Women’s Super League: A year with no fans

(Photo by Kate McShane/Getty Images)

Today marks the one year anniversary from the last time the Women’s Super League had a full set of matches attended by fans.

Five matches in the WSL – including the exhilarating 3-3 draw between Manchester City and Chelsea. Over 3,500 fans packed into he Academy Stadium in Manchester. Similarly, almost 2,000 fans attended the game between West Ham and Liverpool.

Women’s teams then had an international break and – with the exception of the Continental Cup Final a week later – this would be the final time fans would attend matches for a long, long time.

Plenty has been written about what happened next, which eventually led to the premature termination of last season. This was followed by the tentative start of the current campaign.

But who could have honestly predicted that we’d still be playing games behind closed doors one year on?

Football clubs, players and fans have all been impacted. Mental wellbeing for all involved is very much on the agenda. But the impact is actually far wider.

The Clubs’ Perspective

Most women’s football teams are very dependent on their parent men’s club. Without this financial support, it’s fair to say that most women’s teams would struggle to survive.

All clubs would like their women’s teams to be self-sustainable. The long-term aim being that all their outgoings, such as wages and expenses, are covered by the income they receive directly.

Sam Kerr for Chelsea with fans | (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

This direct income comes from TV broadcasters, sponsorship, commercial activities, merchandise and ticket sales. If clubs are lucky they may also receive an income on any player sales.

Preliminary figures show that clubs are losing a substantial proportion of their income. Evidence shows sponsors are far less likely to invest if their ROI is likely to be severely impacted.

How do the Players feel?

For most WSL and Championship players, playing 12 months with no fans has been extremely tough. They go to training several days a week and then come the weekend, it’s game day.

Playing in an empty stadium with no fans must definitely take its toll. No one to cheer you on or shout messages of support. Who’s going to pick you up when you go behind? Where are the fans waiting for a selfie or autograph at the end of the game?

Mentally, it must be tough. At least the players get to celebrate their goals and victories with beaming smiles. Photographers have captured these precious moments but the other times must be testing.

Fans in Tiers

In December, the government said fans would be allowed to attend games in small numbers depending on where the club was located.

The idea was that areas where there are fewer Covid-19 infections would be able to have a limited number of fans attend. However, the inconsistencies and differences in the interpretation of these rules meant this idea ended in tears.

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Some clubs like Arsenal put out a statement that for their game against Birmingham City, tickets would only be available to home fans. Did that mean, for example, any Arsenal fans living in Milton Keynes or Oxford would be allowed to attend, but then any Birmingham fans living in London or Hertfordshire could not?

A New Hope

With the vaccine programme rolling out so quickly, there is a new hope once more. Whether fans will return to grounds before the season is out however, remains to be seen.

Supporters clubs of various teams have been organising impromptu get-togethers. Online of course, for a pre-match chat. Feedback from fans has been very positive as supporters have missed that connection.

Social media has also played its part in maintaining that connection between the fans and the players. Supporters are very grateful for the FA Player showing the games for free. The quality may not be as good as the BBC or BT Sport but at least they can watch their team play.

This week it was revealed that fans will not be allowed back into WSL stadiums before May. This means it could potentially be 18 months before supporters can return, if they start next season in August. This will be equally hard for the fans, the players and the clubs themselves.

In the end, nothing matches the thrill and experience of a live match day with fans inside the stadium. One year on from those big crowd WSL matches and clubs, players and fans are yearning for that day to come again.

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