During the opening round of the Women’s Super League (WSL) we saw a host of clubs play games at the men’s stadiums. The fans that I’ve spoken to loved every minute and felt that despite the numbers being relatively low compared to the stadium’s full capacity the atmospheres were good.
I have also been following recent conversations on social media on the merits of WSL clubs playing at the traditional homes of their male counterpart’s full time. If you’d have asked me two years ago I would’ve said that a model similar to Manchester City and Bristol City’s is the best option – using a purpose build smaller ground within the club’s base.
On reflection, I now feel that all WSL clubs should be permanently ground sharing with their men’s team and I would like this to become mandatory, perhaps even part of the licence criteria in the future.
Do I believe that this is realistic at the moment or that there is even an appetite from fans to do this? No, I don’t.
Suzy Wrack put it well when she said, “This is a growing game. It is a game now on Sky Sports and the BBC and a league sponsored by Barclays. Fans are being asked to buy in wholeheartedly. If we are not demanding clubs to throw in their all in the same way, then how can we expect fans to do it?”
Suzy is absolutely bang on and I’ll try and explain why I passionately agree with that statement.
Using Manchester United as an example, the LSV Stadium is a decent facility, it provides the women’s team with a home that is fit for the purpose of hosting top-level women’s football. However, it tells fans that the team are not as important as the men’s team and less deserving of the facilities within Old Trafford. This adds fuel to the fire for the detractors of women’s football that it is a second class sport.
Leicester City recently announced that the majority of home matches will take place at the King Power Stadium – starting with the visit of Manchester United this weekend.
Leicester City chief executive Susan Whelan told the club’s website, “The Football Club is committed to driving forward the development of women’s football in Leicestershire and we believe this will be a significant step in that journey. The team have already experienced playing at King Power Stadium last season when they lifted the Women’s Championship trophy after a brilliant campaign, and they now have a chance to create more history in front of Leicester City supporters.”
With the majority of games to be played at King Power Stadium, Burton’s Pirelli Stadium will serve as an alternative venue for three WSL matches where there are scheduling clashes between the men and women.
This is massive and Leicester City should be commended for this stance.
I was fortunate enough to raise this with Reading boss Kelly Chambers, her side has been sharing what is now known as the Select Car Leasing stadium with their male counterparts since the 2020/21 season. She told me, “It’s always been an ambition or part of our plan to move to the stadium and the training ground. When we moved there last year, that was actually the first time we’d actually played in Reading as a football club.
“It’s great that we’re able to do that. In terms of facilities we’ve got everything that our male counterparts would, which suits us. For instance, we’re able to finish the game and go straight into an ice bath. They are not waiting till the next day or waiting until they get home to do that themselves.
“I’d like to think that clubs are working that way [in terms of ground sharing]. For me, it’s a great experience.
“I also understand that if you look at someone like Chelsea, they can have a sell out at their ground to create an atmosphere that can sometimes be hostile to the opposition. They can create an unbelievable vibe there for a sell out, whereas if that was at Stamford Bridge it might get swallowed.
“But yes, I’d like to see it all go that way [to ground sharing]. I think it would grow and help grow our attendances. I’d like to think that clubs can see that it is a way of thinking because it’s not just about coming to watch the game, they’re coming for a whole experience. I truly believe that is a way of growing a fan base, hopefully they enjoy I that much that they end up coming back regularly.
“I can see why people should and why people shouldn’t. For us to move to Reading and to build a fan base was massive for us. there is actually no other ground in Reading that we can play at which meets the licence criteria. Being outside of Reading over the last four or five years, hasn’t helped in terms of [building] a fan base.”
I have spoken to fans from supporters groups with the common concern that it might feel empty and I understand that, but I believe that those crowds will grow at a faster rate with the bold statement of faith that is a ground share.
We see a lot of club’s talking about a ‘one club’ approach but if the club considers their women’s team worthy of being given the same treatment as the men’s team then it tells fans that there is a valuable product to get behind.
Personally, I spend most of my time watching my local side, Portsmouth Women. They have a fantastic 3G facility which they share with Havant & Waterlooville Football Club. I love it but playing games at Fratton Park would take my experience to the next level, it would immediately command more respect from many that are not already fans of women’s football and increase the chances of converting fans over to the women’s game and growing the game, which is ultimately what everyone is working towards.
Again, I am realistic to know that this is not going to happen any time soon but clubs like Reading, Leicester City and Lewes are showing that it can be done and I believe should be done, sooner rather than later.