The Women’s Super League attendance record is set to be smashed on Saturday with more than 51,000 tickets sold for Arsenal’s derby against Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium.
The record of 38,262 was set in the reverse fixture in 2019 when the league experienced a boost from England having reached a World Cup semi-final the preceding summer.
This summer the Arsenal centre-back and England captain Leah Williamson implored fans who had followed the team’s triumphant Euros journey to come to WSL matches. “We’ve brought everybody together,” she shouted into the camera. “We’ve got people at games. We want them to come to the Women’s Super League – the legacy of this team will be the start of the journey.”
The message was heard loud and clear at Arsenal. “We’ve followed Leah’s lead,” says the chief commercial officer, Juliet Slot, who was at Wembley as Williamson lifted the trophy and her clubmate Beth Mead won the golden ball and golden boot. “We thought: ‘Right, come on, we too, as a club, have to tell people we want them to come.’”
Arsenal are one of four WSL clubs playing in their club’s main stadium this weekend, meaning the combined attendance for a round of matches is also poised to be smashed. Liverpool play Everton at Anfield, Brighton take on Reading at the Amex and Leicester face Aston Villa at the King Power where they host all their games.
Arsenal were one of the last WSL sides to host a league fixture in their main stadium but have committed to playing six games there this season and have given season-ticket holders for the men’s team the chance to bolt those on. Slot says the decision to move the matches was taken before she started last December and that it reflects a women’s football strategy at Arsenal to invest in players, facilities and marketing.
“Part of the reason that I was brought into Arsenal is that I’m used to selling tickets,” she says. “Premier League football clubs don’t traditionally have to really work very hard to sell tickets. I have come in from racing, where you have to work very hard for every single ticket, even at Royal Ascot. So, one of the things I have said is that we need a different mindset and mentality and capability to sell tickets to a new audience.
“We’ve invested in those other areas and the final piece of the jigsaw was me coming in and going: ‘This is how we can commercialise it.’ Because ultimately, we want it to be sustainable. We want our women’s teams to be making a profit and to be filling stadiums.”
How, though, have the club reached more than 50,000 ticket sales, climbing tantalisingly close to the 1921 record for a domestic women’s game of 53,000 with tickets still on sale and walk-ups available?
Last season at the 60,260-capacity Emirates, 8,705 fans watched Arsenal’s curtain-raiser against Chelsea, 13,438 came to the Champions League tie against Barcelona and 5,018 attended the Champions League quarter-final against Wolfsburg. The north London derby was also due to take place there on 26 March but was postponed after a Covid outbreak at Tottenham. Arsenal had been on course for a crowd of more than 15,000.
Much of the increased momentum can be attributed to the Euros win, but being ready for that momentum really allowed Arsenal to capitalise. “We thought the England team would do well, and it was great that they won, but we’d already put in place a plan,” Slot says. “We do our budgeting in January-February of each year. So we had planned that this game would be at the Emirates, that we would put a certain amount of marketing spend behind it and that I would put a team together.”
Last season Slot had one person working full-time and one part-time on the Tottenham game at the Emirates. Now, a women’s steering group covers every area and pulls in the communications and operations teams.
“You mustn’t just say: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Slot says. “You’ve got to keep telling people about the opportunity. The key message this week is that tickets are available even on walk-up, which you would never assume for a men’s game. So it’s about educating the audience.”
Only about 100 tickets have been given away through the club’s community programme. “You find that lots of people take the tickets and then don’t turn up,” Slot says. “So, I’m very aware that you need to put a value on the experience.”
Clubs are learning from one another and sharing successes. Connecting with Barcelona after back-to-back record crowds at the Camp Nou is “on the agenda” for Slot. She acknowledges there is “a lot of work to do” and says: “We’re talking and working with all the other clubs that are really focusing on women’s football and trying to sustainably grow the game together.”