Chicken and egg

The making of fans for life

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
A photograph of Sarah Danby walking out of the tunnel for Leeds United Women with two mascots either side of her

In 2019 the inaugural Women’s Football Weekend, the FA initiative to spotlight the sport, was a huge success, attracting a record 74,247 fans to games across the Women’s Super League. These days, Arsenal could attract that many supporters to a single game — if only the Emirates had the capacity to fit them in. So do we still need the Women’s Football Weekend?

As part of its fifth edition, Everton had the opportunity to stop their Merseyside rivals from rising to fourth place at Goodison Park on Sunday, but fewer than ten thousand showed up to watch. The 60,000-odd fans who turned out to see ‘legends’ of the men’s game like Jay Spearing and Igor Biscan face off at Anfield the day before shows that appetite for football does not subside when the men’s international break arrives — but Everton haven’t done so well as Arsenal at marketing their women’s side to those potential supporters.

Recently, Leeds United Women have made pleas of their own for fans to get down to their home ground at Garforth. Speaking after their 5-1 win over York City last week, Whites manager Simon Wood said he hoped more would come and “be entertained by us”.

It was an easy sell on the back of an enjoyable Yorkshire derby. Leeds looked brilliant; fans waited less than a minute to see their first goal; Alice Hughes scored a banger against the team she started the season with; City hit back with an even bangier banger from thirty yards; Jess Rousseau scored a hat-trick to strengthen her place at the summit of the all-competitions scoring chart. And that’s before I mention the value of Garforth Town’s outstanding pie, chips and mushy peas deal: a fiver! That’s entertainment.

The men’s side last played at home on March 17th, and won’t again until the visit of Hull City on April 1st. On Sunday, why wasn’t the women’s home match against Norton and Stockton Ancients hosted at Elland Road, on a pitch that will remain otherwise unused for a fortnight?

The women last played a game in LS11 in April 2022. Since then, the Lionesses’ European Championship victory has inspired an enormous rise in appetite for women’s football in this country, and Leeds have won the FAWNL Plate. Their success brought them onto the Elland Road pitch last April, parading the only silverware that any Leeds United team won last season, but they weren’t given the chance to play.

More broadly, women’s football struggles with the chicken and egg dilemma of audience. You need spectators to create an enjoyable atmosphere that will attract more spectators. Everton’s solution this time last year was to offer out lots of tickets for free in the hope that sampling the fun would cause fans to come back under their own steam. More than 22,000 fans showed up in 2023. But on Sunday, with no free tickets handed out, many failed to return and only a four-figure attendance was recorded.

Arsenal are leading the way on this front. When the Gunners play at the Emirates, the club organises a singing section to kickstart the atmosphere that will tempt first-time fans to return. It’s not about numbers or gate receipts. It’s focussing on the smaller details and nurturing a newborn culture.

Where Leeds United women are thriving in this respect is their brilliant mascot program. Each match beaming kids walk out with the players for the handshakes — five minutes holding Charlyann Pizzarello’s hand is enough to make a fan for life, then recruit a few more when she tells her friends about it at breaktime at school the next day.

It feels cold to take so rational an approach to the task of converting dreams to bums on seats, but girls can’t have the role models they deserve if they don’t see them, and the example of the mascot speaks more broadly to the point that there are ways to develop the women’s game that do not depend on vast reserves of cash.

The Whites could climb the leagues like Newcastle United by pumping loads of money into the best coaches and players, but if big investment is not the preferred option for United, then why not make the most of what they already have? The cost of staffing a stand at Elland Road one Sunday afternoon could be recuperated by gate receipts, while the benefits are bigger than profit.

At Goodison on Sunday, Everton squeaked a point out of in-form Liverpool, despite having lost six of their last seven league games. Showcases like these recruit fans, but they also improve a team’s performance.

More than 35,000 fans attended FA Women’s National League fixtures across the third and fourth tiers this weekend, though you fear that if Elland Road were to open its doors to fans of the women’s side, it wouldn’t be so well-attended. In-person fandom begins online, and for as long as United’s social media presence is limited, so too will be their attendances on matchdays.

The women’s side’s social media presence is barely noticeable. Of the abusive comments that the club’s official account sometimes receives, some of the ‘kinder’ ones suggest that posts about the women’s side belong on a separate feed. Indeed, United are the only team in Division One North who have no dedicated account. At the moment, they aren’t generating the content to justify its existence.

On Friday evening, I watched all four minutes and forty-three seconds of York City’s ‘Inside Matchday’ video from their 5-1 defeat to Leeds United. I didn’t learn much that I didn’t experience first-hand the night before, yet I remained gripped by the sight of players passing balls about to the sound of Pitbull’s Hotel Room Service.

The appetite is there, the quality is there, but forging relationships between teams and fans takes time and work. ⬢

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