Saturday, May 25, 2024

Big crowds, new faces and emerging teams – WSL season talking points

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The 2023-24 Women’s Super League season saw the competition’s cumulative attendance surpass one million for the first time.

Here, the PA news agency reflects on some of the lessons we have learned from the English women’s top flight ahead of the campaign’s conclusion.

Arsenal built it – and the fans came

On Tuesday, Arsenal announced that from next season the Emirates Stadium will become the main home of the women’s first team, with eight WSL matches and three Champions League group-stage encounters – if they qualify – to be played at the club’s main stadium, as well as the home legs of any of that competition’s knock-outs.

The Gunners, who have invested in focused marketing and support for their women’s team, have seen that resourcing pay off in crowds averaging 52,029 for their six matches at the Emirates, including two sell-outs and three WSL attendance records.

Mary Earps’ heirs apparent emerge

City keeper Khiara Keating has enjoyed a spectacular season (Barrington Coombs/PA)

For a while, it seemed England shot-stopper, double FIFA Best winner, 2023 Sports Personality of the Year and WSL Golden Glove-holder Earps was in a league of her own, but this season saw legitimate challengers emerge, perhaps none more exciting than Manchester City keeper Khiara Keating.

The 19-year-old leads the Golden Glove race with nine clean sheets to Earps’ seven, was named the WSL player of the month in February, and in October earned a maiden call-up to Sarina Wiegman’s England squad, where she is also in competition with Chelsea’s increasingly impressive Hannah Hampton as future England first-choice keepers.

No new broadcast deal for another year

Next season will be the first under which the WSL and Championship will be run under NewCo, the independent entity overseen by ex-Nike executive and CEO Nikki Doucet established to shepherd the top English women’s tiers out from under the Football Association umbrella and into a new era of what is believed to be untapped commercial growth.

The WSL’s landmark three-year broadcast deal with Sky and the BBC, understood to be worth about £24million, was set to expire at the end of this season but has been extended for another year – presumably as NewCo continues to negotiate for a more lucrative offer, with the rights valuation by one recent study estimated at £15million a season.

Spurs and Liverpool are looking up

Spurs, led by Robert Vilahamn and captain Bethany England, were first-time FA Cup finalis
Spurs, led by Robert Vilahamn and captain Bethany England, were first-time FA Cup finalists (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Robert Vilahamn’s first season in charge of Tottenham will see Spurs finish sixth – second only to a best-ever fifth in 2021-22, while they were also first-time FA Cup finalists — and the Swede has insisted with the right resources the club is capable of closing the gap even further.

Liverpool, meanwhile, moved into new elite training facilities at the club’s former men’s first-team site Melwood, a move that head coach Matt Beard has hailed as transformational for a team that earned promotion back to the top flight in 2022 and could, come the campaign’s conclusion, even see them pip last year’s runners-up Manchester United to a fourth-place finish.

Robins relegation highlights challenges

Relegated Bristol City, despite winning just a single match and heading into the weekend with only six points, have set women’s first-team attendance records at Ashton Gate – figures that saw them crack the top five in league attendances in a season where the WSL’s cumulative figures also surpassed one million for the first time.

The Robins’ situation – along with Newcastle’s rapid rise to the Women’s Championship and independent Lewes’ corresponding drop from the second tier – nevertheless served to highlight the large disparity between the resource-rich top-of-the-table clubs – all attached to Premier League sides – raising questions about whether or not it is even possible for teams without the backing of a top-flight men’s outfit to compete.

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