The Women’s Super League (WSL), established in 2010, is run by the Football Association (FA) and currently features 12 professional teams. The competition is one of the first fully professional women’s leagues worldwide, alongside the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the United States.
The inaugural season in 2011 began with very low attendances, and the commercial footprint of the league was minimal. However, over the last 10 years, the league has gone from strength to strength, with the WSL attracting many of the world’s best players, record-breaking crowds, and highly recognized brands such as Nike and EA Sports as partners. Most recently, the league has enjoyed a leap in popularity after the success of the England team in winning their first major honor, the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 tournament, on home soil.
After years of slow progress, the WSL took off commercially by signing a historic media deal during the 2021-22 season. The FA announced a multi-million-pound agreement with Sky Sports and the BBC reportedly worth $11.09 million across three seasons, with Sky broadcasting up to 44 live matches per year and the BBC showing 22. The director of the FA described the deal as a “landmark moment for the women’s game and a massive breakthrough for women’s sport and women’s soccer.”
That same season, before the heroics of the Lionesses, the WSL generated average league match attendances of 1,924 fans, with Manchester United having the highest average attendance of all the teams with 3,567 over 11 home matches. Birmingham City and Reading, on the other hand, both averaged attendances below 1,000, lower than teams competing in the National League, the fifth tier of men’s soccer in England. There remained a substantial gap in popularity between many sides in the WSL. Arsenal and Chelsea both secured strong attendances of over 2,900 spectators.
The 2022 UEFA Women’s Euro will forever be remembered for changing the face of women’s soccer as the tournament smashed many historic records. A record-breaking 87,192 people attended the final in which England defeated Germany at Wembley. By comparison, 28,182 spectators watched the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro final in the Netherlands when the home nation beat Denmark.
In 2022, 85% of spectators who attended matches throughout the tournament stated that they would likely attend professional international and domestic women’s soccer events again in the future, a figure that has proven accurate with the rise in WSL attendances this season.
The Euros also achieved a significant increase in the value of its media rights, which provides a strong indication that, with accelerating interest in women’s soccer, especially in England, the WSL should also expect a sharp increase in the value of its own rights. This will allow for much-needed commercial growth and a more attractive proposition for brands looking to become associated with arguably the best women’s league in the world.
The European Championship attendances have had a hugely positive knock-on effect in increasing WSL crowds as well as the overall popularity of women’s soccer in the United Kingdom. As of December 9, 2022, almost 300,000 fans watched live WSL games across the 2022-23 season, a significant increase from the same stage last year.
The highest attendance so far has been at the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur which was played in front of 47,367 fans. Four teams in the WSL are averaging crowds of over 10,000 fans: Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea.
Three-time WSL winners Arsenal average the highest attendance. They play the majority of their matches at Borehamwood Football Club, however, the team also play some games at the Emirates Stadium, home of the men’s side. Being able to host matches in a 60,260-capacity stadium offers the women’s team the opportunity to play in front of tens of thousands of fans.
So far this season, the WSL has attracted an average of around 6,000 fans per game across the league, which is a 200% increase on the 2021-22 season. This provides clear evidence that England’s hosting of the women’s Euro, along with the success of the national team and the quality of the top internationally recruited teams in the WSL, powerfully increased in women’s soccer and especially the WSL.
The WSL will hope to continue the trend of rising attendances for many years to come as interest in the women’s game develops and fans become regular attendees at matches and build a closer connection with the teams. Women’s soccer is expected to continue to flourish and rise in popularity across the world. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is likely to break attendance records as ticket sales have exceeded expectations.
The WSL will be looking for another tournament success for the Lionesses to further boost participation and interest in women’s soccer, including the domestic competitions and especially from a younger demographic. Young people in UK cities with flourishing WSL clubs such as London and Manchester will be inspired to go and watch their local team, hopefully becoming part of a large loyal fanbase in the long term.
A key factor in growing attendances for WSL matches going forward will be to increase the number of matches played at clubs’ main stadiums.
Image: Gareth Copley/Getty Images