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 in domestic action. 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 that will see Sky Sports and the BBC open the women’s game to audiences like never before. That deal has changed the way we look at things. Now, this weekend is 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 it is also benefiting from a general desperation to get back into grounds. The closer each step on the roadmap out of this pandemic and back to normality gets, the itchier our feet get.
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 first match of the relaunched women’s team and for supporters it is like watching someone cut into a birthday cake on Zoom 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 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 – from a financial point of view, in terms of fans base and in terms of trophies – that women’s football matters; that they are on board and there is no hesitation in keeping the train rolling.
There is 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 pretty harsh to criticise those responsible for women’s football at the FA in a week where 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 Tottenham host Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the second time (before Manchester City play Reading at 5.30pm GMT, BBC iPlayer). The Tottenham game was not picked for broadcast but will be streamed by Spurs, with the club providing full coverage across all of its channels and hosting a special matchday 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 seeping 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 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).