It all kicked off on women’s football Twitter this month. Not because of something Phil Neville said, which is the usual cause of button bashing, but as a result of TV coverage, or lack thereof.
Women’s football fans are a unique, loyal and opinionated tribe. So the news that very few of the first-round of games in the Continental Cup, including the mouth-watering Chelsea-Arsenal match, were going to be available to watch live went down like a lead balloon.
The Conti Cup, in which Women’s Super League and second-tier Championship sides take part, has not been around very long and is a competition that hasn’t always been a favourite among fans or reporters, partly as a result of its group-stage format but also because until last season it had only ever been won by Arsenal or Manchester City. There are also no fans at games and probably won’t be for a while longer. As the Guardian’s Suzanne Wrack put it on Twitter: “If no one can see it and no one can hear it, then does the Conti Cup actually happen?”
Full reruns were available to watch the next day for free on the FA Player, the platform that the FA launched last season, and clubs could opt to stream the fixtures themselves if they wanted to, an option that Manchester United, Manchester City and Lewes took up, but beyond that it was anyone’s guess how the goals went in. So historically low is the coverage of the Conti Cup that it is the first year the FA has even offered full replay and highlights of early-round games the next day.
Fans of women’s football are used to not being able to see games. They are used to struggling to find decent highlights or accurate stats and fighting to get the name of their favourite player on the back of a shirt in the club shop. But at the start of this season things felt different, like times were finally changing.
Two million people watched the season-opening edition of the Women’s Football Show, the BBC’s highlights programme for the WSL, and the US superstars Tobin Heath and Christen Press reportedly sold more shirts for Manchester United than any male player in the first three days after their signings were revealed. This all follows a record-breaking 2019 Women’s World Cup. The arrival of names such as Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, Alex Morgan and Rose Lavelle alongside new international rights deals seemed to mark a turning point for English women’s football.
You may ask why it is so terrible that a League Cup competition isn’t on television, when the Carabao Cup often has games left off the schedule. But imagine if Messi, Ronaldo, Hazard and Mbappé had all decided that they were going to play in the Premier League one season, no fans were allowed to see them at stadiums and there was a near-blackout of several games.
There is undeniable demand for content, but the demand is not being met