On Saturday afternoon more than 50,000 fans will descend on Twickenham Stadium to not only watch England’s final match of the Women’s Six Nations against France but also be part of history. Because the fixture is set to smash all previous records for attendances at a women’s rugby match and set a new standard in the sport just two years out from the next Rugby World Cup on these shores.
But this is not an isolated example. Tickets to watch the Lionesses at Wembley have been like gold dust as the nation’s top footballers prepare for the Women’s World Cup down in Australia and New Zealand later this year. And with the Women’s Ashes being staged alongside the men’s for the first time in England this summer, tickets for the iconic cricket series are selling fast.
Women’s sport litmus test
So in a year where there’s no major tournament in this country to anchor women’s sport to, is what some are describing as a litmus test providing positive results?
“We’ve been planning the Twickenham fixture against France for some time now and worked hard to secure the investment needed to put the game on at the home of English Rugby,” Alex Teasdale, the Rugby Football Union’s women’s game director, told City A.M.
“The fact that over 50,000 spectators are due to come and watch England’s women in their first standalone fixture at Twickenham Stadium next weekend is testament to the swell in fanbase we are starting to see.”
Beth Barrett-Wild, director of the women’s professional game at the England and Wales Cricket Board, agrees.
“This summer will be bigger than ever for women’s cricket. Ticket sales are absolutely flying, with over 65,000 fans having already secured their seats to watch England women in action,” she said.
More than ever
“That’s more tickets than we’ve ever sold for international women’s cricket in a season, all before a ball has been bowled.
“Big passionate crowds, filling big, historic venues like Lord’s, Edgbaston, and the Oval is exactly the vision for the future of the women’s game that we want to see.”
But the truth is that professional women’s sport in this country wouldn’t be able to boast such promising numbers if it was not for those bigger tournaments, and last year’s Women’s Euros is the shining example of this.
On the back of the Lionesses’ victory at Wembley, season ticket numbers rocketed for many Women’s Super League clubs. But it went beyond the surface, also penetrating down into the women’s footballing pyramid.
Grassroots clubs have benefitted too, with the number of girls participating in sport rising.
“The Euros helped give domestic women’s football a boost this season, however I would credit that more to the inspiring performance of the Lionesses who really captured the imagination of many young girls, and the nation, to a great extent,” Sarah Batters, director of partnerships and marketing at WSL2 club Southampton, told City A.M.
“At Southampton, we experienced a staggering 180 per cent increase in season ticket sales year-on-year, and an incredible 236 per cent rise in attendance year-on-year, with an average of 2,000 fans per game following the women’s Euros.
“While the Women’s World Cup won’t be taking place on our home turf, it presents a fantastic opportunity to further raise awareness of women’s football.”
But it’s not all plain sailing on the south coast, with Batters explaining that there are still issues to overcome.
“Women’s football is set back by the fixture scheduling challenge with the men’s game,” she added.
“We’ve found that the current typical Sunday scheduling can be a real barrier to attendance, especially as this is the time that many grassroots girls teams play, and so finding a way to address that will really help grow the game.
“Collaborations and partnerships within the women’s football community will also go a long way in raising general awareness.”
And that is being seen this weekend in south west London. Sponsors are beginning to sew men’s and women’s sport into one patchwork of a marketing campaign, branding themselves not as a company for one or the other but for everybody and therefore marketing to a wider audience.
“Women’s sport is only going in one direction, and that is up,” added Virgin Media O2’s director of partnerships and sponsorships Gareth Griffiths.
“Our approach and strategy has been a huge part of this positive shift to drive awareness of the Red Roses, including our commitment of spend parity and equal prominence for both the men’s and women’s teams in our marketing campaigns.
“Through our new partnership with the RFU and the Women’s Sport Trust, we have big ambitions to sell out Twickenham Stadium – we’re calling it the ‘Journey to 82’ – and help close the gender awareness gap in rugby.”
Barrett-Wild is involved in a similar campaign with the ECB, which is jointly marketing the men’s and women’s series against Australia as “Ashes, two Ashes”.
“Showcasing and positioning the Ashes alongside each other is another example of how we see the sport in the future,” she added.
“This is something that we have been able to really turbocharge through the launch of The Hundred over the last two years, with the men’s and women’s teams playing back to back, on the same day, in the same venues and for the same prize money in that competition.
“We’ve seen the reaction of the nation to getting behind the Lionesses and the Red Roses in recent times. We are now looking forward to throwing cricket’s doors open, and welcoming record-breaking crowds to support Heather Knight and her England team, as they take on Australia.”
‘People are watching us more and more’
But what do the players think? Jade Konkel-Roberts of Allianz Premier 15s side Harlequins, who host an annual “Game Changer” women’s match at The Stoop, said: “People want to see more [women’s sport], you’ve got the Six Nations that is now on TV as well. So it’s accessible, people are watching more and more.
“And I think because you’ve got your international players at clubs more often this year, hopefully people will keep coming back to watch because it’s going to be a high standard no matter what game it is.”
Women’s sport is changing in the UK, and it is becoming its own beast. The tickets are cheaper and the access is greater, but this summer remains a litmus test. Success can be measured in multiple ways, but bums on seats will prove that Britain doesn’t need a major multinational event to show that it’s a sucker for women’s sport.