Football’s Shuffle Between Skin and Silhouette

“I like going down to a nice little local pub,” Leah Williamson, fitted in Acne Studios and Gucci loafers, says. “I can’t say where or people will know it.”

In another video, Declan Rice—“head to toe in Prada, obviously”—explains his favourite London restaurant to get a duck salad at.

After a red-carpet event, social media is awash with these snippets, catching a celebrity at their least media-trained and best attempts at authenticity. They seem more relaxed. It is the kind of content that, when asked by Amelia Dimoldenberg for his favourite day on the set of Dune 2, Stellen Skarsgård awkwardly shut down as a “TikTok question. You want a question that has one short answer”. Dimoldenberg is perhaps the golden child of bite-sized, deadpan, and unserious content. She won the awkwardness and appeal in the reaction to the Skarsgard clip by replying “you can just say no”. She understood the golden rule on pop culture cameras: nothing is that serious.

In football, players have long been staples as cultural touchpoints, and their flittering into new media is no coincidence. In the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, the FA veered its media strategy away from the vultures of traditional media to a self-made, contained embrace of player-led content. They introduced a generational change in their image and accessibility to that of modern celebrity, one preoccupied with personality and the appearance of intimacy.

The ‘Lions’ Den’ series has consisted of a former Love Island star having normal conversations with players, scrolling through social media. It confirmed common knowledge: they used the same apps we do, they knew the same common cultural references. They were in on the joke. They dipped into the unspoken online confrontation, where creator and consumer are in constant conversation, constant surveillance, and reaction of each other.

It was a media strategy that became the perfect setting for the Lionesses to outdo on-pitch success. The ripple of the Euros win is still felt; almost overnight cultural icons have stayed cemented as figures in UK popular culture and there has been an open embrace of a handful of players. Authentic and touchable, one photo dump and TikTok at a time.

If you have been to a Lionesses game even before the start of the Euros, you have probably experienced the collective rush of young girls down the steps and to the edge of the advertising boards around the pitch. The illusion of intimacy bridging the parameters to players is the level of fan worship and connection that future marketing for the women’s game will hinge on and navigate.

Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

It was this kind of intimacy that crowds could “claim and achieve” with literal strangers according to Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl when they first introduced the idea of ‘parasocial relationship’ in the 1950s. Based on the idea of a one-sided relationship and awareness of another person, they described it as “one of the most striking characteristics of new media”. Accelerated since then by amplified social media presence, the on-demand nature of entertainment, and the abundance of visual content, the term has seen a resurgence in popular culture. Learning the face and behaviour of a celebrity through a screen has become like learning the face of a friend or family member, and the access and potential for them to notice the audience back, physically or digitally, has transformed the fundamental distance into a “semi-parasocial” form which celebrity and popular culture are still grappling with. The attachment of this parasocial hope to those that provide solace and positive feelings, most often in music and sporting industries, and more often in women, has blurred the line between fan and consumer, role model and real person.

When NewCo takes over the Women’s Super League and Championship, a process that moves frantically closer to its fruition, they will undoubtedly look to translate the momentum of national pride that floods the Lionesses’ games to its domestic league. On a club level, this process quickly began following the summer of 2022. Mary Earps has become a household name and an infamous face for Manchester United. Though Arsenal had growing attendance and a growing fanbase prior to the Lionesses’ success, their capitalisation of its stars is difficult to ignore each time they sell out the Emirates.

When they signed Alessia Russo last summer, they signed much more than a player. Her Instagram following had risen 280% in the year before and grew with more than 20,000 additional followers by the day after her transfer from Manchester United was confirmed. She’s appeared in a range of brand partnerships, from PlayStation to Gucci, and appeared in Adidas’ Predator boot campaign alongside Gabriel Jesus.

It poses an inevitable friction, then, that a draw of women’s football has traditionally been its accessibility to players. With lower crowds than the men’s game, the experience of the women’s football community was, and still is, fundamentally different; the chances to personally meet players at the end of a game higher. Whilst also being figures for a celebratory focus on women, players were perhaps afforded some kind of anonymity. But as the women’s game grows, so must, inevitably, the boundaries.

When NewCo CEO Nikki Doucet talked about creating a “Glastonbury” vibe to women’s football, it sparked discussion on how we want fan behaviour and relationships to appear and feel. It also presented the potentially problematic comparison to a music industry of increasingly unhealthy interaction between performer and fan. When singer ‘Ethel Cain’ rose to sudden popularity in recent years, she said she quickly felt like a “dancing monkey in a circus” to fans, despite their adoration. “The reality of it is,” Earps said after the post-Euros flood of fans, “if that’s the expectation, we’re always going to fall short. The emphasis needs to switch now.” Ella Toone, another icon from 2022, whose personality and humour have culminated in millions of views and fans online, said: “The stadiums are usually much smaller, so we’re used to being able to see everyone, sign shirts and take pictures, connect with everyone. As it continues to grow, that’s not sustainable anymore. It’s about finding different ways to connect.”

Of all the governing and tangible decisions presented for women’s football in the near future, it is not the player’s job to decide how this connection and illusion of intimacy continues. But past ensuring safety and sustainability, it is not completely the governing bodies’ responsibility either. Though they have placed importance on targeting these relationships, there is no fixed template to govern fan relationships in this era. Every relationship a child has with their role model is unique, special, and should be celebrated. The act of a young person, especially young girls, claiming a space is powerful. But as the game grows commercially, fandoms are inevitably tangled with brand positionings and consumerist lenses. Just as in other popular culture industries, the way we think about performer’s bodies needs to change; the incessant demand of rights we have for them, the culture of expectation we attach to them.

As much as we celebrate the essential differences and the practising of values fundamentally different to the men’s game, the conceding of personable access to players is inevitable. Players already have agencies running their social media accounts, they can’t physically spend hours meeting people. Of course, this exists perhaps in a tiny sphere of clubs. Go further down the WSL where attendances are lower, players seem more accessible. But the premise remains: in women’s football, there must be a tipping point to a time when clear boundaries develop. There must be time taken to preserve what people find meaningful in the uniqueness of the game, whilst accepting the inevitable changes as to what this looks like. That responsibility is not placed on one party, but rather on a community.

As Rachel Yankey suggested last year, the burden needs to be taken out of the players hands. After all, they are, for their cause or effect of generations before, caught up in the growth of the game in the UK with more eyes on it than ever. From their relative anonymity a few years ago to finally being granted greater power and resources for their sport at the reward or consequence of mainstream fame, they must be protected in some ways. The role of the modern player is changing parallel to the unrelenting pace that defines the online generation. Extra burdens of cases of privacy and boundaries are unproductive, and the relative infancy of its fanbase creates the chance that this could change.  

Williamson ranking the best tube lines in London and identifying what Arsenal away shirts Theo Walcott played in is in direct response to the more fun, camp desire of football fans outside of traditional media. But it enters an online space where the lines and boundaries are constantly being rewritten, pushed, and rescinded. As women’s football claims more space within this, mirroring and figuring out the relationship between audience and product will be fascinating.

Juliet Nottingham

Into football, films, Wales, and other nice things. Studying journalism to counteract.