Phil Neville said it best himself. “There were so many people there, it actually gave you a taste of how big this World Cup is going to be.”
He was looking back on the drained figure that was leaving the La Seine Musicale in Paris after finding out his side would face a mouth-watering clash with Scotland to open their World Cup campaign, followed by tests against Argentina and Japan.
At the time, he had just faced three hours of press and said: “I just want to go home and start planning how to win a World Cup” but in hindsight recognised the importance of the press keeping him so busy, women’s football was making big news.Embed from Getty Images
There is a real sense that this summer represents not only a golden opportunity for the Lionesses to become world champions for the first time but for the profile of the sport as a whole. After years of being seen as an afterthought, women’s football is becoming front and centre.
When you walk down the street, you see Steph Houghton’s face in a shop window, you pick up a Lucozade and there is Nikita Parris or you open your Sunday paper and there is large tournament pull-out.
For journalists such as The Guardian’s Suzy Wrack, who has been following the women’s game from stealing a look at Arsenal training on Shoreditch Park as a child to seeing 20,000 people pack into the AMEX Stadium to give the side a send-off before heading to France, these are exciting times.
“I think it’s going to be a real breakthrough. We’ve had our big supplement come out and we’ve done our expert team by team analysis which we’ve done in collaboration with journalists from the 24 competing nations. These are things we would automatically do for the men’s but haven’t done previously for the women’s and I think that’s a sign of the change.
“That’s a big change even from the 2017 European Championships. If I look at the Guardian’s coverage, we didn’t have a supplement for that, Louise Taylor covered all of the England games from the Netherlands, but she was the only one out there and I was writing blogs from back here.
“This time, we’ve got a really big team going out there. We’re going to have two people at every England game, we usually just send one. We’ve got people covering the US, Australia and the Asian teams from over there and I’m not just covering England games. I’m covering eight games in the first 14 days, so we’re doing quite comprehensive coverage. We’ve also got some of our big journalists accredited to come out there if we need extra help and I know that a lot of papers are treating it similarly seriously; a lot of seasoned men’s journalists are scheduled to come out and participate too.
The Guardian are not the only ones to go big on their coverage though. In March, The Telegraph launched a dedicated women’s sport section after previously hiring Katie Whyatt as their first full-time women’s football writer. Meanwhile, BT and the BBC now have full-time female sports reporters with the later screening a behind-the-scenes look at England’s build-up to the World Cup, England’s World Cup Lionesses. This competition is something that Suzy welcomes though.
“The coverage of women’s football is really going through a revolution at the moment in that an arms race has been started in a really good way.
“It’s been a massive transformation and we’re one of the first to have made the change and started to put resources towards this sport and I’d say we probably have the best quality and volume of coverage anywhere but we’re not the only ones. We’re being pushed and chased by others to constantly up our game That’s great for me as someone who covers the sport but great for the industry and women’s sport generally too.
“There’s little things I’m frustrated by such as when you got someone who’s never covered a women’s game walk before walk into a room and throw their weight around but at the same time it’s good they’re there. There’s a way you can do it, you can be respectful to the people that have been grafting away in that arena and have the knowledge but the fact that their editors are sending people to the game is obviously a good thing.”Embed from Getty Images
The increase in coverage has come amidst growing interest levels in the game from both fans and sponsors. Visa has come on board as the tournament’s full sponsor and has pledged to spend as much on marketing as it did for the men’s tournament in Russia. While ticket sales have topped 720,000 with a target of one billion television viewers set as FIFA seeks to put on the biggest Women’s World Cup in history. This growing support can be seen in the levels of engagement in the media.
“I think it’s more popular now, you can see it in the viewing figures and the hits we get on articles. There’s obviously still a lot of negativity, you get a lot of arguments and people saying we’re forcing it down their throats and they don’t get crowds big enough to justify the coverage but that’s a very small vocal minority and overwhelmingly the feedback is good.
“What I enjoy now is every article that allows comments on the Guardian is pre-moderated, so you get a more serious discussion. You do allow an element of criticism, you just weed out the really negative elements, so you get a genuine discussion about what’s in the article.
“I enjoy going and joining in on those discussions, obviously there is this small layer that is slagging it off just for the sake of slagging it off and that will always be there, every game has that, but you can tune that out and generally there is more positive criticism. I think criticism is good, I enjoy criticism because it helps you clarify and develop your ideas, the only way you have an idea tested is if you’re challenged on it.”
The key for women’s football now is to create a following and maintain that moving forward beyond when a major tournament comes around and England look to have a serious chance of winning it. There are positive signs with Barclays becoming the Women’s Super League title sponsor in a first of its kind deal believed to be worth more than £10m over three seasons but there is still some way to go.Embed from Getty Images
Average attendance in the WSL have dropped since the last World Cup in 2015, this year’s figure of 937 remains lower than the 1,128 recorded two years ago. The World Cup offers a chance for renewed focus on the women’s game and gives the media an opportunity to think outside of the box with its coverage. The majority of the media appear keen to seize this opportunity and Suzy believes that the future of women’s football coverage in the UK is bright.
“I think it’s only going to get bigger, one of the really good things is that women’s sport seems to be one of the very few growth areas in the media. It doesn’t have a history of being reported on, so you’ve got a clean slate to work with. There are no rules to it so you’ve got a little bit of freedom to do things differently and think about what sports coverage should be in the modern day and use women’s sport to be a bit experimental on that score and I think that’s quite exciting.
“Now is really the time to be getting involved. We’ve got so much going on, if England do well enough in this tournament, then we’ve got team GB at Olympics and a year after that a home Euros. They’re two tournaments that will have massive followings and are going to need covering.
“The growth of it has been quantitative, it’s been building for a long time very slowly but I feel like the World Cup and then those two tournaments are going to have quite a qualitative effect on the growth of women’s sports journalism and be big game changing moments.”
Featured Photograph/James Boyes