‘It’s open to everyone’: women’s football watch parties are on the rise | OneFootball

‘It’s open to everyone’: women’s football watch parties are on the rise | OneFootball

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The Guardian

·16 April 2024

‘It’s open to everyone’: women’s football watch parties are on the rise

Article image:‘It’s open to everyone’: women’s football watch parties are on the rise

On a Wednesday night in late March, the inside of Stamford Bridge’s Tea Bar is decked out by Baller FC, a collective which hosts women’s football watch parties. The group’s DIY decor taps right into women’s football fandom. There is a cardboard cutout of Chelsea’s Emma Hayes. “In Sarina we trust,” reads a flag with an illustration of the Lionesses’ manager. Posters commemorate the seven grassroots teams invited here to celebrate their achievements. This evening’s party culminates in Chelsea’s Champions League fixture against Ajax at Stamford Bridge, with tonight’s guests given free tickets.

It’s the second time Baller FC has teamed up with Chelsea – Fran Kirby popped by at the last event – and is indicative of the collective’s success since being set up by a group of friends in 2022. As women’s football fans, they were tired of scouring the capital trying to find a pub that would put on games. For the Women’s Euros in 2022 they took over a pub in east London, hosting watch parties for every one of the tournament’s 31 games. Crucially, they wanted the women’s football to be the main focus and not shunted to the sidelines for, say, a clashing men’s sports fixture.

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“We wanted to make sure that we had a space where everybody knew that the game was going to be on, with the sound on,” says Rachel Gould, founder of Baller FC, “and the football was going to be front and centre – you weren’t going to get turfed out for something else, and you weren’t going to get stuck in a corner.” Generating atmosphere is central to Baller FC’s events, with games, DJs and karaoke. Humour is key. In light of the cancellation of the Arnold Clark Cup this year, the collective held a mock memorial service organised with another community group, Studs. There were candles, flowers and a eulogy.

Baller FC isn’t alone. Women’s football watch parties are on the rise. Since England’s record-breaking victory at the Euros in 2022, collectives have popped up around the UK, creating fun spaces for fans to gather and watch games when they might otherwise struggle to find a venue. In London, Set Piece Social and The Other Team have organised watch parties for international and WSL fixtures. In Glasgow, Pitch Please also run watch parties for WSL fixtures. In the US, The Sports Bra opened in 2022, solely showing women’s sport. For Baller FC and other collectives, organisers work with the venues to ensure parties are free to attend, LGBTQ+ inclusive and accessible, with events often held on the ground floor.

In Manchester, Rain On Me FC has held women’s football watch parties since the Euros. Recent events include screening the Manchester derby, which the team watched at the Carlton Club in the city. Over 100 people came to its Women’s World Cup final watch party last year, where there was a keepy-uppy challenge and a raffle for charity. Three Lion chocolate bars were among the prizes.

For Rachel Woolfenden, a social secretary at Rain On Me FC, there is a clear need for these parties; many pubs still don’t televise women’s matches over, for example, an alternative Premier League fixture. “If we don’t provide it, then it’s not going to be there on a decent-sized scale and then everyone has to kind of split up and go to different tiny venues, which doesn’t work,” she explains. “You want to be with everyone in a big group where it is a bit lairy but it’s still, you know, nice.” That inclusive environment is key. “It’s open to everyone, but it’s good to see a load of women and queer people obsessed with football that you don’t usually see. I think people think it’s just like a bloke’s sport, which obviously it isn’t.”

Since the Euros, Baller FC has organised watch parties throughout the WSL season. Last summer, the group held watch parties for every match during the Women’s World Cup. More than 500 fans were at its watch party for the final, held at the east London taphouse Signature Brew, with around 2,000 people on the waitlist. “We were getting insane turnouts at like 8am in the morning for women’s football matches, I still can’t really wrap my head around it,” recalls Selina Travis, another founding member of Baller FC.

In the end, it’s about having fun. Back at the Tea Bar, the teams have just headed out to watch Chelsea take on Ajax, with the WSL club progressing to the semi-finals of the Champions League 4-1 on aggregate. Gould and Travis are speaking over the sounds of Lady Gaga’s The Edge of Glory; tonight’s playlist has been curated by the guests. “It’s just about trying to bring everybody into the community and create a safe space that everyone feels comfortable to have a good time,” says Gould. Travis adds: “We’re quite keen on the idea that you don’t have to pay to go and watch a men’s football match in the pub. So, unless we’re doing an extra event on it, everything’s always free. It’s a labour of love.”

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