By Kieran Theivam
Arsenal Ladies and England legend Kelly Smith is no stranger to hype and added attention on the women’s game following a major tournament.
In 2007 she appeared on the Jonathan Ross Show after lighting up the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2007, where she scored four goals in helping her team to the quarter-finals, before 2012 brought a different type of attention as 70,000 people packed into Wembley Stadium to watch Team GB at the London Olympics in 2012.
Unfortunately on both those occasions, opportunities were not taken to capitalise on the media spotlight that shone bright over some of the country’s greatest talent for that short period of time, with the light becoming dimmer as time moved on.
Unfortunately, attention would soon be focused elsewhere, and that media spotlight would be switched off, leaving the women’s game to fight once again for recognition and respect.
“I think the fact we didn’t medal in any of the past tournaments was key to not grasping that interest, because the reality is you don’t get that media coverage once you’ve been eliminated,” said Smith.
“The fact all our games in Canada and the tournament as a whole were broadcast this time round, enabled people to follow the team’s progress, as well as learn who the players are.”
But England’s record goalscorer admits that the attention currently on women’s football in England is ‘different’, describing it as “off the Richter scale.”
Having spent five weeks in Vancouver covering the World Cup for US broadcaster Fox, she added it was a surprise to see just how much attention was on England since their third place finish.
“I was in a bit of a bubble out in Vancouver, so I had no idea how much attention was on England until I got home and saw all the media cuttings and players appearing on television,” she said.
“It’s almost as though the nation fell in love with the England women’s team and those players are now recognised wherever they go and people know their names, which is fantastic.”
With England’s men’s team failing to go beyond the group stage at the 2014 World Cup, and having not reached a semi-final of a major competition since Euro 96, the former England forward believes the team’s bronze medal in Canada may well have ignited some people’s interest in the women’s game because of the men’s failure to match the achievements of 1966.
“I would no way say it’s the only reason, but we’re a nation of football lovers, so if the men aren’t doing too well and then the women get a medal, beating Germany along the way, its going to get people interested.
“The key thing now is maintaining that interest and ensuring that people are turning out for England’s qualifiers for Euro 2017 (to be held in the Netherlands) and also support the FA Women’s Super League.
“We don’t want a drop off like we saw after the Olympics – that was a missed opportunity.”
Initial indications suggest that momentum has continued, with record crowds registered at grounds up and down the country at the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
This mirrors public interest and a spike in crowds in the USA’s National Women’s Soccer League, with clubs in cities such as Houston and Chicago seeing increased numbers, while the always well supported Portland Thorns crammed in over 21,000 fans for their game with the Seattle Reign a few weeks ago.
Interest in the United States has always been substantial, with players bordering on celebrity status, but that interest in the national team has not always carried over into the domestic league. But, much like with England, a medal, and first place finish, has seen fans of the game seek out their local club to watch their heroes in person.
Smith says that while England’s World Cup performance must be credited with the increase in crowds in the WSL, she also wished to stress that the league itself, launched in 2011, deserves credit for giving people access to a competition that is now wide open and is attracting some of the cream of overseas talent.
“I think the league deserves huge credit because its now really competitive and players want to come here and play in it.
“When you look at the likes of Ji So-Yun (Chelsea), who scored the winner in last week’s FA Cup final, these are talented players who want to come to England because they see the league is getting better, and the FA deserve a pat on the back for that.”
That FA Cup final that Smith mentions, which was won 1-0 by Chelsea Ladies over Notts County Ladies, was the first to be held at Wembley Stadium and attracted a record crowd of over 30,000.
It has been confirmed that this will not be a one off, with the showpiece final returning to Wembley in 2016, which is a huge boost for the women’s game, with many, including former England captain Faye White, campaigning for one of the biggest games on the domestic calendar to be given an equal footing as other major finals in the men’s game.
However, the challenge for the FA and the clubs in the FA WSL will be continuing that momentum when the domestic season finishes in October.
Other than Chelsea and Liverpool competing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and England’s European qualifiers for Euro 2017, fans of the Women’s Super League will have to wait almost six months to see their heroes take to the field when they enter the latter rounds of the FA Cup in March, before the league season recommences soon after.
It must not be forgotten that the Women’s Premier League, which sits underneath the FA WSL in the women’s football pyramid, does run alongside the men’s season from August through to May.
However, with no England players for fans to cheer on, little to no broadcast coverage of the leagues, and the fact the calendar is competing with that of the men’s, its hard to see how this alone can continue the momentum that has been built up from the World Cup and the top two divisions.
In addition, next year there will be no major tournament for England to compete in, and for political reasons, Team GB will not be represented at the Rio Olympics, despite England’s third place finish at the World Cup giving them automatic qualification for the games.
So, with that in mind, what does the currently injured Smith believe needs to be done to ensure that the drop off after the London Olympics isn’t repeated again?
“I think that’s a really tough question and the FA will have to make sure they market the game well during the off-season so the game is still in the public domain and the players are still being recognised.
“I do think it will be different this time because the media is taking more of an interest now and they are playing a big part in telling the stories of these players, which is warming the public to them and getting them interested.
“I’m not saying it’s a guarantee, but I really do think the league will continue to grow, and if the England team can build on their performance in Canada, then that will certainly help.”