The most eagerly anticipated and loudly trumpeted Women’s Super League (WSL) season kicks off this evening when Manchester United host Reading.
Ten years on from the first WSL campaign, the expectation is that this season will be the most-watched and potentially the most compelling yet.
That is thanks in large part to a landmark TV deal, which has fuelled the hype, but also an ever-strengthening array of top teams led by back-to-back champions Chelsea.
Here is why the 2021-22 Women’s Super League season promises to be the biggest and best yet.
The TV deal: Why £20m Sky and BBC contract breaks new ground
For the first time, Sky and BBC are paying fees to the Football Association for the rights to show live WSL games, rather than merely covering production costs as in the past.
This landmark three-year deal is worth more than £20m, making it the biggest of any in women’s football league in the world.
Sky will show two matches per week, including tonight’s opener on its Main Event channel, and have hired trailblazing broadcaster Jacqui Oatley to front their coverage, with Karen Carney as lead pundit.
The BBC will carry one Women’s Super League game a week, the vast majority of which will be on BBC1 or BBC2.
History will be made on Saturday lunchtime when Everton’s clash with Manchester City becomes the first domestic women’s league fixture shown on network free-to-air TV.
The teams: Chelsea face challenge from Man City, Arsenal and Man Utd
Chelsea underlined their status as the WSL’s team to beat by retaining their title and reaching the Champions League final last season.
The Blues, helmed by Emma Hayes, whose straight-talking punditry proved a hit at Euro 2020, start as the even-money favourite with bookmakers.
Manchester City pushed them all the way last term, taking the title down to the last weekend, and are expected to mount another sustained challenge.
Arsenal and Manchester United, third and fourth in 2020-21, again look the most likely to gatecrash the top two, although Everton have shown their ambition in the transfer market.
Leicester City, who will play most of their home games at the King Power Stadium, are Women’s Super League newcomers following their promotion from the Championship.
The players: WSL attracting more global stars than ever
English football has become the leading destination for the stars of women’s football, with the WSL sending more players to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics than the US NWSL.
That status has only been cemented by a busy summer of transfer activity that has seen most of the top sides strengthen.
Chelsea have signed Lauren James, brother of men’s Blues defender Reece, to a fearsome forward line that already includes Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder.
City, who boast England stars Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Ellen White, have lured Barcelona captain Vicky Losada and Alanna Kennedy to offset some notable departures.
Arsenal, under new Swedish manager Jonas Eidevall, may have done the best business. The 2019 WSL champions have recruited England forward Nikita Parris, Japan’s Mana Iwabuchi and US World Cup winner Tobin Heath to a side spearheaded by deadly Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema.
United also have a new boss in Marc Skinner, the former Birmingham City coach back from a spell in America, but have lost big names in Heath and Christen Press.
Another impact of the new TV deal is that English clubs will have more money to spend on top talent, meaning the Women’s Super League is likely to grown in dominance in the coming years.