La Liga turning heads with women’s soccer
There’s something special happening in Spanish soccer. Something more impressive than Lionel Messi’s latest hat trick. Something more important than El Clásico. Something more consequential than which teams face relegation in La Liga.
To soccer fans, that probably sounds heretical. But look at recent attendance figures for the Primera División de la Liga de Fútbol Femenino, the top level of women’s professional soccer in Spain, and you’ll see that it’s not.
On Jan. 30, Athletic Bilbao set a new attendance record when 48,121 fans watched its Copa de la Reina quarterfinal against Atletico de Madrid. That’s the largest crowd ever for a women’s soccer game in Spain. That’s also the largest Bilbao crowd to go to San Mamés Stadium for any soccer game this season, beating the men’s high mark of 46,884.
The Bilbao record-breaker begs the question: What’s going on with women’s soccer in Spain? Plus, it’s a good reminder that progress in women’s sports also happens outside the U.S. It’s not all about Title IX and World Cup wins and basketball gold medals. While the U.S. leads the way with opportunities available to female athletes, other countries deserve a closer look. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s look at Spain.
If you’re thinking the Bilbao crowd was an outlier, you’re right. But it’s not the only impressive attendance figure for Fútbol Femenino at the club level. Bilbao broke its own record set in 2003 when 35,000 fans cheered the Basque side to the first of its five league championships. Last season, 22,202 fans showed up for a game between Atlético de Madrid and Madrid CFF and 21,500 for Real Sociedad versus Athletic Bilbao. Earlier this season, Sociedad and Bilbao drew 21,234 fans, while 20,198 went to Levante UD versus Valencia.
For perspective, the capacity crowd at the 2018 NWSL championship game numbered 21,144 and set an attendance record for a women’s pro league final in the U.S.
The Spanish numbers become even more impressive when you talk with the director of women’s fooball for La Liga, Pedro Malabia. “Women’s football in Spain was absolutely dead three or four years ago,” he said. “It had no strategy. It had no visibility in the media, on TV. We had several professional men’s clubs investing in women’s football, but without a return on their investment.”
This is where the story of Spanish women’s football gets more interesting and instructive.
In October 2015, La Liga, the organization that oversees men’s pro soccer in Spain, launched efforts to develop women’s pro soccer. The initiative made obvious sense. While the Royal Spanish Football Federation runs the 16-team women’s Primera División, there are 12 La Liga clubs with a women’s side, including FC Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid and Valencia. As part of the initiative, La Liga created a “Women’s Football Department” and worked on strategies that would professionalize all aspects of the women’s league.
“La Liga understood its responsibility towards society, women and its men’s clubs that had women’s teams, and it decided to get actively involved in taking women’s football to the next level,” Malabia said. “[That investment] made the men’s clubs understand this big asset in their hands named women’s football.”
It also laid the foundation for future marketing efforts, including the #WeSpeakTheSameGame campaign.
In a promotional video, players appear in pairs. There’s one male standout and one female standout from FC Barcelona, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, Levante, Espanyol, Atlético de Madrid, Valencia, Real Betis and Sevilla FC. And they talk soccer. At the end of the video, in seemingly casual conversation, Real Sociedad goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Moyá says, “It’s not about men’s or women’s football. It’s about football. Played by men or women, but still football.” It’s smart, simple and effective messaging that also sums up La Liga’s marketing philosophy for women’s soccer.
By literally placing men’s and women’s soccer in the same conversation, by creating optics where male and female players appear as equals, side-by-side in the same uniform, it encourages fans to see the women’s game the same way they see the men’s games. The optics also highlight the fact that the players represent the same teams. And since club loyalty runs deep in Spanish soccer, the video essentially makes the case that loyalty to the men’s side should engender loyalty to the women’s side.
“The more visibility we get for the women’s players, the more fans understand that this is my team also,” Malabia said. “The fans think, ‘I need to support my men’s team and my women’s team. It’s the same crest.’”
But it’s not enough to promote respect for the women’s game. You need to support that kind of messaging with action. It appears La Liga understands that, too.
This season, 10 women’s games will be played in La Liga stadiums. Those games offer an opportunity to showcase Fútbol Femenino, attract big crowds and reinforce the #WeSpeakTheSameGame message. So far, five of the 10 games have taken place and averaged 22,131 fans per match. Those numbers include the record-breaker at Bilbao. Beyond La Liga stadium use, television broadcasts of women’s games feature some of the same production bells and whistles as men’s games. There’s Skycam use plus technology that allows video analysis and displays tactical data.
There will be 71 women’s games shown on four different TV channels this season. The 71-game broadcast schedule is almost as impressive as the attendance in Bilbao.
It’s true Bilbao is a special case. Athletic Bilbao and its policy of Basque-only players inspires particularly fierce loyalty. It also helps that the women’s team boasts a long tradition of success that locals take pride in. And for the Copa de la Reina quarterfinal against Atletico de Madrid, season-ticket holders for the men’s club got into that match for free and the general public was charged 5 Euro.
Still, the Primera División de la Liga de Fútbol Femenino and, in particular, Bilbao offer a proof of concept for women’s sports everywhere: If you invest in it, really invest with smart marketing and frequent, quality broadcasts and opportunities to watch the best games in the biggest stadiums, fans will follow.
Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University. She can be reached at email@example.com.