Manchester United’s decision to establish their first professional women’s team will boost the female game across Europe, UEFA’s head of marketing activities and sponsorship said on Wednesday.
The highest revenue-generating soccer club in the world, according to financial services firm Deloitte, United last week announced that they had applied to enter the second tier of the Women’s Super League.
The former European champions have until now stood out from Premier League rivals Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool as the only top tier club not to have their own women’s side.
UEFA’s Peter Willems said it was important for the development of women’s soccer and the European body’s international competitions to have the biggest clubs fully engaged.
“When big brands in an area are going behind something, that will create momentum,” the Belgian told Reuters on Wednesday at a Leaders XX Series think tank event at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium.
“Manchester United coming in to women’s football, I can only see advantages for all the levels. For English football but also for European football, for Manchester United themselves,” he added. “I think you need a few of these heavyweights to push it forward.”
Willems was speaking before a UEFA women’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Chelsea and French side Montpellier, with the Londoners 2-0 up after the away game. Manchester City were also on course to reach the semi-finals.
SPONSORSHIP RIGHTS ‘UNBUNDLED’
The crowds for women’s Champions League games are still a fraction of those in the men’s game, with Chelsea playing their game at AFC Wimbledon’s 2,250 capacity stadium in south-west London.
While England captain Steph Houghton, who plays for Manchester City, has built up a Twitter following of nearly 100,000 over years, Manchester United player Paul Pogba has close to five million. UEFA has big plans to grow the game, however.
The soccer body took the decision last November to ‘unbundle’ sponsorship and broadcast rights so that women’s soccer could stand alone rather than the respective Champions League and European championship being packaged together.
“Packaged together is the polite way to say it,” said Willems of the old system. “It was more like if you want men’s Euro, you have to take women’s euro. That was not good for the women’s competition but it was also not good for the sponsors because they had something they were really not interested in at the time. “Now we will know the real value of women’s football and have companies with us that are only there for that. I see that as something strong.”
The plans focus on building the audience as well as participation, and Willems said the initial feedback was positive. UEFA were also discussing with clubs a greater centralisation of the women’s Champions League, along the same lines as the men’s which has its own sponsors and advertising, rather than just for the final.
“The proposal is that from the 2019/20 season, from the quarter-finals onwards, we would have a centralised broadcast approach, limited sponsor approach,” said Willems. That could eventually also set out the quality of stadiums, which could make playing at grounds like Stamford Bridge more likely. “I feel that we are at the tipping point of where things are changing in certain countries… like England,” said Willems of a country ranked second in the world in the women’s game.