Football?It's a girl thing

The financial power of the female fan is transforming the way the beautiful game is marketed.
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On the eve of the year's most intense bout of collective football mania, strange things are happening to our national sport. The traditional pastime of the unreconstructed male is getting in touch with its feminine side as never before - with lucrative results for makers of football-related merchandise.

The writing has been on the wall for years: a combination of declining hooliganism since the 1980s and a growing "ladette" culture since the 1990s has resulted in a steady increase in the number of female football fans who, at some matches, now account for as many as 40 per cent of spectators. In the Premiership, 15 per cent of season ticketholders are female, and, on the active side, the number of female footballers registered with the Football Association topped 100,000 for the first time last season.

Hitherto, the most noticeable fruits of this trend have been such female-friendly variations on the theme as Bend it Like Beckham and Footballers' Wives. This year, however, the revolution has spilled into the high street.

Manufacturers are bombarding the market with merchandise targeting women supporters. Adidas-Salomon announced that it would be selling ladies'-cut versions of national team shirts in time for today's kick off of Euro 2004 . Umbro, the sportswear sponsor for the England men's and women's teams, has also sent out 50,000 womenswear items to sports shops in its Euro 2004 collection.

Any number of smaller producers are following suit. There are Euro 2004 charm bracelets, England boob tubes, football-shaped handbags, vests emblazoned with the flag of St George and knickers proclaiming "You've scored".

It is the profitability that enthuses the manufacturers. Cath Ryan, women's brand manager at Umbro, said the proliferation of female football products was primarily attributable to women's propensity to spend more than men: the average female fan will spend £138 on such products each season; men spend little more than £100.

The British market is a particularly receptive one. "The female football market has taken off more in the UK than in any other place in recent years," Ms Ryan said. "It was historically male-dominated but that has changed and football is more than a sport: it's a whole lifestyle now for men and women."

Umbro made women's shirts for the first time last year, before unveiling its new "lifestyle range", including boob tubes and glittery cropped tops, to coincide with Euro 2004. "Feedback has been brilliant," Ms Ryan said. "It doesn't cost much and it's throwaway fashion. That's what female customers like: it's a quick retail fix."

Maureen Hinton, of Verdict Research, the market research group, said that tying the launch to a big tournament was a crucial part of the trend. "It's connected to the rise in popularity of sports among girls and the culture of lads and ladettes. The typical target would be young women who go out drinking on Friday night, Saturday night and probably Sunday night too. Euro 2004 is a very good opportunity for them."

In fact, women have taken an active interest in football for decades. There are records of female fans attending matches as far back as the 1880s. But their numbers have fluctuated in line with the game's respect-ability, increasing in the 1920s, when many grounds were improved, and declining in the 1970s with the advent of hooliganism. There's also a long history of women playing the game. After the First World War, matches involving women players proved hugely popular, with crowds of tens of thousands attending charity matches to raise money for the wounded.

"It was the Americans who first saw the potential of marketing women and football together," says Barbara Jacobs, whose book about the world's first female football stars, The Dick, Kerr's Ladies, is published next month. "In 1922, the women's team were invited to America to make soccer the first sport which would attract women spectators and their families. The Americans were very commercially minded. But it was baseball which became the number one family sports game."

In Britain, meanwhile, the Football Association in 1921 banned the use of its affiliated grounds for women's matches - a ban that remained in place for half a century. This, Ms Jacobs said, "had a big effect, and meant football in the UK has always been a male dominion".

But not, it seems, for much longer. Women have not only reclaimed their place in the game: they are also changing the way it is marketed. John Williams, director of football research at the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester, said: "A lot of this really began to become very prominent during the World Cup in Japan [in 2002] when there was a high concentration of products designed specifically for women. It signifies the way in which modern football has spilled into the arena of celebrity and consumption.

"The interest in football culture is not contained by the sport. The most obvious example is David Beckham. Another signal of this overlap is the fact that football has moved on to the pages of Hello!, OK! and other women's magazines.

Now the feminisation process is extending to television's packaging of the game. From football-fan nurses to a suit-clad businesswoman kicking an apple around the car park, television adverts in the countdown to the Euro 2004 kick-off have already signalled an awareness of the value of attracting women to the game. Once the games start, expect a noticeable femininity to the coverage as well. Gaby Logan from ITV and Hazel Irving from the BBC will be prominent among the presenters, and publicity for the event has been featuring in women's magazines as well as the traditional men's sports publications.

"Football has changed a lot since the 1970s and 80s when it was a very male environment," a spokesman for BBC Sport said. "We're always looking to attract new audiences, women especially, as well as children and whole families. It's a case of trying to attract new people to the game."

Not every man will welcome the idea of women becoming an increasingly powerful market force in a traditionally male sector, but then not every woman will welcome the idea that her sex has succumbed to what was once an exclusively male weakness - the slavish purchasing of expensive football kit. In an informal survey on Regent's Street, central London, several shoppers expressed cynicism.

"It's so obvious the manufacturers are cashing in on the fact that it's trendy for women to like football at the moment," said Natalie Barnes, 21, a student from Eltham and a lifelong supporter of Charlton Athletic. "It's because of the whole ladette culture that women want to try the same things as men. Women are trying to fulfil this ideal and everyone else is cashing in.

"It's a bit insulting to the women who are seriously interested in football and are more interested in the game than buying Euro 2004 bracelets."

Kathryn Andrews, a 30-year-old cabin crew member from London, said: "It's just ripping people off, isn't it? You can see that it's just a quick way to make some money."

Clare Wheare, a 24-year-old trainee doctor from south London, added: "It seems to be a passing fad. You can't imagine women wearing that kind of stuff permanently."

But then, the manufacturers don't want them to: they want them to keep buying new stuff, year after year. And they're reasonably confident that they will.

Ms Hinton said: "If the popularity of football among women continues to grow, then there will be a huge potential in the future for womenswear retailers whenever there are large sporting events."

John Call, a fortysomething stall operator who has worked near Regent Street for more than a decade, said: "It's always the women who spend the money. Women like spending money and the manufacturers know this."

What remains to be seen is whether they will continue to spend when Euro 2004 begins - or whether they will be too busy watching the matches. The manufacturers hope that the Beautiful Activity will prove more irresistible than the Beautiful Game but at least some of the shoppers on Regent Street seemed to find such a prospect unlikely.

"There are lots of women out there who are diehard fans," said Jason Annette, 34, a chef from Manchester. "They understand the passion of the game as well as the offside rule. That surely counts for something beyond shopping?"

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