Presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray made little attempt to contain schoolboy giggles when they presented brief highlights of the Women’s FA Cup final as a short aside before wrapping up their Premier League show 19 years ago.
How times have changed. The growth in stature of women’s football in the years since is evident in the starkly contrasting coverage of England Women at this summer’s Women’s European Championships in Holland on Channel 4.
The Lionesses have attracted millions of viewers on their way to the cusp of a quarter-final place, even supplanting ubiquitous reality show du jour Love Island in terms of viewing figures.
Around 2m viewers are thought to have tuned in to catch England’s opening game against Scotland last week. In their curtain-raiser against Spain four years earlier, just 842,000 watched the Lionesses live on BBC 3.
The women’s game is still riding a wave that swelled two years ago when Mark Sampson’s side arrested public attention by recording the best World Cup performance by a senior England team since 1966: a semi-final place.
Despite kicking off at midnight UK time, a peak audience of 2.4m stayed up to watch an agonising injury-time loss to Japan at the penultimate hurdle.
Women’s football was now a mainstream must-have and executives at Channel 4 were persuaded to take on more traditional sport broadcasters such as the BBC for the rights to this year’s tournament.
“We were looking at the World Cup previously on the BBC and seeing how women’s football had been growing in popularity, growing in interest but also upping its standard of play,” Channel 4’s commissioning editor for sport Stephen Lyle told City A.M.
“It’s quite alluring for us to get an international football tournament where there could be some Home Nations success. You could see the country getting behind it and, in terms of the standard of play and the spectacle, it will probably be the best one yet.”
As well as prompting serious interest from broadcasters, the media exposure of the 2015 World Cup contributed to a 48 per cent increase in FA Women’s Super League attendances for that year. Growth slowed last season but crowds still rose five per cent.
Publicity pushes by the Football Association for high-profile matches have also paid off. The attendance for the women’s FA Cup final more than doubled to 30,710 following the World Cup and rose again to 35,271 for Manchester City’s dominant 4-1 win over Birmingham in May.
With the Lionesses already showing signs they will rally the same level of public support, if not even greater, for their campaign at the World Cup, the challenge for the sport is to leverage the rare level of exposure to generate a similar legacy in the coming years.
Kelly Simmons, participation and development director at the FA, helped architect the FA’s “game plan for growth” which is aiming to double both the number of girls and women playing football and the number of fans for the women’s game by 2020.
More resources and investment have been set aside this year than were available in 2015, while a digital “Salute” campaign — supported by pop group Little Mix — connects girls to local clubs.
Simmons identifies “cultural barriers” as still being one of the biggest roadblocks to girls getting involved in the sport — blocks that a successful Lionesses team occupying TV screens can pave a way through.
“The Lionesses doing well puts women’s football in that shop window,” Simmons told City A.M.
“It’s high-profile, it was trending on Twitter and 2m people watched on Channel 4 for both games. It helps to challenge perceptions that football isn’t for girls.
“There’s been a big shift in general in how the media covers women’s sport and I think we’ve seen that mainly since the 2012 Olympics.
“Previously it was very kind of ad-hoc and it would probably be stories about the top stars and about their lives or their appearance more than their sporting performance sometimes.”
Even if the FA falls short of its ambitious goals or the Lionesses suffer an early exit, the European Championships have already shown that women’s football should no longer have to worry about highlights snippets being soundtracked by mockery.