As the Premier League season gets back into its rhythm following the immense energy and investment put into Project Restart, it is easy to look at the cancellation of the Women’s Super League with disdain, especially in light of women’s football restarting elsewhere.
After the World Cup in France last year provided a catalyst for a record-breaking WSL season, we saw attendances and viewers up, technology such as the FA player taking the game to new audiences, and players becoming household names across the country.
It was therefore disappointing to see the fanfare and effort put into getting the men’s game back in comparison with the women, who saw cancellation for the top two tiers, and a nulling and voiding for those below, not least for Sunderland AFC Ladies who were about to be promoted to the Championship having been runaway leaders of the National League North all season.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stood up at a press conference and announced that football is back, but in reality, only men’s football is. Young girls who are dreaming of playing football when they are older will only see professional men’s football on their screens until autumn.
Concern about the lack of return for women’s football, and for women’s sport in general, is reflected in research conducted by the charity Women in Sport. Its research found that 69% of respondents, who are engaged in sport in some way, believe women’s sport is at greater risk than men’s during this crisis and 52% agreed the visibility of women’s sport is at a greater risk of being lost than men’s.
But it is important to remember the sport will not be starting from scratch when it finally returns. It will be building on the success of the Lionesses, on the incredible games that took place last season with record-breaking crowds and viewers, and on the hard work of so many in the industry who have been working to advance the sport for years.
As reported in the FA Gameplan for Growth 2017-20 final review, the increasing numbers involved in the sport are remarkable. Participation in women’s football has doubled to more than 12,000 teams, the average attendances at WSL and Lionesses games have doubled, and at grassroots levels more than 6,000 schools are receiving support on girls’ football alongside 1,600 FA Wildcat centres.
The report also announced that 2.4 million women and 1 million girls are playing football in England, with a huge growth in the number of female coaches and referees – a remarkable achievement.
It is through proper attention and investment in grassroots football, to bring equality in access to space and opportunity, that we will ensure women’s football has a bright future. In a combined approach, alongside increased visibility of the sport to build on the 11.4 million people who watched England fall short against the eventual world champions at the World Cup, the sport will build and strengthen.
When the WSL gets going again in September, the same weekend that gave such a successful start to the season last year, it will be the start of a new season of opportunity but also of risk. While the gains and progress have been huge, the momentum has been essential, and we cannot let up in pursuit of progress in the sport. The current situation may seem bleak but the future is bright.
Julie Elliott is the Labour MP for Sunderland Central, and a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee