Spain is out to prove the idea that women’s sports can’t inherently succeed has always been coded nonsense.
Last weekend, Olympique Lyonnais demolished Barcelona, 4-1, in the Champions League final. There was nothing unexpected about the result: It was Barcelona’s first appearance in the final of the competition, and Lyon have featured in four straight, winning all of them. It was a grand achievement for Barcelona to make it so far, and after their loss, the main Twitter account posted a video claiming that while their season might be over, a dream was just beginning:
The dream… has only just begun pic.twitter.com/AxZ8HgE9Mx
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) May 19, 2019
Though that post may look like a small gesture, it was significant because it was Barcelona’s main account promoting and celebrating their women’s team in a way most clubs in the world still don’t. For the last few years, La Liga has been pushing to make their women’s football a popular and sustainable product, and Barcelona is doing their part by promoting their women’s team to as many fans as possible.
Women’s football in Spain was recognized by the Royal Spanish Football Federation in 1980, and the Liga Nacional, the highest level competition, was founded eight years later. The league was rebranded as the Primera División at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, and in 2015, La Liga took over control of the league with the intent to make it an attractive and sustainable product.
Pedro Malabia, head of women’s football at La Liga, explained the challenge of making league profitable doesn’t have to do with a lack of interest in the women’s game, but with building the proper foundations and then marketing:
”When in 2015 the clubs asked us to come on board, what we found was a competition without visibility, without a commercial strategy or a stable presence on television. … Our great challenge was to start a series of initiatives that would help to create a quality product— one that would attract the attention of fans, sponsors and media. Our goal was to increase the appeal of women’s football — and to professionalise its league.
“The creation of the Association of Women’s Football Clubs — which currently includes 70 women’s football clubs across the premier and second divisions — has allowed the clubs to carry out promotion strategies and work together for the growth of their sector. The entry of Iberdrola, too, as the main sponsor of the league was a key moment. It has been a main driver of the competition.”
That 2015, La Liga set its sites on professionalizing many of the teams in an ongoing effort to make sure the players would no longer need to work on the side while playing. So, according to Malabia, the players’ lives could be sustained by their contract so they can focus on the sport as much as they need to reach their potential.
A big part of the league’s sustainability has come from the its sponsorship with Iberdrola. And last year, Barcelona Femení got their first main jersey sponsorship with Stanley Black & Decker.
The foundation-building for women’s football in Spain was partly helped by the successes of the women’s teams on the international stage. Spain’s women’s national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2015. Then in 2018, the U-17 team won their respective World Cup while U-20s made their World Cup final. Along with the international accolades has come a cultural change surrounding women’s football, so women playing the sport are no longer seen as an aberration.
This type of progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Cultural change needs active entities.
While it’s true that views have become more progressive towards women’s football, the shift has also coincided with Barcelona doing things like consistently promoting Barcelona Femení on their main account, and making the team known to fans who might have never encountered the women’s team otherwise.
Barcelona’s and La Liga’s effort to make their women’s teams as visible as possible is in stark contrast to a team like Manchester United, which has only promoted their own women’s team a handful of times since its inception a year ago. That’s not surprising, considering United’s reluctance to create the team.
It would be irresponsible to talk about the struggle to make women’s teams successful and sustainable without talking about the historical and institutional sabotages that have been perpetrated against the sport. While the men’s game has, in many places, over a century of history and promotion, women have been denied that opportunity and support. Spain is still building on four years of work after professionalizing the Primera División in 2015, and that’s with the knowledge that the highest league for women was created in 1988.
In Britain, women’s football was effectively banned at the professional levels until 1971, under the reasoning that it conflicted with femininity and shouldn’t be encouraged. The German Football Association had a similar ban until the same year. In Brazil, football was banned for women until 1979. That originated from a citizen writing to then-President Getúlio Vargas, stating the same concern about football and femininity. France, the beacon of success in women’s football, boasts the two best teams in the sport in Lyon and PSG, but also banned banned the game until 1970.
Similar bans of women’s football still exist in many other countries today. And in places where women aren’t banned outright from playing, there is an endless list of obstacles they face: threats of violence, lack of financial support, lack of access to fields and proper training, lack of sanitary napkins and sports bras, bans on certain clothing that forces some women to choose between their religious identity and the sport they love, wage inequality, and lack of proper promotion and institutional support.
For most of its history, women’s football has struggled to exist because of institutional sabotage based in sexism, and then had its failures reasoned as evidence of an inherent lack of interest. And that’s what makes something as simple as Barcelona tweeting about their women’s team so heartening.
And Barcelona isn’t alone. They have teamed with Atletico Madrid (winners of the last four league titles), Valencia, and other prominent La Liga sides to make the women’s game work. There appears to be a dedication to invest and support female players, without the coded presumption there’s something unsustainable about women’s football.
If Spain succeeds in this grand plan, it could be a beacon for other countries around the world, showing them the collaborative effort needed to uplift the women’s game. Spain is not yet a success story, but it is an inspiring one. And it appears to be thriving on the most obvious, but overlooked, concept when it comes to women’s football: The interest is there, and if you want to capitalize on it, you have to support the game at all levels, from professionalizing the teams to promoting them as much as possible.