The Women’s Super League marked the dawn of a new era on Friday night as Manchester United took on Reading to kick off what promises to be a defining 2021/22 season.
At a time when it should have been riding high off the back of a Women’s World Cup in 2019 that hit cumulative viewing figures of nearly 30 million in the UK, the WSL was hit badly by the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, forcing that season to be abandoned.
Aside from a handful of limited capacity games watched by a few hundred, fans were then shut out for the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign. The women’s game has a special relationship with its fans in a way that has long since been lost on the men’s side, making that a bitter blow for 18 months.
Before Friday night, Manchester United hadn’t played at home with fans since January 2020, but there was a sense of relief and normality in the air and Reading were more than worthy opponents in a game that was competitive from the first minute.
The Royals even started the better and were never really out of the game that finished 2-0 to the hosts, requiring two outstanding goals from Kirsty Hanson and Ona Batlle.
There were just over 2,100 people at Leigh Sports Village, a strong WSL crowd, with the atmosphere described by new United signing Aoife Mannion as ‘electric’. And, despite the long journey, Reading fans also travelled in decent numbers and made their presence known.
All in all, it was a tremendous way for the WSL to announce its proper return.
But far beyond just those who were able to watch the game inside the stadium, this was very special for another reason. The presence of the television cameras meant that many more were watching up and down the country live on Sky Sports Main Event.
On top of returning fans, the new broadcast deal is a huge addition to the WSL this season. It is the first time that the league’s broadcasting rights have ever been sold domestically – occasional live matches previously shown on BT Sport were screened for cost price only – and is worth over £7m per year for three games each game-week split between Sky Sports and BBC.
Before now, fans could get access to live games on the FA Player, an invaluable free service that will continue to stream games this season not picked up for television. But it is understandably limited and, despite carrying no cost, relatively inaccessible for a typical football on TV audience because of its app and web stream roots. There is now a much wider audience Sky and BBC can appeal to.
Sky brought their A-game to the WSL on Friday, packaging it as an attractive and engaging product in a way the league has never seen before. They have invested the money and will throw their all into doing it justice. No live Premier League broadcast would be any different.
This is no longer women’s football - it is just football.