Madrid (AFP) – Spain’s domination of men’s football in Europe may be over but in the women’s game it leads the way after a season of unprecedented interest and swelling financial support.
Barcelona will play their first Champions League final against Lyon on Saturday, two months after a European record crowd of 60,739 watched them in a league game against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.
“It was an extraordinary feeling,” Atletico midfielder Angela Sosa told AFP. “Stepping out on the grass – I could never explain what that meant.”
A month earlier, 48,121 attended Athletic Bilbao’s cup game against Atletico at San Mames, more people than at any of the men’s games in the Basque city this season.
“It would have been unthinkable three years ago to be playing games in these huge stadiums,” said Pedro Malabia, La Liga’s director of women’s football.
“But we think that within four or five years we can be doing this once a month or even once every two weeks.”
The idea supporters might watch their women’s team, in the same ground and just as often, as the men’s side, remains a distant concept in most of Europe’s elite football nations.
Yet Spain has stridden ahead, perhaps in part because fans support their clubs holistically, eager to cheer on the youth teams, basketball teams and, now, women’s teams too.
But popularity still looked unlikely as recently as 2015, before 13 clubs joined together to form the Association of Women’s Football Clubs (ACFF) and, under the charge of La Liga, began moving forward.
“The first thing we had to change was the visibility,” said Malabia. “And second, we had to improve the product.”
– ‘Not a fad, a reality’ –
Utilities firm Iberdrola signed a deal in 2016 to be the league’s main sponsor while in March, Mediapro extended its contract to broadcast women’s football in Spain until 2022.
Each year, La Liga Iberdrola now makes 7 million euros, 3 million from Mediapro, 2 million from Iberdrola and a further 2 million from La Liga.
“We wanted to make football available to everyone, not just men,” said Elisa Yarte, Iberdrola’s director of global sponsorship. “We have seen it boom and very much hope it will continue.”
Television swiftly transformed the numbers. Last year, 7 million tuned in cumulatively over the season’s 117 games. Halfway through the current season, that figure had already reached 5 million.