It is incredible, really, that nothing has changed yet everything has changed. This weekend, with no Premier League or men’s Championship football, the Women’s Super League will take centre stage domestically. The kick-off times are staggered so every game can be watched. This is not a new phenomenon. The concept was born in November 2019 when Women’s Football Weekend was introduced. Since then fixtures have been positioned with one eye on the men’s calendar and, while Women’s Football Weekend still sits in November, the Football Association has taken advantage of the men’s international breaks more frequently.
This weekend is one of those times. It is a scenario that we have become increasingly used to. So why does it feel different?
Because everything is now framed in the context of the new broadcast rights deal under which Sky Sports and the BBC will open the women’s game to audiences like never before. That deal has changed the way we look at things. This weekend offers a taste of the bombardment to come; of women’s football slotting around the men’s schedule and complementing it (as much as is possible with new slots of Friday 6.30pm, Saturday 11.30am and Sunday 12.30pm and 6.30pm) week-in, week-out.
It is benefiting from the buzz around the game, but also from a general desperation to return to grounds. With each step on the roadmap out of lockdown, the itchier our feet become.
Manchester United holding their 11.30am BST game against West Ham at Old Trafford on Saturday adds to that anticipation. There will be no fans for the relaunched women’s team’s first match at the stadium and for supporters it is like watching on Zoom as someone cuts into a birthday cake that you cannot have a piece of.
It still matters, even without the fans. Casey Stoney played it down by saying she sees it “as a bit of a practice go before next year” and that ticking it off on the to-do list means that people will stop asking when it will finally happen. “People can leave us alone now,” she said.
However, it is hard to play down the symbolism of Manchester United’s women’s team playing at Old Trafford. It is a statement from one of the biggest clubs in the world that women’s football matters; that they are on board and there is no hesitation in keeping the train rolling.
There is a downside. With the decision to host the game at Old Trafford made after BT Sport and the BBC had selected their games for broadcast, the only way to watch will be through the FA Player. At least it can be watched, unlike many of the group games of the Continental League Cup. About 600,000 people watched Barcelona’s three feeds (English, Spanish and Catalan) for their weekday 11.30am GMT kick-off against Manchester City in the Women’s Champions League, which also aired on City+ and BT Sport, demonstrating that there is a huge audience hungry for live women’s football that could be better served.
United cannot broadcast the game on their channels because the domestic broadcast rights agreement allows clubs to show a maximum of three league matches that have not been selected by a broadcaster, and they have shown three games.
Stoney was right when she said it was a “real shame” and that “we’ve missed a massive opportunity”.
It is perhaps harsh to criticise those responsible for women’s football at the FA in a week when such a game-changing deal has been done. But the lack of flexibility and the inability to make short-notice plans with clubs that should all be thinking about the bigger picture is disappointing.
“The FA have been badgering and badgering and badgering and badgering about playing at Old Trafford and now all of a sudden we’re not showing it,” Stoney said. “So I am a bit disappointed in that sense”
At 3.30pm GMT on Saturday Tottenham host Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the second time (before Manchester City play Reading at 5.30pm GMT, BBC iPlayer). The north London derby was not picked for broadcast but will be streamed by Spurs, with the club providing full coverage across all its channels and hosting a special match day show and commentary – which only goes to highlight what is missing in Manchester. Hopefully though, with the investment and support coming in, work will be done to ensure opportunities are maximised and not missed.
With broadcast money coming into the league and clubs next season and visibility like never before, it is perhaps at the bottom of the table where things are most interesting, with no club wanting to go down and miss out on a decent slice of the pie.
On Sunday sixth-placed Brighton host fifth-placed Everton at 12.30pm BST (BBC iPlayer), the league leaders Chelsea play an Aston Villa team battling to avoid relegation at 2.30pm BST (BT Sport 3), and two contenders for the drop, Birmingham and Bristol City, meet at 4pm BST (BBC iPlayer).