63,000 attend Women's Super League opening weekend games

Manchester City's Janine Beckie, right, and Manchester United's Abbie McManus battle for the ball during the Women's Super League soccer match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday Sept. 7, 2019. (Nigel French/PA via AP)
Manchester City's Keira Walsh, right, and Manchester United's Jackie Groenen battle for the ball during the Women's Super League soccer match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday Sept. 7, 2019. (Nigel French/PA via AP)
Chelsea's Bethany England, left, celebrates scoring against Tottenham Hotspur with teammate Magdalena Eriksson during the Women's Super League soccer match at Stamford Bridge, London, Sunday Sept. 8, 2019. (John Walton/PA via AP)
Manchester City's Aoife Mannion, left, and Manchester United's Leah Galton battle for the ball during the Women's Super League soccer match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday Sept. 7, 2019. (Nigel French/PA via AP)
Chelsea's Maren Mjelde, left, and Tottenham Hotspur's Lucy Quinn battle for the ball during the Women's Super League soccer match at Stamford Bridge, London, Sunday Sept. 8, 2019. (John Walton/PA via AP)
Chelsea's Maren Mjelde, right, and Tottenham Hotspur's Lucy Quinn battle for the ball during the Women's Super League soccer match at Stamford Bridge, London, Sunday Sept. 8, 2019. (John Walton/PA via AP)

LONDON — The opening weekend of the Women's Super League season attracted almost 63,000 fans across six games as England enjoyed an unprecedented increase in crowds, building on a surge in interest in women's soccer during the World Cup.

The cumulative crowd was a 12-fold increase on the start of the 2018-19 season when 5,167 fans attended the five games before the English top flight was enlarged from 11 to 12 teams.

The total of 62,921 was reached this weekend thanks largely to Manchester City using the Etihad Stadium and Chelsea using Stamford Bridge, rather than the smaller venues where their women's teams usually play, and men's clubs not playing during the international break.

A WSL attendance record was set Saturday when 31,213 saw Manchester City beat newly promoted Manchester United 1-0. Chelsea had distributed 40,000 tickets for free for the visit of Tottenham on Sunday and 24,564 attended — still a record crowd for the west London club's women's team.

"We can be cynical about paying for tickets," Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said after her team's 1-0 win, "but I'm not going to criticize it because we've built on the momentum of the World Cup."

Bethany England's long-range strike after four minutes sealed the victory for the two-time WSL champions over a promoted Tottenham side that had eight players making their debuts. Tottenham overhauled the squad after becoming fully professional following its promotion from the second-tier Championship.

"We've won a lot today, not just three points, in people's consciousness women's football will continue to grow and I'm so proud of this football club," Hayes said. "I doubt I'll ever work at a place that has pushed and pushed for women to progress like this place has."

Arsenal opened its title defense with a 2-1 victory over West Ham in front of 1,795 fans at a stadium in Boreham Wood, north of London.

The English Football Association is looking to build on the interest in the women's game that swelled as England reached the World Cup semifinals in July, losing to the United States.

"This weekend has been absolutely incredible in terms of attendance," Tottenham manager Karen Hills said.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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