How can England’s Euro 2022 triumph be used to help grow the game?
After a string of false eggs in recent years, when the Lionesses have reached the semi-finals of major tournaments, it is a question the FA has been considering for some time.
The London 2012 course – when the staging of a major event provided similar inspiration and recorded television audiences, but then failed to translate into a substantial lift in levels of sports participation or activity across the country – it appears to have been taken into account by the governing body.
Plans to capture the excitement created by hosting this tournament have been in place for some time.
Ambitious targets have also been set with the aim of tripling the current average WSL presentations – currently averaging under 2,000 – by 2024.
The festive and friendly atmosphere at the Euro 2022 matches was in stark contrast to the disorder who spoiled the men’s Euro final at Wembley last summer, and the pitch invasions which marred an increasing number of Premier League and EFL games last season.
This may well start to convince more families to give WSL matches a shot next season, and there already seem to be signs of increased demand for tickets.
Amid disappointment that more major clubs were not interested in hosting Euro 2022 matches when the bid was drawn up five years ago, pressure will now be put on more Premier League clubs to allow their women’s teams to play at their main ground. There will also be requirements to make it easier for fans to buy tickets.
The FA will be asked to ensure women’s league games are more regular, with concerns that the season’s schedule has been split. Talks of the Premier League taking over the management of the WSL continue and there have been proposals private investors he could look to buy the league.
But the concern is that at the grassroots, the legacy could be undermined by a lack of benefits and facilities.
Only 44% of secondary schools currently offer equal access to football in PE lessons. In some parts of the country, women’s and girls’ teams struggle to secure places to play.
The government has announced a review of the domestic women’s game and pledged £230m of investment to build or improve grassroots facilities, but others point out that cuts to local authority budgets in recent years mean a reduction in community pitches.
The FA says that by 2024 It wants 75% of schools to provide equal access for girls to play the game and 75% of all grassroots clubs to offer at least one girls’ team, with 1,000 clubs offering a fully accredited pathway for girls.
The FA hopes the Euros can create half a million extra opportunities for women and girls to play the game. At a time when more than half of women in the UK do not exercise, the importance of this opportunity cannot be overstated.
This is the moment the FA has been hoping for since 2009, when it centrally awarded top female players contracts, gave them a home at St George’s Park and began giving the Lionesses unprecedented support. Those efforts led to Wembley on Sunday and now a golden opportunity has presented itself to change the landscape for women’s sport and wider gender equality.
Improving participation and addressing inequities in pay, prize money, coverage and sponsorship will not be a quick fix.
But this is an opportunity that the FA, clubs, media, sponsors and government will be expected to seize.