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Success & Scandal: The Inspiring Early History Of Women’s Football

Goodison Park was packed to the rafters as 53,000 fans watched Alice Kell – captain of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – score a hat trick in her team’s 4-0 win over St Helens Ladies. By all accounts, the 14,000 supporters turned away from the stadium missed a great game of football. The day was Boxing Day; the year, 1920.For the best part of a century this game stood as the record attendance for the women’s game. It wasn’t till London 2012 when 70,584 saw England beat Brazil 1-0 that this dusty record was broken. In recent years – and especially in the wake of the England’s heroics at the 2015 World Cup – women’s football has been experiencing an extraordinary rise in popularity. England’s semi-final against Japan peaked at 2.4m viewers on BBC 1 and Round 7 of The FA WSL in July 2015 experienced record crowds. Moreover, the Women’s FA Cup – boosted by SSE’s historic title sponsorship – drew 30,000 to Wembley.A challenge for the game’s champions and sponsors is to consolidate and grow this fanbase ahead of the European Championships in 2017.

Given compelling stories celebrating brands’ pasts are often the backbone to strong campaigns, (see Johnnie Walker and Lloyds), perhaps the same strategy could be applied to women’s football, given its fascinating and tumultuous history…

In 1894, feminist Nettie Honeyball founded an unprecedented entity – the British Ladies Football Club – with the aim, she said, of “proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured”. It was a radical idea and led to the first official recorded game of football between two women’s teams. This took place in 1895 when a collection of players from North London took on their Southern counterparts.

A “huge throng of ten thousand” travelled to Crouch End to witness the spectacle. There followed a series of games, raising money for charity, around the country. Some reporters were sneering, “the laughter was easy, and the amusement was rather coarse” (Jarrow Express); whilst others were supportive, “I don’t think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men” (The Sporting Man). However, by the time the year was over, crowds – apparently blasé to the novelty – had petered out and the women’s game disappeared.

Twenty years later, with World War I raging on the Western Front, The FA suspended the Football League as players joined the ranks in the trenches. Meanwhile, 900,000 women were sent to work in munitions factories, where kicking a ball around at lunch breaks was a welcome respite from their dangerous job. From these kick-abouts, ‘Munitionette’ teams from various Northern factories were formed.

The most famous and successful of these was from Dick, Kerr’s & Co. in Preston. The team’s first match drew a crowd of 10,000 but this success was unlike the short-lived successes of 1895. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies went on to play numerous matches, raising £70,000 (£14m in today’s money) for charities supporting ex-servicemen and other causes. True, there were mutterings of the game’s unsuitability for women but the crowds continued to pour in even after the war ended – 35,000, for instance, saw Alice Kell’s team play Newcastle United Ladies at St James’ Park in 1919.

Alongside Alice Kell, Lily Parr was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies star player. One local newspaper wrote that there was “probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country” and it is said her shot was so hard it once broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper. Parr’s 31 year playing career saw her score over 1,000 goals, 34 in her first season in 1920… not bad for a 14-year-old.

1920-21 represented the peak of Dick, Kerr’s success. In 1920 they represented England, beating the French women’s team on both sides of the Channel and finished the year at Goodison Park in front of 53,000 fans (by comparison 50,018 attended the men’s FA Cup Final that year). Meanwhile, 1921 was packed with 67 fixtures in front of a cumulative audience of 900,000. Yet, 1921 was also the year of the second downfall of the women’s game, courtesy of a directive from The FA banning female teams from all FA affiliated stadiums and grounds.

The perennial complaint against women’s football – and the excuse used by The FA – was that it was harmful to female health. In 1895 the British Medical Journal had declared “We can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence, of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect.” Now in the ’20s, Harley Street’s Dr Mary Scharlieb wrote, “I consider it a most unsuitable game, too much for a women’s physical frame”.

However, one might argue that these medical opinions were merely a pseudo-justification for The FA’s real fear that women’s football represented an uncomfortable shift in society’s hierarchy. Now the war was over, here you had female teams – “in knickers [shorts] so scanty as would be frowned upon” – attracting more fans than many men’s games being played on the same day.

What’s more, the women’s football matches, which had raised thousands for charity, were now supporting the struggling families of miners during the 1921 Miners Lock Out – a politically charged dispute where miners were had been banned from working in the coalfields, having refused significant wage reductions.It was a lethal combination: Women flouting the role dictated to them by social convention to play a scandalous sport that drew bigger audiences than their male counterparts, whilst raising funds in support of anti-establishment trade unions.

The FA’s ban effectively squeezed the sport into obscurity. Whilst teams such as Dick, Kerr’s continued to play, their banishment to nondescript playing fields meant that never again would they be cheered on by thousands in Goodison Park or St James’s. Years in the wilderness followed until the FA ban was finally lifted half a century later, allowing the game to begin its slow recovery. Although that’s another story for another time…

Back in 2016, with the women’s game reaching the popularity levels of the 1920s, the challenge is to maintain its upward trajectory ahead of, and beyond, forthcoming major Tournaments. The stories, characters and controversy from women’s football’s intriguing past are potentially a real starting point from which to catalyse powerful campaigns around the sport.

SOURCES:
Shelley Alexander, ‘Trail-Blazers who Pioneered Women’s Football’ (BBC)
John Simkin, ‘British Ladies Football Club’ (Spartacus Educational)
John Simkin, ‘History of Women’s Football’ (Spartacus Educational)
‘The History of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge’ (The Guardian)
‘WW1: Why was women’s football banned in 1921?’ (BBC)

Back to Hockey: a winning approach to grassroots

Trying to fit playing sport around work and having a social life is difficult especially when you haven’t played since leaving school or university. What can be done to help rectify this? In 2010 England Netball created Back to Netball, an initiative which has helped encourage women who thought their playing days were over to get back into the sport. The campaign has been hugely successful with over 60,000 women getting back into netball which has naturally benefited the sport from grassroots to the elite game.

England Hockey took a leaf out of the same book a few years back to create their own Back to Hockey campaign – using eye-catching creative to get lapsed players back into the sport, more recently evolving the initiative to make it as relevant and powerful to audiences as possible.

Reinventing Back to Hockey

2014 was a hugely successful year for the initiative, with 53% of players stating they wanted to take part in more Back to Hockey sessions within the club environment. This subsequently saw over 2,500 players regularly attend Back to Hockey sessions across England. To innovate for this year’s campaign, England Hockey connected with Sport England campaign ‘This Girl Can’, which has helped to improve and build upon the marketing of the initiative.

By using the same principle as Back to Netball, England Hockey have been encouraging hockey clubs to reach out into their local communities and encourage former players – women in particular – to put on their trainers and head towards their local club. Attracting female players back into sport has traditionally been a difficult task as there are numerous barriers to participation for them, therefore, the investment that governing bodies make towards similar campaigns is vital towards their success. Not only are England Hockey making the scheme more appealing to clubs by emphasising the potential of attracting new members, they are also encouraging clubs to use their own social media channels to help spread the word of the initiative further afield.

My own hockey club, Winchmore Hill and Enfield HC, has taken part in Back to Hockey this year, which has seen a massive positive impact within the club, as well as a growing interest in hockey from media within our local community. With the sports pages traditionally dominated by football and cricket, our local paper has helped us advertise the weekly sessions, which has widened our search for new ‘lapsed’ recruits. With the help of new creative content from the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, there has been a focus on combining simple skill-based drills with games, which has helped to slowly introduce lapsed players back into the sport.

Not only have we gained new members who have already started playing in our summer league teams, attendees have loved the laid back, enjoyable style of each session, which has seen us retain 70% of attendees from the first sessions we ran. From my own experience of the campaign, I’ve noticed a huge positive effect it has had, not only on our club members volunteering to coach and umpire each session, but also on how much the lapsed players have grown in confidence since we launched our weekly Back to Hockey sessions a few weeks ago. This has been particularly evident in our female players.

New Marketing Approach

In marketing terms, England Hockey’s tie-up with ‘This Girl Can’ has allowed them to produce a variety of content with a similar creative look and feel. The content has been shared via the governing body’s social media channels, which the participating Back to Hockey clubs across the nation have reciprocated through their own channels. Aligning with the high-profile ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has given Back to Hockey a shot in the arm, and allowed them to reach a wider target audience than it would have done previously. Using copy and imagery which is both inviting and current, especially for a more predominant female audience, has allowed the campaign to become much more relatable for the lapsed players.

This new content has also seen England Hockey completely readdress their current marketing of the women’s team, which previously would have had the same approach as the men’s. England Hockey have not only identified that when they are promoting the women’s team to a female audience they shouldn’t be focusing on the physical nature of the sport, but also that they should be showcasing the sport in a different environment. Profiling the women’s team in articles like The Daily Telegraph’s recent piece has highlighted the current shift in perception of the sport, which has seen an increased appetite for televised coverage of matches and internationals to be played within the UK.

England Hockey and England Netball have created impressive and engaging initiatives that challenge the significant drop-off in sports participation between school and adult life, with England Hockey’s connection to ‘This Girl Can’ hugely aiding their cause.

Is this simple concept something that other sports can learn from and adapt to their own sports? I definitely think so.