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Page last updated at 22:09 GMT, Wednesday, 13 April 2011 23:09 UK

Is 2011 the year women's football becomes mainstream?


Women's Super League 'a step forward'

By Jessica Creighton

Women's football has undertaken a tortuously long road on its journey to professionalism.

It was only in 1993 that the Football Association decided to acknowledge the women's game and become its governing body.

Previous to that, women were banned from playing on any FA-owned pitches and deemed unsuitable participants in a male-dominated sport.

Today, women's football is the most popular team sport for females to play in the UK and has been since 2002.

The women's game received a landmark boost this week with the launch of the UK's first elite women's football division. Fully backed by the FA, who are investing £3m over two years, the Women's Super League (WSL) features eight semi-professional teams battling it out over the summer months.

Powell pleased with new women's league

It is hoped that a more compact league structure will lead to the quality players being more evenly spread amongst the teams to prevent the David versus Goliath-type matches that occurred regularly in the winter Premier League.

And it seems to have worked. A glance down the latest England Women's squad list reveals that six of the eight WSL clubs contain England internationals.

Sustainability is another key feature. The FA has imposed salary caps, stating no more than four players from any team can earn more than £20,000 a year. Instead, the teams are expected to invest in their facilities, marketing and commercial revenue growth.

England's head coach, Hope Powell, has experienced first-hand the transformation of the women's game as an England international and now as national coach.

"I'm hoping this league gives us a platform to build on," she told BBC Sport. "Hopefully it'll get some exposure by not competing with the men and by getting better attendances because the weather will be better.

"Undoubtedly there will be teething problems. It will take a bit of time to embed and lay the foundations but I'm sure it will grow and grow."

The WSL, which kicked off on Wednesday with Arsenal beating Chelsea, marks the start of an unprecedented year for women's football.

Women's sports get a raw deal in this country

Hope Powell

With the Champions League final being hosted at Fulham's Craven Cottage next month - showcasing the premier women's football teams in Europe - as well as prominent international friendlies for the national team on home soil and the women's World Cup in Germany kicking off in June, is 2011 the year the women's game emerges from the shadows and into the public's consciousness?

All that comes before even considering the 2012 Olympics, where many of England's players could be walking out at Wembley representing Great Britain.

"The next two years are massive," England international and Birmingham City Ladies player Karen Carney told BBC Sport. "If you do well in a World Cup, you get massive media attention. The more successful you are, the more people are interested."

Despite recently claiming a high-profile international scalp in beating the US Women's team, England go into this summer's World Cup ranked 10th in the world and chasing their first international silverware.

"I believe we're strong enough to do well," said England and Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White. "Other teams will look at the rankings but that's what tournaments are all about, there are always surprises.

"It might do us a favour because other teams could underestimate us. I think other nations will realise we're a tough team when they come up against us."

So can they win it? "You dream about it, of course," continued White. "You dream about being the best you can. It's about getting the best results we can in the first three games. But we plan to play six."

With more than 500,000 tickets already snapped up, this year's World Cup is tipped to be the biggest yet.

The final and third-place play-off are all but sold out and 100,000 extra tickets have been made available because of high demand.

Women lead way for English football

It's a positive sign for a tournament conceived only in 1991, some 61 years after the men's inaugural World Cup in 1930.

Despite England's potential and the scale of the tournament, UK broadcasters have been slow to acquire TV rights so there is some doubt about whether England's home fans will have the chance to cheer on their team in Germany.

It is a problem that has blighted the women's game for years. Sustained media coverage has always been difficult to negotiate and without it the sport's public profile suffers.

The WSL will benefit from six live televised games and a weekly highlights programme on subscription sports channel ESPN in the opening season - a big leap from the sporadic television coverage the sport attracts currently.

But even with regular media coverage, the sport will face issues in trying to shift the traditionally-held view that football is a men-only activity.

Sexism in football remains a major talking point, demonstrated most recently by former Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys when they were overheard making disparaging comments about female assistant referee Sian Massey, believing their microphones had been switched off.

The furore that played out in the mainstream media and the public support Massey received in the aftermath of the remarks perhaps indicates that attitudes to women in football are changing.

But there is a long way to go before women are judged on a level playing field.

"Women's sports get a raw deal in this country," added Powell. "Women's football is no different but we're trying to change attitudes and mindsets to give it some air time and some space."

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see also
What is the Women's Super League?
14 Apr 11 |  Women
FA tips women to go professional
14 Apr 11 |  Women
England Women look to emulate US
01 Apr 11 |  Women
Olympics need a GB team - White
26 Mar 11 |  London 2012
Encouraging the next generation
24 Mar 11 |  Student reports
Powell finds sexism row positives
28 Jan 11 |  Women
Is sexism still rife in football?
24 Jan 11 |  Football

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