Euro 2022 can be a catalyst for women’s football in England – here’s how

Euro 2022 has all the ingredients to become a breakthrough for women’s football in England.

A top television audience of 17 million, the largest ever British audience for a show in 2022, tuned in to see England beat Germany in the final. Attendance records were broken in the group stage of the tournament and 87,192 people attended the final – the most for any Euro game, men’s or women’s.

However, we must exercise caution when making claims about turning points in women’s sport. In the United States, major soccer tournaments have resulted in minimal changes in media coverage of women’s sports. We must ensure that women’s football is not marginalized again when the dust has settled.

We researched why people in the US and England are becoming fans of women’s football. Building on our insights, here are some key ways you can build on Euro 2022 and secure the future of English women’s football.

Making soccer accessible to all girls in school

For those watching the celebrations of England’s semi-final victory, it was hard not to be moved by former Arsenal and England player Ian Wright’s emotional plea for girls to be allowed access to this beautiful game.

Wright said: “Whatever happens now in the finals, if after this tournament girls aren’t allowed to play football the way boys do in their sport, then what do we do?” According to the Football Association, only 63% of schools currently offer girls’ football in physical education classes.

Two women, one looking through her fingers
Fans watch England from Trafalgar Square, London.
EPO-EFE/TIM IRELAND

Research has shown how girls’ interest in sports can wane during their teenage years. A recent survey by the charity Women in Sport found that 68% of teenage girls who said they ‘used to be athletic’ now cited feeling judged as a reason for not participating .

In our research, one issue was to get a basic approach to football in physical education. Inequalities in access to football span generations. Even younger England women supporters had experienced a gender gap in physical education classes that discouraged them from playing football.

Concrete measures must be taken to ensure equal access to all sports in school sports. For example, the government could ensure that boys and girls play the same sport at school, rather than separate sports.

Where football is available for boys, it must be available for girls and vice versa for other sports. Greater opportunities to practice this sport will play a key role in the growth of the sport as we look towards the 2023 Women’s World Cup and beyond.

Get women’s football on TV

Euro 2022 has attracted millions of viewers in the UK, even at matches not involving qualifying teams England or Northern Ireland, showing there is an appetite to watch women’s football in general. Our research on fans shows that watching mega-events in women’s football, usually on television, plays a key role in generating interest in the sport, with many later becoming avid fans. Respectful media coverage must therefore be a central goal of women’s football.

Research by one of us (Stacey Pope) also shows that exposure to women’s football through television coverage can, in some cases, change attitudes. This can cause some men to shift from overtly misogynist attitudes to progressive attitudes. A man in the research survey said:

From a personal point of view, it changed the way I look at the sport. I used to take it as a little joke but after seeing it [Women’s] World Championship [I] now feel the opposite.

Men’s soccer lessons

One of the striking differences found between men’s and women’s football is the inclusiveness of women’s football fan communities. This perceived inclusivity was the main motivation for attending matches for 39% of England fans in our study. Our research study participants felt that women’s football is welcoming of women, children and LGBTQ+ fans.

Fans walk up the steps to the stadium
England fans arrive at Wembley ahead of the UEFA Womens Euros 2022 final.
EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

This culture has often been contrasted with men’s football, with fans finding women’s football to be a ‘safer’ environment with less vulgarity, drunkenness and aggression. Female fans described British men’s football culture as “scary” and saw the atmosphere as “angry” and “hostile”.

We only have to compare images of fans at Euro 2022 matches with the riots at last year’s Euro 2020 men’s final to see this in-game. A recent report by the Football Supporters’ Association also found that 20% of women had experienced unwanted physical attention while attending men’s games and 34% of women had heard sexist comments. Women’s football shows that football fan culture can be an inclusive space.

A number of the fans in our study (22% of England fans) were motivated in their fandom by a commitment to gender equality. Euro 2022 provides an ideal platform to open these difficult conversations about gender inequality in football and discuss how to address it.

Euro 2022 showed that enthusiasm for women’s football is widespread. The challenge now is to keep it in the limelight it so deserves. A mega-event alone cannot eliminate the problems of gender inequality that are so widespread in society. But implementing the suggestions here would be a step towards ensuring this tournament is a legacy.

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