019 North London Derby was a fantastic spectacle. A record-breaking 38,262 fans passed through the turnstiles of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Thousands of tickets were given away to achieve this success and fill the stadium to over 50% capacity. A busy stadium gives a good vision of growth in the women’s game, as well as providing the noisy atmosphere that befits a derby. However, if swathes of those fans were given free tickets, it is not much of a useful indicator of a club’s fanbase.
Reality over fantasy
Taking the opposite approach, Arsenal have not run any large-scale giveaways for their Sunday clash against Chelsea at the Emirates. On Friday, Emma Sanders reported that estimated ticket sales were at around the 7,000 mark. For the opening fixture of two WSL giants, played during the men’s international break, it’s hard not to see this as a disappointment.
Organising such an event is clearly a complex logistical feat. Paying for tickets ascribes value to the game. In other cases (the Manchester Derby at the Etihad in 2019) this has led to a successful turnout. It is also impossible to ignore that the pandemic will have had an effect on these numbers. Many people are still uncomfortable with being in a large crowd or travelling longer distances.
However, the fact remains that vast stadiums like the Emirates can easily swallow up a crowd of that size. That makes it difficult to achieve the charged atmosphere desired by fans and players alike.
With this in mind, when working with smaller crowds in big stadiums, this is an easy win. Any club is missing an open goal if they do not have an allocation for an away end. At most WSL games, like in non-league men’s football, there are no (or only partial) seat reservations. Away fans can therefore congregate together easily on the day. For these one-off fixtures at the men’s grounds, where a ticket means a reserved seat, not organising an away allocation shows a condescending disregard for rivalry in the women’s game.
Kerrie Evans from the Chelsea Women Supporters Group described the difficulties of trying to organise an away block for themselves.
“When seats are reserved then it’s very important to have away allocation. There was a large group of us (115) who wanted to sit together to create an atmosphere and support the team. Trying to book a block was a painful experience.”
Another group organiser, Chris Newell, contacted the box office but was faced with delay after delay. The group resorted to organising their own guerilla away allocation.
“It was getting closer and closer to the game, so we gave up. People bought 10 tickets, as that was the maximum, to try and get as many of us together as possible and tell fans what block to book. The Arsenal box office finally got in touch with us 4 days before the game.”
“We know fans have been put off going to the game as they don’t want to be mixed up with Arsenal fans. Having Chelsea fans in different parts of the ground doesn’t help build atmosphere and rivalry. It’s a London Derby, this wouldn’t happen in the men’s game.”Embed from Getty Images
Football thrives on tribalism
Whilst the comparative lack of violence and abuse in women’s football is something to be celebrated, it does the game a disservice to assume that rival fans should be happy to rub shoulders during a match. Dramatic media campaigns might big up the rivalries, but unless this is materially supported where it matters – at the games – then the narratives don’t translate. It’s more difficult to whip up a chant of “What do we think of Tottenham…?” when there’s a family of four clad in Spurs shirts right next to you.
The WSL is still a league growing into its new and improved form. The quality of football is ever more excellent. The new Sky and BBC deals mean more eyes on the game. More money, more fans, more buzz: all of this is accumulating. In this transitional stage, it is essential to get the basics right. The wrong promotion strategy, COVID-19 and a lack of free tickets may all have played some role in the low estimated crowd for tomorrow’s game. These are complicated issues. An away allocation of distinct seating blocks for visiting Blues fans is a simple one. Not doing so is a glaring oversight.