'There’s an excitement around this World Cup that I’ve never felt before' - Key figures in sport discuss the future of women's football

Telegraph Sport
Heather Rabbatts, Stephen Day, Barbara Slater, Francesca Brown, Anna Kessel, Rosie Kmita, and Kelly Simmons discuss the future of women's football - Clara Molden

Just four days out from what is expected to be the biggest Women's World Cup in history, Telegraph Women’s Sports editor, Anna Kessel, welcomed BBC Head of Sport - Barbara Slater, the FA’s Director of the Professional Game - Kelly Simmons, former FA board member and Chair of #TimesUp UK - Heather Rabbatts,  Visa European Sponsorship Director - Stephen Day, footballer Rosie Kmita and CEO of grassroots football group Goals 4 Girls Francesca Brown to discuss the future of women’s football.

How much has the landscape changed since England’s Lionesses won that historic bronze medal in Canada four years ago?

Barbara Slater In 2015 it was the most ambitious coverage we’d ever put around a women’s football event. But when we tried to reach outside the BBC, I felt we were hitting a bit of a brick wall – we couldn’t persuade others to come along. It’s very different this time. We’re seeing an explosion of interest. We’re making a tremendous investment, every single match will be live on the BBC so you will not miss a moment.

Heather Rabbatts I think the zeitgeist has shifted, globally. There is something about following the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that says, actually, issues around parity are hugely important. That collective voice has started to emerge and created a greater awareness than ever that times have to change. The fact that Nike had to change their position and support around sponsorship of pregnant athletes, virtually overnight, because of the storm of protest shows how organisations are changing. I think the World Cup is the moment which is going to shine a blazing light.

Rosie Kmita As players we feel that, too. At training our conversations are about feeling valued. Having women’s kits, for example, or the media coverage, we’re able to tell our stories as people now. You feel you’re not just bolted on anymore, this is our game.

Kelly Simmons At previous World Cups everyone assumed it would be the US or Germany to win it. That’s changed now, you talk to people in the women’s game and everyone’s telling me seven, eight different teams are going to win it. There’s an excitement around this World Cup that I’ve never felt before. The BBC is a big part of that, and there’s multi-million-pound sponsorship activation deals which we’ve never seen before.

Stephen Day We’re investing as much in women’s football, in Europe, as we did in the men’s World Cup last year. Because the Visa brand – and it does come down to brand – is about inclusion it’s an obvious thing for us to do. When we looked at our plans for the World Cup we could see the vicious cycle – not enough investment or coverage. We saw we could make a difference by investing substantially to try and break that cycle. For us it was a no-brainer. It might not pay back in terms of ROI immediately, but we’ve invested for the long term.

How is this filtering down to the grassroots game?

Francesca Brown There’s a lot that isn’t filtering down. There’s still schools where girls aren’t being allowed to play football, there’s still that gender split between, “we’ll run boys’ football after school but not girls’.” A lot of the girls I work with in the BAME community cannot afford to sign up to a grassroots club. There are massive barriers to overcome and the teachers don’t have time. I’ve got to bang my head against a wall just to get funding. Over 400 girls, the highest intake of women and girls in London, so why am I struggling? I’m a black woman, running my own company, I’m a representation for those girls, I’ve lived and breathed it and yet on panels at big organisations, too, often black women are not represented.

KS PE is the only subject still split on gender. Imagine the hoo-ha if you said sorry girls you’re not doing maths, only the boys? The gender gap starts at seven for boys’ and girls’ sport. That’s one of the great things about the title sponsorship with Barclays, they have a big investment in schools, our #whatif pledge is giving every girl the opportunity – that boys have had for years – to play football.

FB If we ask our young girls to name five female footballers they can do it, whereas four years ago they would have been struggling. That shows how far we’ve come. Best of all, the players are so open to meet. As soon as she walked into the room today, Rosie offered to come down and talk to the girls. It would be 10 times harder to get a male footballer to do that.

KS That’s why people are falling in love with the Lionesses and the women’s game, they’ve got incredible stories and they’ve had to battle against the odds – they were thrown out of football teams, they couldn’t find anywhere to play. Hopefully it’s easier now.

England are one of the favourites for the World Cup in France Credit: Getty Images

Who is the audience for the women’s game?

BS Of the 12 million who watched the 2015 World Cup, 48 per cent had never watched women’s football before. So the power of this summer to take the game to an entirely new audience is fantastic. In five years the audience has increased by 500 per cent [across all women’s football coverage]. That came from a very low baseline, and there are still massive differentials, but an increase on that scale in sports broadcasting, in that timescale, is standout. To really unlock the top numbers though, we’ve got to engage female audiences.

KS There is this assumption that it’s women watching women; it’s not, there’s much more of a male skew. You get a lot of families with young children at the big events but the week to week is young adults, 18-24.

SD There’s a lot of interest, but they’ve not known when and where the games are.

What happens after the World Cup is over?

KS Our job is to maximise the opportunity the World Cup gives. We’ve seen those big attendances in Europe, big games in men’s club stadiums, and I’m talking to the clubs about how to do that. You’ll see a big change around that next season, alongside more integration of content around their women’s teams. Rosie you walked out in front of 43,000 at Wembley for the FA Cup final this year?

RK I’ve gone from playing in the third league, where we got about 50 people, to my first professional year. At Wembley it was the first time we couldn’t hear each other on the pitch, we didn’t speak in some of our training sessions to prepare for that. It was an incredible experience.

KS What I love about cup final day is pouring down Wembley Way, hundreds of girls, but boys too, with the names on the back of their shirts, watching these incredible powerful female role models. That’s really important for society that the boys see these incredible women.

Emma Hayes spoke about changing the size of goalmouths to support the women’s game, is there room for innovation?

RK The average height of a female goalkeeper is 5ft 9in, average height of a male goalkeeper is 6ft 2in. That’s genetics. Why would we not adapt the game to our needs? People say it would be patronising, but that’s our problem – we’re always trying to fight against these comments because we’re striving for equality.

KS It’s good that there is a debate and that people in the women’s game are brave enough to think about how we innovate. There are pros and cons, people have strong opinions either way, and practicalities can be challenging. But what I like about it is people talking about where we want to follow the men’s game and where we want to be different to give ourselves the best chances of success.

What do you hope this World Cup will change forever?

RK The women’s game is always compared to the men’s game.  Once that stigma stops, I believe the mindset changes.

FB I think it’s our time.

HR It is our time.