Attendances in women’s football have undergone a remarkable rise in recent years and, across the world, records have tumbled.
At the Camp Nou, Barcelona Femení set consecutive world records for the highest attendance at a women’s football match, with 91,648 fans watching the Catalans take on VfL Wolfsberg earlier this year; England women’s broke the record for the highest attendance at a Lionesses’ home fixture in 2019, with 77,768 – and even Newcastle United smashed its attendance record in its first game at St. James’ Park, with 22,134 watching its match in the fourth-tier of English women’s football.
The demand, in Europe especially, has never been higher, which is why eyebrows have been raised over the stadiums selected to host the Women’s European Championship currently taking place in England.
Critics argue that the English Football Association (FA) and UEFA, European football’s governing body, have not seized the moment.
Although the 10 host venues include such behemoths as Wembley Stadium and Old Trafford – which will host one match each – games will also be played at the 8,000-seat Leigh Sports Village stadium and the 12,000-seat New York Stadium in Rotherham.
The smallest host stadium is the Manchester City Academy Stadium, part of the English Premier League club’s state-of-the-art training complex, which has a capacity of just 4,700. Like the Leigh Sports Village stadium, which is in Greater Manchester, capacity is limited due to regulations preventing standing areas.
‘A little bit disappointed’
The first of three matches to take place at the Manchester City Academy Stadium, home to Manchester City’s women’s team, is Belgium’s Group D match against Iceland on July 10.
In April, Juventus and Iceland midfielder Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir told the ‘Their Pitch’ podcast that she was “a little bit disappointed” at the choice of stadium.
“It’s shocking. Playing in England, there are so many stadiums and we have a training ground from City taking what, 4,000 spectators?” Gunnarsdóttir said.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s not the respect (we deserve). Watch women’s football today, they are filling out the stadiums. You see Barcelona and Madrid, 95,000 watching the game (at the Camp Nou). They are not prepared that we will sell more tickets than 4,000.
“It’s disrespectful towards women’s football because it’s so much bigger than people think. You think women’s football is getting two steps ahead, but then something comes up like that, it’s just a step back.”
Rachel O’Sullivan, women’s football expert and co-founder of media outlet Girlsontheball, said that the choice of two sub-10,000 capacity stadiums for a major tournament was a “little bit unambitious.”
“There has been a bit of a habit in the women’s game of not expecting it to be so big and not expecting it to grow the way it is,” O’Sullivan, who said she was “disappointed and surprised” when she saw the stadium choices, told CNN Sport.
“If you’re looking at the evidence, it has been growing exponentially – and the 2019 World Cup really showed us that. Many were surprised by the numbers who wanted to take up football and get involved in football – and we shouldn’t be. We should be expecting that.”
Since England made its bid to host Euro 2022 four years ago, the landscape in women’s football has changed drastically.
There has been a World Cup which broke records for attendances and viewing figures – suggesting a new dawn for international women’s football was approaching – as well as massive strides taken in the club game, in Europe in particular.
The 2019 World Cup was watched by approximately 1.12 billion viewers across all platforms – a record audience for the competition. The final between USA and the Netherlands was the most watched Women’s World Cup match ever, with an average live audience of 82.18 million, up by 56% on the 2015 final audience.
However, when the initial Euro 2022 stadium selection process took place in 2019, the FA struggled to find viable venues as clubs and councils were reluctant to put themselves forward, as FA chief executive Mark Bullingham explained last month.
“The absolute truth of it is we did a tender process throughout every major ground and city in the country and there were very few that came forward in wanting to host the Women’s Euros,” Bullingham said in a Zoom interview with reporters.
“We actually had to persuade a few clubs and cities to come forward so we are actually very happy with where we got to.
“We think we have got some brilliant venues, but if you think people were knocking our door down to host matches, that was not the case.”
Since 2019, women’s football has increased in revenue, fanbases and audience, catapulting the sport into a different stratosphere.
As well as Wembley (89,000), Old Trafford (74,000), the Leigh Sports Village and Manchester City Academy Stadium, the other host venues are Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane (30,000), Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium (32,000), Brighton and Hove Albion’s Amex Stadium (30,000), Milton Keynes Dons’ Stadium MK (30,000), Brentford’s Brentford Community Stadium (17,000) and Rotherham United’s New York Stadium.
Women’s football writer Richard Laverty said that if the selection process was to happen now, perhaps for an upcoming World Cup, it might be a completely different story.
“I think if they were doing it now, maybe, they’d pick differently. I think the women’s game has grown so big now, and I think they probably underestimated the demand, maybe from traveling supporters, from neutral supporters, from English supporters,” Laverty told CNN Sport.
Given the rapid growth of the sport, O’Sullivan suggested being ambitious was the only way forward.
“We need to expect it to grow, rather than be surprised every time, because if you look at the stats and you look at the viewing figures over the years and each tournament, it’s only bigger and better every time. And that’s what we should be aiming for.”
The locations of the tournament’s stadia has also been critiqued.
While there is a cluster of stadiums in the northwest and the south – including London – of England, there are none in the midlands or northeast, traditional hotbeds for the sport.
Although the unwillingness of councils and clubs to put themselves forward restricted the FA’s choices, O’Sullivan said it was a “real shame” that none came forward in those regions, in particular the northeast, an area with such a rich footballing history.
But the host stadiums still include four Premier League grounds, the country’s marquee venue – Wembley – a recent top-tier ground and two venues which host Women’s Super League matches, a criteria the FA wanted to include.
And the sell-out final at Wembley is expected to become the biggest attended Euro final in history, men’s or women’s, surpassing the current record of 79,115 set in the men’s European Championship in 1964.
Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, told the Independent in June that the process of stadium selections was one of balance and is something they hope to learn from.
“So did we get the balance right? We will look at it again, but you’ve got a big stadium opening it, you’ve got a big stadium closing it off, at Old Trafford and Wembley,” Campbell said.
“We think we’ve got the balance about right. We’ll have a good look at it at the end and have a check and that is where we are at the moment.”
Despite having two sub-10,000 stadiums at the tournament, UEFA told CNN it is hoping it will be the “biggest women’s European sporting event in history.”
According to a UEFA spokesperson, over 700,000 tickets are available across 31 matches. As of a few days before the beginning of the tournament, over 500,000 tickets had been sold, a record for the Women’s Euros.
With regards to matches being held at Manchester City Academy, UEFA and the FA said the stadium would “generate a great atmosphere worthy of a Women’s Euro.”
“We are confident that many matches will be sold out and are looking forward to more than doubling the total attendance of UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 in the Netherlands and delivering the best ever UEFA Women’s Euro,” UEFA told CNN in an email.
At capacity smaller venues at least provide a better TV spectacle than empty larger arenas.
Both O’Sullivan and Laverty made reference to games played in Nice at the 2019 World Cup which were sparsely attended.
Laverty did think there was “definitely some shortsightedness” when it came to the stadium selections, but said with a good product on the pitch, and capacity stadiums, people would forget the arguments.
“I think once the football starts and stadiums look full, people probably quickly forget about it because you focus on the product on the pitch, and I think this will be the best Women’s Euros ever.”