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Recent growth just the beginning for women's football

UEFA’s Time for Action strategy has accelerated the growth of women’s football and raised the bar for what can be achieved in the years ahead.

 Melchie Dumornay (L) of Lyon fights for the ball with Paris Saint-Germain's Sakina Karchaoui during the UEFA Women's Champions League semi-final second leg
Melchie Dumornay (L) of Lyon fights for the ball with Paris Saint-Germain's Sakina Karchaoui during the UEFA Women's Champions League semi-final second leg UEFA via Getty Images

If you happen to be reading this at the San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao, at the final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, take a moment just to look around you. Soak in the atmosphere as kick-off approaches. If you’re not, we’ll set the scene for you. A beautiful stadium. A sell-out crowd. Smiling faces. Anticipation growing as kick-off approaches for the biggest game on the club calendar.

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It’s a scene that has been replicated at stadiums around Europe in recent years – and you don’t have to attend a final for that big-match buzz. The average attendance across the four semi-final matches was 35,933, with Chelsea welcoming a club record 39,398 fans for their second leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge and eight-time champions Lyon also setting a new high of 38,466 for their semi-final opener against Paris Saint-Germain. In the quarter-finals, 35,997 spectators were at the Johan Cruijff ArenA to see Ajax face the Blues – a new Dutch record for a women's game, surpassing even the 33,147 who witnessed last season's final in Eindhoven.

Stamford Bridge was packed with 39,398 fans for Barcelona's semi-final win at Chelsea
Stamford Bridge was packed with 39,398 fans for Barcelona's semi-final win at ChelseaGetty Images

In 2022/23, the average attendance for a UEFA Women’s Champions League game hit five figures for the first time, a 100% increase on only four years previously, and a logical follow-up to the record crowds witnessed at UEFA Women’s EURO 2022.

Put simply, women’s football is booming. It has arrived. And it is only going to get bigger in the years to come.

The incredible growth of the Women’s Champions League is a result, in part, of a strategy put in place by UEFA five years ago, and that will be renewed ahead of this final. The Time for Action strategy was set up in 2019, "dedicated", in the words of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, "to championing, innovating and accelerating women’s football". It has done precisely that.

"UEFA’s women’s football strategy has transformed words into actions," said Anne Rei, the chair of UEFA’s Women’s Football Committee. "The strategy has given direction to the whole of European football – to national associations, to clubs, to all stakeholders.

Together, strategy development programmes, additional finances, transformed competitions and UEFA’s insights and initiatives have had a profound impact on the progress of the women’s game throughout the continent."

That vision has transformed the Women’s Champions League, notably with the introduction of a new group stage ahead of the 2021/22 season, which provided strength in depth, with four groups of four teams playing each other home and away. Other key objectives have also been met.

Staging matches in Europe’s most prestigious stadiums has significantly boosted visibility and delivered a surge in interest. Fans have also been able to follow the action more easily away from the stadiums thanks to a new media rights partnership with DAZN showcasing the best of European women’s club football to new global audiences.

SK Brann at their UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final match against Barcelona
SK Brann at their UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final match against BarcelonaUEFA via Getty Images

Centralised media and commercial rights, meanwhile, have increased the competition’s value more than four-fold, funding a UEFA financial distribution model which extends the benefits across the entire women’s club landscape.

"UEFA has made big strides in regard to our five key goals," Rei said. "The investments and changes to the UEFA Women’s Champions League and UEFA Women’s EURO, plus a highly successful commercial programme, have meant that we have exceeded our expectations in terms of doubling the reach and value of these flagship competitions. This has also gone a long way to changing perceptions.

"Increases in the number of registered players, and the introduction of the UEFA Playmakers programme for girls aged five to eight as well as UEFA Football in Schools means there are now around three million women and girls playing football, more than doubling our target. And we have been working hard on improving the standards for those players. From a governance perspective, almost 20 per cent of our committee members are now female.

"This has only been possible due to the investment in key initiatives. We now have 47 associations with a women’s football strategy, demonstrating that it’s a priority across Europe – but there is still work to do and we cannot afford to rest."

Launched this season, the new women’s national team competition system, comprising two interconnected phases, the UEFA Women’s Nations League and the Women’s European Qualifiers, will help develop the national team game in the same way that the Women’s Champions League is reshaping the club landscape, improving competitive balance, giving all teams a chance to qualify for the UEFA Women’s EURO or the FIFA Women’s World Cup, crowning a UEFA Women’s Nations League winner and, every four years, serving as the European qualification path for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.

One big change already announced for the Women’s Champions League is that from 2025/26 a single-league stage featuring 18 teams will be introduced and a second competition added to European women’s club football. Both steps will give the chance to more clubs within the football pyramid to compete at the highest level, promoting domestic growth and competitive balance.

Watch this space. This journey has only just begun.

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