Women’s football needs to maximise star power and target kids if it is to truly grow

Katie Wilkinson of Sheffield United tackles Steph Houghton of Manchester City during the The FA Women's Continental League Cup match at the Proact Stadium, Chesterfield. (Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage)
Katie Wilkinson of Sheffield United tackles Steph Houghton of Manchester City during the The FA Women's Continental League Cup match at the Proact Stadium, Chesterfield. (Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage)
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Sports marketing 101 is that you build your sport around the biggest names.

At Chesterfield’s Proact Stadium on a bitingly cold last Wednesday evening, some of the biggest names in English women’s football were on show.

Alethea Paul of Sheffield United passes the ball forward as Georgia Stanway looms on (Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage)

Alethea Paul of Sheffield United passes the ball forward as Georgia Stanway looms on (Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage)

Ellen White, England Lionesses’ World Cup goalscoring heroine last summer.

Steph Houghton, the Lionesses captain whose domination of her defence brings back memories of Tony Adams in his Arsenal pomp.

And up front, buzzing around with the all the energy of a 21-year-old, Georgia Stanway, the player poised to have a big year in Phil Neville’s national team.

Those three were part of a Manchester City Women’s team in town for the Continental League Cup quarter-final with Sheffield United Women, Carla Ward’s plucky part-timers who were beaten 4-0 but by no means humiliated by their vaunted opponents.

Impressionable children are open-minded and ripe for attracting.

Nick Westby

Sitting in the press box at the Proact, looking out at three empty stands, it was hard not to think that this was an opportunity missed, and wonder whether the game’s authorities are doing enough to cash in on the new-found fame of the likes of White, Houghton and Stanway.

Granted, these three Lionesses are not show ponies, and can’t be trotted out every time the sport needs selling as if they are public property.

Furthermore, Manchester City are in the business of winning trophies at men’s level and in the women’s game – so will select their team based on that criteria, not based on who they think the fans want to see.

But still, when we are talking about sports that are battling for column inches, air time and bums on seats – whether it be women’s football, ice hockey, basketball or even rugby league in the south – there is a duty on the game’s authorities to maximise the potential.

I say this when viewing it through a personal spectrum.

Last summer, my five-year-old son fell in love with football through watching the women’s World Cup.

To him, it was irrelevent that the women’s game is not as well financed, not as well supported and not as well documented as the men’s game.

He simply wanted to watch football, whoever was playing.

If that game between Sheffield United and Manchester City had been scheduled for a Sunday at 2pm, as the majority of women’s Super League and Championship games are played, then I would have taken him along to watch, thus bringing to life in front of his young eyes the women he had watched on television last summer.

Because that is the audience women’s football should be targeting – school kids.

Hand out freebies to all the schools across Sheffield – or whichever town or city your team represents – play the games on Sunday afternoons and let’s build an atmosphere, let’s build a fanbase from the very bottom.

I’ve said it before in this column, the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to women’s football is not going to be won against my generation (turning 40 thank you very much), the one below me (20-somethings) or the one beyond me (closer to mid-50s than I’d like).

We already have our teams, our heroes. Our hearts and minds were captured years ago.

We may still be swayed, but we shouldn’t be the target audience. Impressionable children who are open-minded and ripe for attracting should be.

And it’s cheap as well, for which Sheffield United deserve enormous credit.

The game against City, the one versus their Championship promotion rivals Aston Villa three days earlier and the FA Cup tie with another Super League team in Birmingham City at the Proact Stadium this coming Sunday, was priced very competitively at £5 for adults, £3 concessions and free for season ticket holders.

But it was on a school night, kicking off at 7.30pm. There was a healthy attendance of 1,521 in the main stand at Chesterfield’s Proact that Wednesday night, but how many other mothers and fathers like myself did not go because it was a school night and not a Sunday afternoon?

How many would have gone had it been the daytime on a weekend? I reckon we’re talking a 300-person swing, not massive but probably another 20 per cent on the gate.

Last summer’s World Cup in France and subsequent games at the major footballing venues in this country may have attracted sellout crowds, but in general they are isolated cases.

The norm is a few thousand on the gate for Super League games, and 1,000 to 1,500 for Sheffield United Women on the occasions they move away from their home at the Olympic Legacy Park and put on promotional offers at Bramall Lane or the Proact.

Growing the women’s game to the point where the gap between that and the men’s game has disappeared altogether is going to take a generation.

So don’t aim it at my generation, target the one you can affect most. Build affinities with children that last their lifetime. Don’t bother with midweek fixtures in January. If the competitions demand it then get rid of one of the two cups. Aim for quality over quantity and the standard of the product on the field – not that it was lacking on Wednesday night – will rise.

Play games on Sundays only, when families can get to it, when there are fewer sports – men’s football mainly – vying for your interest.

Ellen White, Steph Houghton and all 22 players deserved to be playing in front of more than 1,500 on a cold Wednesday night.

Give them centre stage and build a new fanbase.