Manchester United Women will play at Old Trafford on Sunday for the first time in front of fans when they welcome Everton to the iconic stadium for a WSL clash.
It is not an absolute first for the team after a WSL fixture against West Ham was held there last season. But with Covid-19 restrictions in full swing, the match sadly had to be played behind closed doors with no supporters in attendance. This time, with tens of thousands expected to pass through the Old Trafford turnstiles, it feels like a game-changing moment.
The likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City - clubs which United ultimately want to be challenging for silverware at the business end of each season - have been down this road before.
United famously travelled across town to face City in front of just over 31,000 people at the Etihad Stadium in their first ever game as a top-flight club in 2019, while women’s games have also been held at the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge.
While only a one-off, this game is an eagerly-awaited logical next step after nearly four years of steady progress since reforming in 2018, and a vital gesture to underpin the club’s ongoing commitment to the development of its women’s team and the women’s game in general.
Exposure, visibility and accessibility are the proven driving factors for the popularity and interest in women’s football. That much has been clear this week alone when DAZN confirmed more than 14m views across its ground-breaking Champions League coverage.
- Women's Champions League group stage attracted over 14 million views
- Women's World Cup sees 28.1 million UK viewers in record-breaking tournament
- England semi-final becomes most-watched programme on UK TV in 2019
It has previously been seen at international tournaments, with more than 28m cumulative views across BBC’s World Cup coverage in 2019 – there was almost a 12m peak audience for England’s semi-final against the United States alone. For Euro 2022 in England this summer, the FA is making available 750,000 tickets in total - around three times the number of Euro 2017 in Netherlands - which has been the biggest Women’s European Championship to date.
Women’s football, to borrow a quote, is a ‘Build it and they will come’ kind of space.
That has also been seen at WSL level this season, with impressive viewing figures and an encouraging response to new live match broadcasts from Sky Sports and the BBC. There were 1.5m cumulative views for live Sky and BBC games on the opening weekend of the season and later a new record in excess of that on ‘Women’s Football Weekend’ in November.
- WSL viewing figures highlight the clear appetite for women's football
- Women's Football Weekend sees WSL sets new record for TV viewing figures
United playing at Old Trafford will put a huge and positive focus on the team, coming at a time when the men’s side are out of the picture on an international break.
The front of the stadium features new branding with exclusively female players – including club captain Katie Zelem and rapidly rising star Alessia Russo. Individual images of each member of the squad also adorn the fencing across from the main entrance, while the club’s main Twitter account with more than 30m followers has started posting daily content promoting the game and tickets.
United’s best crowd at usual home stadium Leigh Sports Village this season has been just shy of 3,800 for a Manchester derby against rivals City; that game notably fell during a men’s international break. Other derby clashes in cup competitions have drawn in more than 2,000, as have league encounters against Arsenal and Chelsea. A handful of others, perhaps impacted by a rise of Covid-19 cases in December and January and poor weather at other times, have come in between 1,000 and 1,500.
There is an argument to suggest that women’s teams should look to fill their smaller usual stadiums before hosting games at bigger venues. But a major reason for going to Old Trafford, aside from treating players on equal footing, is to promote the team to a much wider audience than normal and introduce them to new people who may have little or no prior knowledge. While Leigh is a good facility, Old Trafford is vastly more accessible to a greater number of people in terms of location – it is closer to Manchester and surrounding suburbs and is also incredibly well served by a vast public transport network. The same cannot be said for Leigh.
Going to watch the women play at Old Trafford – and it is the same principle whether it is City at the Etihad, Arsenal at the Emirates, or Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – is the initial nudge people need to become invested in the women’s game. As shown in the aforementioned viewing figures, make it easily available and accessible and people will take an interest.
Not everyone will be hooked. But if United can welcome, for example, a conservative 40,000 ‘new’ fans on Sunday who wouldn’t normally attend games or even follow the team, and just 2% of those are interested enough to attend future matches, that could be a boost of almost 1,000 back at Leigh. Even if new supporters come away from Old Trafford feeling invested in the players they have just seen, but for whatever reason would be unable to subsequently make it to Leigh, following the team on television or online in the future is still a significant and welcome boost.
Consistent exposure remains the single greatest ally to the growth of women’s football and Manchester United staging a game at Old Trafford is a huge part of that ongoing journey, not just for themselves, but for the WSL and women’s football as a whole.