What's Keeping the Crowds Away From Women's Football?
The Dulwich Hamlet Football Club, founded in 1893, is a shining example of all that is great about minor league sports -- it’s easy on the wallet, accessible on foot or public transportation, and provides a family-friendly environment. Weirdly, however, its devoted and hyper-progressive fanbase, the self-anointed “Rabble,” appear to also hint at a deep-rooted something that lurks in the heart of even the most egalitarian of sports fans.
The Hamlet play in the National League South, the sixth tier of English football, which puts them somewhere on a par with an independent baseball team – it’s a bunch of guys who were almost certainly the best player on their team in high school, but who quickly crashed into the reality of the national talent pool. Suffice to say, all these guys probably have other jobs.
The most notable alum of the club in recent years, really the only notable alum, is Peter Crouch, who, as a 17-year-old, was briefly on loan to the Hamlet in 2000 before enjoying an 18-year career in the Premier League. As for team glory, the Hamlet’s most recent title came in 2012, when they won the Division One South title, earning promotion back to the league from which they’d just been relegated. Nobody who loves the Hamlet can be accused of being a frontrunner.
The club recently found itself embroiled in a dispute with its landlord (and benefactor), Meadow Residential, a real estate firm that sought to raze the club’s grounds, build an apartment complex on that site, and bump the club onto an adjacent parcel of land. A huge fight ensued, drawing the notice of London mayor Sadiq Khan, English football legend Rio Fernandez and American sportscaster Keith Olbermann, among others. Fans plastered the walls and lampposts of East Dulwich - “THE CLUB MUST BE SAVED!” - calling on people to sign petitions, write letters, let their voices be heard. There was even a march through town. Things got so bad at one point that the Hamlet were locked out of their own stadium and forced to play “home” games on the road. Eventually, a deal was struck, as Meadow likely realized they’d overplayed their hand, and now there are plans for a new stadium and everyone is again happy.
On game days in East Dulwich, starting about three hours before kickoff, you will see fans of all ages making their way toward Champion Hill, many wearing the club’s distinctive pink-and-blue scarf wrapped around their necks. It's a community that loves its club so much, they've adorned a nearby postbox with a crocheted tam in the club colors, topped with a football. To get to the main turnstiles, where tickets are only £13 pounds and kids 12 and under get in for free, one must make their way through an open-air carwash (yes, really). Once inside, you’ll see mostly families and older fans filling up the 500 or so seats along the right-hand side of the pitch, while other fans circle the pitch at field level, where there’s a brisk business in burgers, souvlaki and a variety of local brews. Oh, and of course there’s a tea bar and a meat pie shop, because England.
This season, the club is averaging 2,500 fans per match, attendance numbers unheard of at this level of English football. The National League South in which they play has an average attendance of 945--a figure more than 30% lower than the Hamlet’s smallest crowd this season. The atmosphere is raucous and jubilant, the air filled with ridiculous songs, absurd chants and the jangling of keys. And yet it's a great place to take a kid, as there’s no fighting, minimal swearing, and no egregious drunkenness.
Politically, the fanbase is firmly pro-Labour, proudly wearing their progressive hearts on their sleeves. There are pro-LGBTQ+ signs declaring WE DON’T CARE WHICH TEAM YOU PLAY FOR; there’s a large rainbow flag painted on the pavement, and in the souvenir shop there are scarves and hats featuring rainbow flags. A large banner hanging over the northeast end of the grounds once implored you not to buy the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid The Sun. Star Danny Mills (not the former defender for Leeds and Man City) has more than once taken part in a program called Show Racism the Red Card. The club and its fans are committed to inclusivity and diversity and lefty politics and they walk the walk.
Except when the Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies take the pitch.
Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies debuted in 2019, finishing top of the table in their inaugural season and were well on their way to defending their title before Covid ended their season, and they were off to another decent start this season, before a 1-3 skid saw them fall to seventh place in their eleven-team league (though they still have the third-best goal differential). There is no disputing that this team has been every bit as competitive as the Hamlet men, and that for two-plus years they were the team to beat in their league.
Despite this, and despite the fact that tickets to women’s matches costs just £4, the grounds are strangely quiet when the Ladies take the pitch, with crowds typically peaking around 300 to 400, though this past Sunday saw an unusually robust crowd of 462. It’s a reality that perpetuates itself, as the smaller crowds make things way less exciting for players, fans and vendors alike. There’s not as much yelling and cheering, the food selection is slim, and to get a beer you must go up to the clubhouse, as the field-level taps are closed because there aren’t enough customers to justify their being open. One Sunday this past fall, as we watched the Ladies suffer their first defeat of the season, my 13-year-old daughter, a fire-breathing feminist, begrudgingly declared that women’s matches “just aren’t as much fun.”
Which, sure, might be distilled down to: no fans/no funds/less fun. But how to explain the disparity in interest between the men’s team, which finished twelfth last season in a twenty-one-team league, and a women’s team that is a de facto two-time defending champion and whose tickets cost less than one-third as much? How to account for a 75 to 80% drop in attendance? To look at the respective crowds, it’s hard to believe it’s male chauvinism that’s driving the indifference, as the crowds for the Ladies are still largely male. And this isn’t a local phenomenon; in fact, the DHFC fanbase is positively mad for women's football compared to their fellow Britons, as the twelve teams in the Women’s Super League--the female equivalent of the Premier League--this season are averaging 3,400 fans per match (barely better than a DHFC sellout); the men’s Premier League is averaging 39,000, a disparity of more than 90%.
Part of this is obviously cultural, to wit, the "Ladies" in the club's name. This is a country where netball, a watered-down version of basketball, is the sport of choice for many women, and where the Football Association conspired against women footballers by banning member teams from allowing women’s teams to play on their pitches, famously declaring in 1921 that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." It would take a half-century before the ban was lifted.
Until a generation ago, football was the purview of fathers and sons, of men and boys drowning in lager and hungry for violence, many of them drawn to nationalism and racism; things were so bad that to this day, spectators at Premier League and FA matches are not allowed to drink alcohol anywhere from which you can see the field of play (mercifully, this rule doesn't apply to the great majority of matches involving DHFC). As recently as six years ago, UK Sport, the governing body that funds athletes for international competition, was channeling only 41% of their money to female athletes. Though they’ve made improvements in recent years, it will likely take a generation for the effects of that disparity to melt away, but the disparity isn't that large, at least compared the disparity in the stands.
But there’s been a Women’s World Cup since 1995, the Brits have twice elevated a woman to the highest office in the land, and feminism, especially in places like East Dulwich, has largely become the default position. So what's the problem? Why aren't more fans coming out to watch the Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies? Do these things just take a long time? If so, how long? Is there a problem?