Major milestone for women’s football as Spanish clubs set attendance record
Over 60,000 turn up for a league clash between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona
The massive crowd of 60,739 which attended the women’s Spanish Iberdola League game between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona in Madrid last Sunday. It was a world record attendance for a women’s club game. Photograph: Alexander Marin/EPA
On 26 December 1920, and just under a year before the Football Association banned women’s football – a ban that lasted 50 years – 53,000 people filled Goodison Park, with a further 14,000 reportedly turned away, to watch the famous Dick Kerr Ladies beat St Helens 4-0.
The attendance in Madrid was the first to topple that historic number for a club game. Others have come close. 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.
In addition to those in situ in Madrid at the weekend 330,000 watched the match on the free-to-air channel Gol TV, peaking at 413,000. That figure was 4.27 per cent of the total audience share and the biggest viewing figure on Gol that week.
Slowly the more healthy international attendances (the biggest of which was the 90,185 who watched USA’s victory against China in the 1999 World Cup Final on home soil at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena) are filtering into some domestic leagues.
These may be one-off showpiece games, picked for their marketability, but they do suggest an “if you build it, they will come” mentality is starting to develop. Accessible grounds, the chance to attend big stadiums cheaply, and top-level football are ripe conditions for any marketing team to be working with.
But they need to go beyond marketing; they need to be campaigning for the crowds.
The signs were good for Atlético. Their Copa de la Reina semi-final against Barcelona last month was set to take place at the Wanda but the scheduling would not work. So instead they had a sold-out crowd of 3,800 at their training ground and usual home, the Mini Estadio Cerro del Espino.
Bea Redondo, a women’s football journalist who was in the crowd on Sunday, said there are two main reasons for the ability of clubs to pull in big numbers for big games.
“First of all, there’s an increase in media exposure generally, which generates an increase of interest in people that wouldn’t usually follow the women’s game,” she said.
“Then the teams carefully pick which games are going to be played at men’s stadiums [generally one a year but some such as Athletic Bilbao or Real Sociedad are doing two in a couple of months] and do big promotional campaigns to get people to the matches.
“For this one Atleti had buses circulating round Madrid with the women’s faces on it, had the players signing at the club’s store ahead of the game, and did a big reveal of three commemorative nameplates of players who have reached 100 caps a few days before. It’s about getting people to know about it, and getting people excited, beyond the usual social media push.”
The majority of the record attendances of recent years were helped by promotions, such as free tickets for kids and season-ticket holders, while offers to local clubs and schools are the norm. At the Wanda it was no different, though of that record attendance, 26,912 – 44 per cent – bought a ticket at €5–€10.
In England there is not quite the same scale of promotion and Redondo noticed the difference, having watched both leagues.
“I have been to games in England and I think the only ones that felt similar, in terms of the levels of promotion and general marketing, were the FA Cup finals at Wembley,” she says.
“I’ve been to matches where teams have done cool stuff, like a Chelsea v Liverpool game where they gave away jerseys to everyone in attendance, but I remember I found out about that one only because I knew where to look for the information. I think it’s all about investing the money to get the message out there and in front of those that wouldn’t usually go looking for it.”
Goals from Asisat Oshoala and England forward Toni Duggan ensured victory for Barcelona, who closed the gap on Atlético to three points. And the atmosphere was “amazing”, Redondo says.
“It was quite surreal, too, how natural it felt. At points I was questioning whether it was really happening and then at other points, when we were all excited about whatever was happening on the pitch, I forgot it was even a big thing. The usual crowd and supporter groups were there, with the same chants and singing.”
One day on from the best-attended domestic game in world history, the FA announced the first stop on its Road to France Series – against Canada at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium – has sold out. But, given the context, it is hard to be buoyed by the sale of 7,000 tickets.
England have returned from the US with the SheBelieves Cup, wins against two top-10 nations and a credible draw with the reigning world champions, USA. They are two months from a World Cup with a side capable of doing big things and, it should be noted, almost 10,000 watched the side play Sweden at Rotherham last year in less favourable conditions.
When England play in front of 7,000 fans on April 7th, across the bridge the 55,000-seat Etihad Stadium will sit idle. When will the women’s game in England, like their Spanish counterparts, think big?