English women's league returns banking on World Cup payoff

Kieran CANNING
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England and Arsenal's Beth Mead (left) is excited at the prospect of playing in England's biggest stadiums this season

England's Women's Super League (WSL) commences this weekend hoping to ride the wave of interest that accompanied the Lionesses run to the semi-finals of the World Cup and keep fans coming back for more.

For the first time Manchester United are part of a 12-team top-tier, making up England's largest ever professional women's league, and start with a local derby on Saturday that will be held at Manchester City's Etihad stadium.

Chelsea also host Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as the WSL follows the examples in Spain and Italy last season when Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Juventus drew huge grounds for one-off matches at the home of their men's teams.

West Ham take on Spurs at the London Stadium, home of the 2012 Olympic Games, next month, while Tottenham face defending WSL champions Arsenal at the club's new state-of-the-art 62,000 capacity stadium in November.

"It shows how far it is moved on," Arsenal and England forward Beth Mead told AFP.

"It is showing that movement in the women's game, that interest and clubs backing it to allow you to play in the big stadiums and hopefully try and get as many people there as possible.

"It is exciting for us and exciting for new people coming to watch the women's game."

Mead was part of the England side that caught the imagination of a nation this summer.

A dramatic World Cup semi-final defeat to the United States for Phil Neville's women was the most watched television event of the year so far in the United Kingdom, attracting a peak audience of 11.7 million.

"It blew us away and we got a better reach of audience every time we played. I guess we are doing something right," added Mead.

The English Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn said the tournament had moved women's football "to an absolute mainstream sport," but there remains doubt over what size of audience it can capture on a week-to-week basis.

Last season, average attendances for WSL games were less than 1,000 and despite growing revenue, most clubs are running at a loss.

The hope is times are changing and more money will flow from rising gate receipts, commercial and TV deals.

Barclays have paid over £10 million ($12 million) to sponsor the league over the next three seasons, while the first overseas TV rights deals for the WSL were agreed this week with Sky Mexico and Scandinavian broadcaster NENT.

- 'Dreamland' -

Chelsea's decision to offer free entry for the match against Tottenham was met with some criticism, but the club believe the knock on impact will prove positive in the long run and all tickets were claimed within four days.

"We’re starting with a home game in front of a sell-out crowd, which is dreamland for us, and we’re doing that on the back of this entire football club working so hard to make it happen," said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes on Thursday.

"Winning on the pitch is not enough for us because winning off the pitch is just as important.

"We have the opportunity to introduce the game to lots of new fans, to have an excitement and buzz around the women’s game."

However, not all are in favour of the one-off spectacles in big stadiums.

Manchester United manager and former England international Casey Stoney thinks a bottom-up approach would be better.

"From my experience whenever I've seen games at men's grounds, the following game they've got the same number of fans as the week before," Stoney, whose side play at the 12,000 capacity Leigh Sports Village, told the BBC.

"From my point of view they've got to invest in marketing. Fill out our own home grounds consistently, get a level of attendance there rather than pitching it at a big ground, which costs an awful lot of money to open, which could be invested in other things."