Surging numbers bear out success of revamped UEFA Women's Champions League
Friday, 20 May 2022
Huge global TV audiences, record crowds and a big thumbs-up from the players all point to the success of the new format of the UEFA Women’s Champions League this season.
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"When you're a child, you dream of lots of things, but you never think those dreams can come true. That was really incredible." Barcelona forward Claudia Pina is describing playing in front of 91,553 fans at the Camp Nou in the quarter-finals against Real Madrid.
The attendance broke the record for an official women’s football match and to prove it was not a one-off, it was bettered again weeks later in the semi-finals against Wolfsburg.
The interest, passion and enthusiasm of supporters has been felt across Europe as fans flocked to the revamped UEFA Women’s Champions League. This season, the old mixture of qualifying mini-tournaments then knockout ties from the last 32 has been replaced with a 16-team home-and-away group stage, running between October and December.
The new group stage captured the imagination straight away, according to Servette midfielder Sandy Maendly. "We felt a bit like little kids before Christmas," she says. "It was special for us – we would never have imagined competing in it this season." The Swiss midfielder's team were drawn in Group A alongside heavy-hitters Wolfsburg, Juventus and Chelsea, which guaranteed a feast of home games against quality opposition, whetting the appetite in Maendly's home town.
"I'm from Geneva, so it is always special to be able to play in your own stadium," she says, referring to the city's 30,000-capacity Stade de Genève, where Servette played their group games. It was a big step up from the cosier confines of Servette's usual home, the Stade de Marignac, but huge crowds totally justified the switch. "There was a lot of talk on social channels and posters in the city; there was a bit of a buzz," added Maendly.
New format has huge impact
The new group stage was a key part of UEFA women's football strategy, Time for Action. The competition was given unprecedented broadcast coverage thanks to a ground-breaking worldwide deal with DAZN and YouTube, which ensured that every game in the competition proper would be shown for free for the first two seasons. In previous years, coverage was on a piecemeal basis prior to the final, with little chance to watch clubs outside their home territories. Now every game is available on tap, and the group stage alone drew more than 14 million views from over 210 countries and territories around the world.
The revamp also gave the first half of the season a proper narrative, rather than a couple of rounds of often one-sided knockout ties. The ups and downs of the likes of Arsenal, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Chelsea provided new drama. "This needed to happen," said Gunners defender Leah Williamson. "Before, you could be in and out of the Champions League like that, whereas now there’s exposure for the women's game. Getting to play in those high-quality games – and six of them just in the group stage – is really important for us and for the growth of the women's game."
It certainly captured the imagination, evidenced by the number of fans flocking to watch the games in person. In 2019/20, the average crowd across 48 games in the rounds of 32 and 16 was 1,732. Over the same number of matches, the group stage mean figure was almost double at 3,381, despite some continued COVID restrictions. That included 18,344 at Parc des Princes for Paris Saint-Germain v Real Madrid and a Swiss record 12,782 watching Servette FCCF face Chelsea in Geneva. Those two games were part of an aggregate attendance of nearly 60,000 across the eight Matchday 3 games.
Knockout round fever
The excitement reached fever pitch in the spring for the knockouts. As well as those record crowds at Barcelona, a new record for a French women's club game was set at the Parc des Prince when 43,255 supporters watched Paris take on Lyon in the semi-finals. Likewise, Wolfsburg's 2-0 victory against Barça was enjoyed by a club-record 22,057 spectators. Three of the five biggest attendances ever in this competition have been set this season, and the new-look competition has now amassed an aggregate stadium audience of more than half a million – 555,673 to be precise – with the final still to come. Breathtaking numbers. "Big moments like these are what women's football needs," said Nadine Kessler, UEFA chief of women's football.
The new format also opened up opportunities for clubs other than the established powers. Three contenders – HB Køge, Hoffenheim and Real Madrid – made their European debuts, while Benfica, Juventus, Servette and WFC Kharkiv were among the final 16 for the first time in any format. Breidablik, meanwhile, were the first Icelandic side to play in any full UEFA club competition group stage. Forward Tiffany McCarty said, "It's every soccer player's dream to be playing in the Champions League, so I’m grateful that I can be a part of this."
As well as short-term benefits for players and fans alike, Maendly anticipates long-term gains. "There are more games at the top level between big teams and there are more clubs across Europe with women’s teams – it’s interesting for development of women's football," she says. "Now there are a lot more female references whereas before, girls who played football all watched the men – having a group stage really makes it like the Champions League." So tune in. The drama's only just beginning.
This is an edited version of an article which appears in the official UEFA Women's Champions League final programme.