Women’s football clubs date back to the 1890s in the UK, but the FA banned women’s football in 1921, saying the sport was “quite unsuitable for females” and warning that it should not be “encouraged”. The FA council revoked the ban in 1971.
Prominent charities told The Independent that increasing numbers of Britons had been engaging in the “drama and spectacle” of the Lionesses’ wins as they concluded that their success would inspire more girls to play football.
Data from the Women’s Sports Trust show that 9.5 million viewers tuned in to watch England thrash Sweden 4-0 earlier this week, setting the record for the most-watched UK sports programme this year.
The viewing peak surpassed the previous record of the men’s FA Cup Final earlier this year, which attracted 8.2 million viewers.
The 2022 Women’s Euros has already smashed records for viewers and crowd numbers, and the Lionesses – the nickname given to the England women’s national football team – are due to take on Germany in the final at Wembley in front of a sell-out audience of more than 87,000 people on Sunday.
Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of Women in Sport, told The Independent: “You could see the Lionesses were carrying a weight on their shoulders at the Euro semi-finals on Tuesday night, which was expressed on the faces and through the emotions of the players at the final whistle.
“This was about more than winning a game; this was about overturning a history of exclusion of women.”
Ms Hilborne said its research had found that twice as many boys as girls have aspirations to make it to the upper tiers of sport, with just three in 10 girls expressing this wish compared with six in 10 boys.
“It’s now that we hope to see a significant shift as the nation comes together to celebrate history in the making,” she said. “It’s so brilliant that so many men and boys are wrapped up in the drama and spectacle of women’s football because respect for women’s capability in sport is aligned to respecting women’s lives more widely”.
She expressed the hope that women’s football would metamorphose into “its own game in its own right” as a result of its high quality.
“What we do know is that, if there is a gender-equal leadership within sport, the culture is more likely to stay positive,” Ms Hilborne said. “There is no reason for the women’s game to follow the same route as the men’s game. In fact, there should be a conscious effort to make it unique in its own right.”
Ceylon Andi Hickman of Football Beyond Borders, a charity that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, told The Independent that “a step change” had occurred during the Women’s Euros as the demographic of viewers and commentators diversified.
“The atmosphere in the stadiums has been electric,” added Ms Hickman, who has been to most of the England games during the tournament.
“It has been so noisy – like a party. Pre-match at the semi-finals, there was a sound system and DJs in the stadium – they were playing Whitney Houston’s song ‘I Want to Dance with Somebody’ and everyone was going nuts to it. They were playing Harry Styles at half time and Dua Lipa at the whistle. Teenage girls were going mad.”
The campaigner, who spearheads the girls’ programme in schools, noted that the crowd at women’s football is “more inclusive” than the audience at men’s games.
“A lot of people want to take kids to women’s football as you don’t have the toxicity or the potential risk. The crowd cuts across demographics,” she added.
“That is what the step change of this tournament is. You are not just seeing the usual suspects in stadiums, or discussing it on Twitter or writing about it in articles. You are seeing a whole new audience in stadiums. You could be a six-year-old or a 70-year-old woman.”
Ms Hickman, who previously ran the women’s football apprentice programme at the FA, said that men’s football would often see specific chants shouted at German players, but this was highly unlikely to happen in the women’s final against Germany.
She also argued the Lionesses’ success in the Euros could lead to increased interest from investors and sponsors, as well as encouraging more girls to start playing football.
“We are seeing a culmination of years of resources, energy and money,” Ms Hickman said. “We are getting to know the players.”
But she warned against women’s football following the lead of men’s football and becoming overly corporate or alienating grassroots fans through extortionate ticket prices.
“That is a massive risk,” Ms Hickman added. “With any product, demand gets higher, people see changes, and that takes away some of the things that have been so brilliant about the women’s game. It is a duty of the people who govern and propel the game to ensure they safeguard the things that make women’s football brilliant.”
Tammy Parlour, chief executive of the Women’s Sports Trust, said the strong viewing figures for the Lionesses’ games in the Euros showed that women’s football could attract new audiences, as she hailed the “massive spike of interest”.
“The great thing is that the broadcast numbers speak for themselves,” she added. “It attracts more sponsors, more brand engagement, more stability for the domestic game. With women’s sport, the fans tend to be more engaged and more interested.”
Ms Parlour, who co-founded the trust after the 2012 summer Olympics in London, added: “As women’s sport has grown, so have we. It is utterly exciting to see where we have come from.
“It feels like a definite momentum has been created with women’s football. We are in a place where it is only going to get bigger. It is a really exciting place to be. Barriers are being knocked down. People are being given the opportunity to do something they love.”
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