Plenty has been said about the turbulent history of Women’s Football. Whether it’s the 50-year ban from 1921 or the sheer lack of opportunities, exposure and respect for women and girls to play since the ban was lifted in the 1970’s.
But as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we wanted to highlight the positive steps that are being made across the game, the attitudes that still need to be challenged and the bright future that can inspire the generations to come. Afterall, this sport is for everyone and football is football.
The figures do not lie. In 2017 the Football Association's ‘Gameplan for Growth’ strategy highlighted the importance of doubling participation numbers within England. The FA achieved its goal within three years. Women's football at grass roots level has seen a 54 per cent increase in participation and there are now 3.4 million women and girls playing football in England, with 9,251 competitive female teams and 88 Community Club Organisations providing opportunities for 55,800 women and girls.
The FA’s Wildcats scheme - aimed at inspiring girls aged five to 11 to play football for the first time through an emphasis on new life skills and friendships - has seen Almost 34,000 young girls play across the country at over 1,621 centres.
For the first time in recent history, the image and perception of a female footballer is becoming normalised for the next generation of young boys and girls. At Bristol Rovers Community Trust, our increase in participation figures mirrors the statistics published by the FA. More and more young girls are falling in love with the game at an early age with sessions focused on fun and creating new friendships. This philosophy has been a key element to retaining the next generation of young players which encourages them to continue into the teenage years and beyond.
Bristol Rovers Community Trust has seen a dramatic rise in participation numbers for girls over the last few years
We are especially pleased to see an increase in recreational football within communities across the Country. The rise of the Bristol Women’s Football Casual League has truly been an inspiration and we are incredibly proud to be official partners with this progressive and inclusive community.
We have also seen an increase in qualified female coaches working within the game who are now able to utilise their skills to encourage development throughout the age groups. Striving for a gender balance within the workforce can have many proven benefits to any organisation.
At Bristol Rovers Community Trust, we have seen a dramatic increase of female students enrolling onto our BTEC Level 3 in Sport. This is a two-year full-time course that offers students the opportunity to learn about the many aspects of the sports industry as well as the chance to train every day and represent Bristol Rovers every week. Enrolment numbers continue to rise each year and the opportunities for girls to work within the industry are becoming more prominent. Education is a key area for the Community Trust and for the ‘Gas Girls’.
The development of our education programme is a key area at Bristol Rovers Women's, with more girls wanting to pursue a career in the sports industry
But we still face challenges that has the potential to derail this meteoric rise of stature and growth over the last few years. Simply look for a story or news article related to women’s football on any social media channel, and the problems are still there. The barrage of negative, disrespectful, and insulting comments towards the game are as vivid now as they have ever been. The danger is that the next generation of young female footballers and supporters will be negatively influenced by these misogynistic comments and lose their appetite to play in fear of being victimised by somebody’s insignificant view.
I often wonder if the people who express these opinions, are being shared with the members of their own family? Do they have a Mother, Wife, Girlfriend, Sister, Daughter or Niece who is already playing or is interested in lacing up their boots for the very first time? I sincerely hope that these old-fashioned views and outdated jokes are well and truly kept to themselves. I’m at a loss as to why the growth of women’s football is such a concern for this minority group as the benefits of investment are being recognised by some of the biggest football clubs of them all. Manchester United and Real Madrid have now decided joined the party in recent years, after recognising this surge of growth that can no longer be ignored. Regardless of what they may think, they better get used to it! We are not going anywhere!
By looking at recent results the future presents an exciting phase for the game. The success and exposure of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France felt like the start of a new chapter in the book of Women’s Football. Not only did the Tournament smash attendance and global viewing figures, it’s legacy continued when The Lionesses scoring a record crowd of 77,768 at Wembley Stadium for their defeat to Germany, capitalising on increased interest after the Lionesses’ fourth-place finish at 2019 Women’s World Cup.
There are fears that the Coronavirus Pandemic may have a detrimental impact on the progress of the game and there is no doubt that we may have lost a bit of momentum after such a successful World Cup. However, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic and excited as we look to a post Covid era.
There may be some uncertainty with the rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo this Summer, but we know that the 2022 Women’s Euros in England, is just around the corner. There could not be a better time to host a festival and celebration of women’s football in our Country to kick-start and inspire the next generation of Lionesses. But it does not stop there. The following summer will then treat us to another FIFA Women’s World Cup, this time in Australia and New Zealand. 2024 will then set the scene for the summer Olympics held in Paris, which will offer another opportunity to broadcast a major tournament, with the Olympics held in high esteem within the women’s football community.
Recent sponsorship activity also highlights the significant commercial growth of the women’s game. Household brands such as Visa, Barclays, Lucozade, Dove, Deliveroo and BT have already committed themselves to the game financially. A post-pandemic hangover could stall investments in the short-term but the appetite and exposure that women’s football receives will undoubtably attract future investments. The opportunity of professionalisation on and off the pitch in the coming years, will further enhance the quality, the spectacle and desire for more. There isn’t a more exciting time to be a part of this seismic shift within football.
Despite the challenges we still face, we do have plenty to celebrate on International Women’s Day. Look how far we have come, look at what is to come. Perceptions won’t change overnight and we’re still in our infancy in terms of our development. We still have time to learn from the mistakes of the past and we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to inspire the generations to come, to join us on our journey. This is a challenge for all of us. We have done a pretty good job so far.