Joanne O’Riordan: Masses finally beginning to appreciate elite women’s sport

Dramatic increase in attendances at big events a positive sign for the future

Club Atletico de Madrid fans  before the Spanish league women’s football match against  FC Barcelona in March at the  Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid. Some 60,000 spectators attended the game. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Club Atletico de Madrid fans before the Spanish league women’s football match against FC Barcelona in March at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid. Some 60,000 spectators attended the game. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

 

‘Build it, and they will come” is now a snazzy marketable tagline applicable for women in sport across the world.

A few weeks ago Atletico Madrid Femenino welcomed Barcelona to the Wanda Metropolitano, a general sell-out in the men’s equivalent. What people did not expect was a turnout of over 60,700 people. But, the signs were there.

On January 30th, Athletic Club welcomed 48,212 to Bilbao for their 2-0 defeat by Atlético. In May last year, in the Liga MX final in Mexico, 51,211 watched Tigres beat Monterrey to the title on penalties, and 45,423 watched Chelsea defeat Arsenal 3-1 at Wembley in the FA Cup final.

Here in Ireland, there were record turnouts at the Ladies All-Ireland football final as well as the Irish women’s rugby matches. What was once a deviation in the natural trend of people not attending matches has now become the norm.

Sure, a lot of it is down to the marketability of the game, the date, location and even how easily accessible it is for families, but more and more people are becoming interested in seeing what the other side have to offer.

The AFLW had a lot of publicity throughout the last few weeks after a photo of Carlton’s Tayla Harris’s insane athletic prowess was taken down from the Channel Seven website after trolls stormed the page. Queue a backlash from everyone, not just women in sports fans, but every fan of every sport.

The AFLW were expecting a decent crowd to attend the final between Adelaide Crows (who had Irish interest courtesy of Éimear Considine, the Clare dual player) and Carlton in Adelaide.

Officials, post the Tayla Harris controversy, were expecting a sizeable enough attendance, but they did not expect over 53,034 fans to come through the gates. And like the game at Bilbao’s San Mamés in January or the football final in Croke Park, the pictures of packed stadiums spoke a thousand words.

Over the years when women were told ‘no’ when they asked to do something, for all the times their requests for better facilities or equal access was dismissed, there were thousands of people behind them supporting their cause and urging officials to say yes. The FC Barcelona coach even told media after the game that he had quite literally coached matches in front of 30 people.

Carnival atmosphere

The appetite for these matches and people’s desire though shows something. Yes, it is true that you can’t force people to go to games and yes, it’s true that women don’t support women and more people attend men’s matches. But, there is a slight cultural and a marketing shift.

Mona Sheridan, the long-serving Cavan ladies footballer, made an excellent point on social media when calling out the Cavan county board.

A few weeks back Cavan were playing a vital Division Two game, and it was after the 13 double-headers scheduled by the LGFA and GAA. Unfortunately, the ladies football team were made play in a pitch next to Breffni Park while the men’s team played their game in the stadium.

If both of those Cavan games were marketed and organised as a double-header, it could have made a significant impact on the overall attendance. The big joke in Cork for the football double-headers was that people left after the women’s game because the football was over . . . no offence to the men’s teams!

If you ensure that these games are an event and they are an occasion, then people will come out and support them. Atletico Madrid organised that game and essentially created a carnival atmosphere for everyone. Atletico players were out and about doing signings and attending events to commemorate those who have reached 100 caps wearing the club colours. As well as that, buses advertising the game were spotted on every main street in Madrid to encourage people to go.

Of course, the odd promotion helps here and there. Encouraging all season ticket holders to go and letting kids in for free is a great way to boost an event, but for me, the best part of these record-breaking attendances was the vibe and the feeling afterwards of people who went to these games.

In general these occasions are emotional, for the players who have faced constant barriers and who have leapt over numerous hurdles, for the staff who give up their time on an underpaid and even voluntary service, but the fans, who feel genuinely part of something, part of a movement and part of something bigger than just attending a match.

People love the idea of helping and people love that if they buy a ticket, it’s not going to some big organisation that isn’t regurgitating the money at grassroots. It is no longer a moral thing or the right thing to do to include women’s games in promotional stuff, it is now the norm and expected.

What must be done in the future is creating that same atmosphere and vibe throughout the season and to get the numbers consistent and healthy throughout the whole season, not just for one game. Sure, some games are more marketable than others, but it’s time to build it and see will they genuinely come.

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