To help women’s football, scrap the Europa League

The Scotland women’s football team plays the first of the two biggest matches in its history today, namely the first leg of its World Cup play-off against Holland. But I’ll not be watching. Not for sexist reasons – anyone who has read what I’ve written in the past will know this – but because there is another match on TV at the same time. And not just any old match but “El Clasico” between Real Madrid and Barcelona – a tasty enough menu at the best of times without the return of Luis Suarez from his biting ban. I would watch this match regardless of what other match was on TV at the time. For the football establishment to put a women’s match on at the same time is sexist unfair and does nothing to help women’s football.
Philippa Booth in her blog article “Macho Macho Men” says about women’s football that “Maybe the viewing figures are low because it is VERY RARELY ON TV” (her capitals). I don’t think that is the case (she is right by the way when she says “if you’re going to use averages be aware of their limitations”. What on earth she would think if she knew the law of the UK does just that I don’t know. She might think a government that came up with that law might be incompetent. As someone who studied the UK in the 1970s she would be right).
Now as Philippa Booth lives in France it might be the case that it is rarely on TV in that country. But in the UK it is on TV more than you might think. Since August WSL matches, World Cup Qualifiers, Champions League games (but why Lyon and PSG and not the UK teams?) the World Under-20 championships and even the German Bundesliga have all been on UK TV. But the problem – in contrast to the male game – is that it is scattered all over the place and is a nightmare to find. The difference between TV coverage of the male and female games resembles the difference between the coverage of the two 1974 UK General Elections. As “the British General Election of October 1974” (page 141) puts it “in February viewers had the election more or less thrust on them ; in October those who wanted anything beyond basic coverage had to look for it”. Substitute “male football” for “February” and “female football” for October and you get the idea.
This is important because predictability of scheduling is a key to success on TV. For example: the English Premier League games on TV in the UK this weekend are on at 12.45 pm and 5.30pm today; 1.30pm and 4.00pm tomorrow; and 8.00pm on Monday. As they are every weekend. While not all weekends have five live Premier League games the times of these games rarely deviates except in midweek or on bank holidays. The same way if you want to watch baseball on ESPN it is on Sunday Monday and Wednesday nights you tune in. And this does not just apply to sport. For millions of people in the UK Saturday nights are about popular TV shows “The X Factor” and “Strictly Come Dancing”. People know that is when they are on so they get into the habit of tuning in. Women’s football needs a night of its own on TV free from men’s football to allow people to get into the habit of watching it.
And there is a blatantly obvious solution. Get rid of the Europa League which is the “Dusty Bin*” of football. This event, played on Thursday nights has been called “much maligned” by the Daily Telegraph and “unwanted by fans” by the Daily Record. I don’t think there is a Premier League team that wants to play in it. Definitely not the “Big Five” of the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. When Liverpool failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2010 their fans were taunted with chants of “Thursday night. Channel 5**” by other team’s fans. As were the two Manchester clubs when they finished third in their CL groups in 2011-12 and “earned” entry into the Europa League. As for the rest Everton and Tottenham can’t wait to get out of it, Aston Villa sent a weakened team to Moscow in 2009 to try and get knocked out of the tournament – they were – and all it achieved for the likes of Newcastle and Swansea was to screw up their League form. In my opinion the best thing Hull have done this season was to be knocked out of the Europa League before the group stages – thus boosting their chances of staying in the Premier League. And it is not popular with fans. Celtic can’t fill Celtic Park for their Europa League games, and Swansea’s attendances for their Europa League games were less than their average Premier League gate.
But the most amazing Europa League attendance stat comes form France. In their first home Europa League game of the current season Guingamp got a crowd of 8,783. Two years earlier the French women’s team played a Euro 2013 qualifier in Guingamp and got 10,284!. That sums it up. And as Guingamp are a small club from Brittany who’ll never get into the Champions League that stat is even more amazing because the Europa league should be a big deal for them. It plainly isn’t.
To my mind the Europa League is a relic that should be abolished and would not be missed. That would mean no male football on TV on Thursday nights and therefore we could use that night to give women’s football its own night on TV. People would know when to watch it and it might have a chance to get viewers. I could watch both Scotland’s women and “El Clasico” and not have to make a totally unfair choice. The football establishment will never do this of course. in my opinion their attitude to women is like David Cameron’s to UKIP. They think women in football are a threat to their power and while they are quite happy to have women playing the game they don’t want it to become popular and risk the “cash cow” of male football. It is not a coincidence that when women’s football was drawing crowds of 50,000 in the UK the FA banned it (1921). But my idea is only fair. Even if it happened male football would still be on TV six nights a week. What is wrong with giving women’s football a night of its own on TV?
*Dusty Bin was the booby prize on the 1970s/80s UK TV game show “3-2-1”. If a couple “won” Dusty all they got was a brand new dustbin!
**Channel 5 is a little watched UK TV channel that used to cover Europa League games.

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