The Women’s Super League attendance record will be broken on Saturday with more than 51,000 tickets sold for the Arsenal vs Tottenham derby at the Emirates Stadium.
The record of 38,262 was set in the reverse match in 2019, when the league received a boost from England after reaching a World Cup semi-final the previous summer.
This summer, Arsenal centre-back and England captain Leah Williamson begged fans who had followed the team’s triumphant Euros journey to come to WSL games. “We’ve brought everyone together,” she yelled into the camera. “We have people at competitions. We want them to come to the Women’s Super League – the legacy of this team will be the start of the journey.”
The message was heard loud and clear at Arsenal. “We followed Leah’s lead,” said Chief Commercial Officer, Juliet Slot, who was at Wembley when Williamson lifted the trophy and her club mate Beth Mead won the gold ball and gold shoe. “We thought, ‘Okay, come on, we as a club have to tell people we want them to come.'”
Arsenal are one of four WSL clubs to play in their club’s main stadium this weekend, meaning the combined turnout for a round of matches will also be crushed. Liverpool will face Everton at Anfield, Brighton will face Reading at Amex and Leicester will face Aston Villa at King Power, where they host all their matches.
Arsenal were one of the last WSL teams to host a league game in their main stadium, but have committed to playing six games there this season and have given season ticket holders for the men’s team the chance to secure those. Slot says the decision to move the games was taken before they started last December and it reflects a strategy for women’s football at Arsenal to invest in players, facilities and marketing.
“One of the reasons I was brought to Arsenal is because I’m used to selling tickets,” she says. “Premier League football clubs don’t traditionally have to work very hard to sell tickets. I come from racing where you have to work really hard for every ticket, even at Royal Ascot. So one of the things I’ve said is that we need a different mindset and mindset and the ability to sell tickets to a new audience.
“We invested in those other areas and the last piece of the puzzle was that I came in and went, ‘This is how we can commercialize it.’ Because ultimately we want it to be sustainable, we want our women’s teams to make a profit and fill stadiums.”
But how did the club achieve more than 50,000 ticket sales, climbing tantalizingly close to the 1921 record for a domestic women’s match of 53,000 with tickets and walk-ups still available?
Last season, 8,705 fans at the 60,260-capacity Emirates stadium watched Arsenal’s curtain-raiser against Chelsea, 13,438 came to the Champions League game against Barcelona and 5,018 attended the Champions League quarter-final against Wolfsburg. The North London derby was also scheduled to take place there on March 26, but was postponed following a Covid outbreak at Tottenham. Arsenal were on course in front of a crowd of more than 15,000.
Much of the increased momentum can be attributed to the win at the European Championship, but being ready for that momentum allowed Arsenal to really take advantage. “We thought the England team would do well, and it was great that they won, but we already had a plan in place,” says Slot. “We do our budgeting in January-February each year. So we planned for this game to be in the Emirates, put a certain amount of marketing spend behind it, and I’d put together a team.”
Last season, Slot had one person full-time and one part-time on the Tottenham game at the Emirates. Now a women’s steering committee covers every area and recruits the communications and operations teams.
“You shouldn’t just say, ‘If you build it, they’ll come,'” says Slot. “You have to keep telling people about the opportunity. The main message this week is that tickets are even available in advance, which you would never expect at a men’s match. So it’s about educating the public.”
Only about 100 tickets have been given away through the club’s community program. “You notice that a lot of people take the tickets and then don’t show up,” says Slot. “So I’m very aware that you have to value the experience.”
Clubs learn from each other and share successes. Joining Barcelona after a record number of visitors at Camp Nou is on the agenda for Slot. She acknowledges that there is “a lot of work to do” and says: “We are talking and working with all the other clubs that are really focused on women’s football and trying to grow the game sustainably together.”