The Barclays WSL is well and truly underway. Hundreds of thousands of fans tuned in to watch last weekend's opening fixtures, with tens of thousands choosing to make their way to Premier League grounds in the hope of watching their favourite players ball out.
Arsenal definitely put on a showcase at the Emirates Stadium against London rivals Chelsea, beating the WSL Champions 3-2 in a nail-biting game. Elsewhere, Manchester City beat Everton 4-0 with goals from debutants Vicky Losada and Khadija 'Bunny' Shaw. It isn't even Easter and Bunny is already delivering the goods.
This season will potentially be the biggest in WSL history courtesy of massive summer signings, record broadcasting deals and new level of competition for that coveted Champions League spot. Here's our guide to some of the biggest talking points in the 21/22 season.
1. These Players Are Cultural Icons Now
Footballers are more than athletes. They are trendsetters, advocates for change, cultural icons. We've already seen what the likes of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have achieved in the men's game – but with world-class players, increased investment and exposure, WSL players will make a mark on culture in their own right this coming season. Some have already been doing just that. Tobin Heath has already co-created luxury lifestyle brand Rə-Inc, offering eco-conscious fashion, creative goods and products designed for all gender identities and body types. Her teammate Lotte Wubben-Moy is an advocate for equal rights movement Common Goal, and has spoken openly on the topics of racism and the importance of allyship in the game. Don't forget Australian superstar and Chelsea striker Sam Kerr, who has been known to style herself on shoots due to her intense love of sneakers and streetwear. The blurring of cultural lines is more common in football than ever before, and is something we are going to see a lot more of in the WSL this season.
2. WSL Football Will Look at Home in Premier League Stadiums
Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Brighton & Hove Albion and Arsenal kicked off the new WSL season by welcoming fans to games at Premier League grounds. In total, 21,648 fans attended those WSL matches last weekend – but there has been criticism over attendance numbers and whether it’s an indication WSL games shouldn’t be played at "men’s grounds". What the doubters need to understand is that by hosting WSL games at Premier League venues, clubs and the FA are essentially saying: 'we mean business'. WSL football is a product worthy of your time and attention and by showcasing games at historic stadiums like Old Trafford, there isn’t a more obvious way of making that statement of intent. It's something newly promoted WSL side Leicester City understands, as most of their games will be played at the King Power Stadium this season. If you’re a fan of football you’ll know these fixtures deserve to be played on hallowed ground.
3. Sky and BBC Will Finally Give the Game the Analysis It Deserves
Earlier this year, Sky and the BBC announced a record-breaking deal to broadcast WSL matches. The investment – reported to be in excess of £24 million – will be spread across three years, and is the largest commercial agreement in women’s football to date. With countless games being shown across multiple channels and platforms, it means the added bonus of pre-game studio build-up plus HT and FT analysis. Friday’s first WSL game of the season between Manchester United and Reading saw football legends Karen Carney and Casey Stoney drop an absolute masterclass in tactical analysis. It's an elite level of critique we’ve been missing from the game in recent years. 311,000 fans tuned in to watch United beat Reading 2-0, making it the most-watched paid-TV game in WSL history, and 800,000 viewers watched Everton vs Manchester City on BBC One on Saturday, making it the most-watched club-level match on UK TV. This new level of public exposure will no doubt solidify the WSL as one of – if not the most – professional women’s leagues in the world.
4. The WSL Will Be More Competitive Than Ever Before
Since 2014, the WSL has been dominated by the ‘Big Three’: Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. This season, clubs outside of those Champions League qualifying positions have made some stellar signings on and off the pitch. Marc Skinner is back in the WSL as Manchester United’s manager. The former NWSL Orlando Pride and Birmingham City gaffer got off to a flying start beating mid-table frequenters Reading 2-0. One side that has gone a little under the radar with their signings is Brighton & Hove Albion. Spearheaded by one of the game’s greats Hope Powell, the Seagulls’ manager signed former Arsenal and Reading striker Danielle Carter, who notched up two assists in their opening fixture against West Ham United, and they also signed Liverpool’s Rinsola Babajide on loan. They've also renewed 19-year-old Maya Le Tissier’s contract, one of the country’s most promising young talents. The gap is closing this season and we are here for it.
5. The Homegrown Quota Will Create Future England Stars
New rules now stipulate WSL clubs will have to name eight registered players (in a squad of 25) who have been at an English club for a minimum of three years before they turn 21. The FA’s ambition to ensure homegrown talent can continue to be nurtured and showcased at the top flight of women’s football in England formed the basis of their decision. The switch also brings the women’s game in-line with the men’s, as the Premier League currently follows the same set of stipulations. Plans to increase the quota by 2022/23 potentially means fewer players will venture overseas in the hope of getting more playing time and exposure. For the next Ella Toone or Chloe Kelly, the sky really is the limit. The former notched up two assists in her game against Reading at the weekend, setting up another homegrown talent Kirsty Hanson for the opening goal. With the quota in place, and players receiving more opportunities on and off the pitch as a result, English football has an even brighter future ahead.