I have been wanting to write a post about spectators/viewers/audiences/eyes on football for a while now. So, in what better week to write this post than this: the week the football world was dragged fully conscious through an - unfortunately real - nightmare; the week figures backed up the fact that women's football is a few barriers away from skyrocketed viewings; the week fans won back football.
My earliest Arsenal memory is of wearing the 2001-02 golden SEGA home shirt as a little'n. I think I would wear it none stop for a week straight - sorry mum haha. However, since this is a post about eyes, my earliest memory of watching Arsenal comes a few years later in 2005. I remember seeing Thierry Henry and the rest of the 2005-06 team on the TV in their last season at Highbury. Regrettably, this was as close as I got to Highbury. I spent many weekends at my Aunties about a stone's throw from the stadium. It was there that my identity as an Arsenal fan was solidified. I would spend most matchday weekends with her in Islington. We would watch the Arsenal on TV or in later years heading down Upper Street to watch at the new Emirates stadium. I would beg her to take me instead of her fellow grown-up friends. And upon reflection, I'm not sure why I insisted on going to watch Arsenal so much. Without fail, within minutes of kick-off, I would develop an itch to leave immediately and go kick a ball myself. Taking me to the games was a waste of ticket money I say. I haven't told my Auntie this before... who wants to watch Fabregas when you can attempt to impersonate him? I remember getting on the 277 bus home from the Emirates, fresh out the Clock End, and heading straight out onto the local concrete pitch to have a kick about myself. So, maybe not a waste of money, after all?
My earliest memory of watching women's football then was in 2010. It was at an Arsenal Ladies v Chelsea Ladies game (now both known as Women). I think I still have the wallet that I got Kelly Smith to sign after the game. She'd probably scored a screamer. No surprise there. As you can imagine though - if I had an itch to play while watching the men at the Emirates, well then - I had clenched fists for a full 90 minutes watching the women. Watching gave me this burning desire to play. Yet I never truly enjoyed watching football. It always seemed too passive for me. I just always wanted to be the one doing it myself. But in hindsight, I realise if it hadn't been for watching the games, I'm not sure I would've had that same drive to play so much myself. I reflected on this quite a bit from being at university in the states. I couldn't help but be shocked at how little my teammates, in the UNC Women's Soccer Team, actually watched football or even supported a team. I would wonder, how did you even get into football then?!? But that's a rant for another day.
I have always been drawn to the phrase less is more, and in the case of writing a blog, it's definitely a good rule to live by. (Sorry for the flowery descriptions of my Arsenal childhood so far.) But when I look at what I do for a living and the crowds/viewers we want to attract in women's football, less most definitely isn't more. A recent Guardian article this week highlighted the fact that "an increase in the accessibility of women’s football could lead to viewing figures shooting up by more than 350% globally."
It is SO important for there to be eyes on the game. If I didn't realise that as a kid, I definitely do now. And so, queue Sky Sports. Home of the Women's Super League for next year. What wonderful news! But it's not just having people watch these games in order to attain high viewing figures that matters. To me, it's about all the young boys and girls out there that watch a game, and get the same itch I got all those years ago. It's magical.
Not so magical, however, was this week's announcement of the European Super League. The fake Super League. And I hate to finish this post on a downer but here we are. I'm going to be contradictory, and say now I do believe there are times when less is more. Cue the ESL. To me, less is more when more would mean pushing out the less: the ever-growing minority in football. The ones who have fought for their clubs their whole lives. The ones whose family of ascending generations are woven together by the colours of a team. Those individuals whose weeks are ruined when their team loses. But enough on that, because while we may not have heard the end of it, fans won back football and the ESL will no longer go ahead. Phew.
Having eyes on the game is a necessity for women's football. It means greater exposure, opportunity, possibility, and greater competition. It means so much to me when I get messages from friends all around the world mentioning how they were able to watch a game of mine. Even more so hearing from people I've never met before congratulating the team and I on a good win.
The accessibility is coming, it is brewing. While one set of eyes is only little - that one set soon becomes many.