We must not allow women’s football to fade away during lockdown - Sue Smith

Lots of sports and clubs are under threat because of the economic effects of coronavirus, but I worry particularly about women’s sports.

England Women's footballers at the World Cup helped raise the game's profile.

So much progress has been made in the last few years encouraging girls to play more sport, and I just hope momentum is not about to be lost.

Women’s football has made huge strides since the last World Cup and although other sports arguably deserve it more because of the success they have had, football has done a great job of keeping itself in the public eye, which will be really important.

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The higher profile has drawn in new sponsors but at a lot of levels they are the local businesses struggling badly themselves. The issues are the same as in the lower- and non-leagues of men’s football but women’s sport was just starting to make important breakthroughs in getting girls exercising more regularly.

England's Fran Kirby.

It is something I am very passionate about.

Before I started working full-time in the media I would regularly go into schools and encourage the children, boys and girls, to take part in physical activity. The benefits go beyond the physical benefits, they learn communication and teamwork.

Crowds, participation and coverage have grown in women’s football this season, but the question is whether it is self-sustainable. I am not worried about the hardened fans but maybe some of the newer ones who only got into it on the back of the last World Cup.

I also worry the women’s game is still very dependent on the men’s. I wrote recently about the impact on Leeds United when chairman Ken Bates cut our women’s team adrift, and it has happened to AFC Fylde this year. There was uproar on social media, but they said they had no choice. I just hope some of the many other clubs who now have women’s sides attached do not decide to go down that route.

Struggling men’s clubs are going to have to make unpopular decisions for the good of their clubs and if a businessman or woman looks at the books, their heart might say one thing, their business brain another.

People are looking at different things to do in lockdown and beyond, and if girls have nowhere to play football we could lose potential future players.

We could lose current ones too. Female players do not get paid a great deal and if they are not getting their usual bonuses may not be able to pay their bills so will they have to look for another job?

Footballers might not be able to get one which allows them to continue playing part-time and suddenly you have lost some fantastic players and role models. A young girl growing up might want to be a footballer but if she sees her idol cannot play any more will she change her aspirations?

As with the men’s game, it is not just those at the top you worry about, but the clubs below the Women’s Championship too.

It is important to maintain your profile and keep your sport in people’s minds and the women’s footballers have been good at that in lockdown. The FA have also been replaying old games.

I have been trying to do my bit by setting 30-second challenges on Twitter and girls and boys have been posting their efforts, even if it has meant some embarrassing me by beating me at keepy-uppy!

Women’s football is also fortunate we have had our own half-hour version of Sky’s discussion programme every Sunday. I do not think that would even have been considered a year or two ago.

Last week we spoke to Fran Kirby, who a lot of people will have heard of but they might not know the human story. Hopefully a few heard her talk about her illness and now want to see a bit more of her playing.

England’s netball team won gold at the 2008 Commonwealth Games and had a very successful World Cup in Liverpool last year which they were able to translate into league crowds, as women’s football did after the Lionesses reached the semi-finals with record TV viewing figures. Our rugby union team won the Grand Slam in two of the last three completed Six Nations seasons and the cricketers reached last year’s World Twenty20 final having won the 2017 World Cup.

Despite that, football still has the higher profile. We are just a football country, and that is one advantage the game has as it tries to come through this.