Euro 2022 has all the ingredients to be a breakthrough moment for women’s football in England.
A peak television audience of 17 million, the biggest UK audience for a programme in 2022 so far, tuned in to watch England beat Germany in the final. Attendance records were smashed in the group stages of the tournament, and 87,192 people attended the final – the most for any Euros fixture, men’s or women’s.
However, we do need to exercise caution around claims of watershed moments for women’s sport. In the US, major soccer tournaments have led to only minimal changes in media coverage of women’s sport. We need to ensure that when the dust settles, women’s football is not relegated back to the margins.
We have carried out research on why people in the US and England become fans of women’s football. Drawing on our findings, here are some key ways to build on the Euro 2022 tournament and secure the future of English women’s football.
Make football accessible to all girls at school
For those who watched the celebrations after England’s semi-final victory, it was hard not to be moved by former Arsenal and England player Ian Wright’s emotional plea to allow girls access to the beautiful game.
Wright said: “Whatever happens in the final now, if girls are not allowed to play football just like the boys can in their PE after this tournament, then what are we doing?” According to the Football Association, only 63% of schools currently offer girls’ football in PE lessons.
Research has shown how girls’ interest in sport can drop off in their teenage years. A recent survey by the charity Women in Sport found that 68% of teenage girls who said they “used to be sporty” now gave a feeling of being judged as a reason they no longer took part.
In our research, gaining basic access to football in physical education was an issue. Inequalities in access to football spanned generations. Even younger English women fans had experienced a gender divide in physical education that stopped them from playing football.
Concrete action needs to be taken to ensure equal access to all sports in physical education at school. For example, the government could ensure that it is a requirement that boys and girls play the same sports at school, rather than segregating by sport.
Where football is offered to boys, it needs to be available for girls and vice versa for other sports. Greater opportunities to play the sport will play a key role in growing the sport as we look towards the 2023 Women’s World Cup and beyond.
Get women’s football on TV
Euro 2022 has attracted millions of viewers in Britain, even for matches that have not involved qualifying teams England or Northern Ireland, showing that there is an appetite for watching women’s football in general. Our research on fans shows that watching women’s football mega events, usually on television, plays a key role in initiating interest in the sport, with many later becoming invested fans. Respectful media coverage, therefore, needs to be a central goal for women’s football.
Research by one of us (Stacey Pope) also shows that exposure to women’s football through TV coverage can, in some cases, change attitudes. This can lead to some men moving from expressing overtly misogynistic attitudes to progressive attitudes. One man in the research survey said:
From a personal point of view, it changed my view on the sport. I used to see it as a bit of a joke, but having watched the [Women’s] World Cup [I] now feel the opposite.
Lessons for men’s football
One of the striking differences that has been identified between men’s and women’s football is the inclusivity of fan communities at the women’s game. This perceived inclusivity was the main motivation for attending matches for 39% of English fans in our research. People in our research study felt that women’s football was welcoming to women, children and LGBTQ+ fans.
This culture was commonly contrasted against men’s football, with fans finding women’s football to be a “safer” environment featuring less vulgarity, drunkenness and aggression. Female fans described UK men’s football culture as “daunting” and saw the atmosphere as “angry” and “hostile”.
We only have to contrast images of fans at Euro 2022 matches with the disturbances at the men’s Euro 2020 final last year to see this in play. A recent report by the Football Supporters’ Association also found that when attending men’s matches, 20% of women had experienced unwanted physical attention and 34% of women had heard sexist comments. Women’s football shows that football fan culture can be an inclusive space.
A number of the fans in our study (22% of England fans) were motivated in their fandom by a commitment to gender equality. Euro 2022 provides an ideal platform to open up these difficult conversations around gender inequality in football and discuss how this can be addressed.
The 2022 Euros has shown that there is widespread enthusiasm for women’s football. The challenge now will be keeping it in the spotlight it so richly deserves. One mega event alone cannot overturn issues of gender inequality that are so widespread in society. But acting on the suggestions here would be one step towards ensuring there is a legacy from this tournament.
Stacey Pope receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council
Rachel Allison received a FIFA Research Scholarship from the International Centre for Sports Studies