By Christian Radnedge
LONDON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - The ninth edition of the FA Women's Super League kicks off this weekend with a blockbuster programme, including a Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, and amid high expectations after record numbers watched England at the World Cup.
Competition is anticipated to be intense among the 12 teams, with a prize fund in place for the first time thanks to the multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Barclays that was signed earlier this year.
A total pot of 500,000 pounds ($616,350) has been allocated, with 100,000 pounds going to the champions. That will hand an extra incentive to Arsenal to retain their title, having won their first league trophy in seven years last season.
The challenge will be, though, to convert a growing awareness of the women's game into fans on the terraces.
Chelsea and Manchester City attracted average attendances of nearly 2,000 last season, while the average across the division was around half of that.
Champions Arsenal had their highest attendance of 3,019 against Chelsea in January and begin their second full season under Australian manager Joe Montemurro with a London derby against West Ham United on Sunday.
Yet it is a derby further north the day before, which will draw the most attention.
Manchester United, coached by former England captain Casey Stoney, only re-entered the women's game last year in the second tier, having risen from the ashes of their disbandment in 2005. They went on to win the division and promotion.
They have invested significant sums, attracting players such as England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain and Dutch World Cup runner-up Jackie Groenen, who became the club's first overseas player earlier this year.
Yet they will be tested by big-spending FA Cup winners City who boast a number of internationals of their own and are hosting the first professional clash between the two rivals at the 56,000 seat Etihad Stadium, instead of their usual Academy Stadium.
With the men's game on an international break, the derby is one of several being played in clubs' main stadiums.
Bristol City host Brighton & Hove Albion at Ashton Gate, while Chelsea take on London rivals and newly-promoted Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in the early kickoff on Sunday.
It is hoped that a portion of the record 28.1 million people who watched Phil Neville's England reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in France this year will go to games and help boost gate receipts.
The FA, however, is also looking beyond a domestic audience, having recently secured its first overseas broadcast deal to show matches in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, initially for three years.
There are plenty of global names to follow with Dutch World Cup runner-up and Euro 2017 winner Vivianne Miedema plying her trade for Arsenal, South Korea's record goalscorer Ji So-yun at Chelsea and Canada forward Janine Beckie featuring for City.
"I think women's football is in a place that it’s never been," Beckie, 25, said.
"Obviously England did quite well at the World Cup, so in this country specifically there is more interest in women’s football than ever.
"The club is paying attention and to give us a game in the Etihad is unreal. We're really excited to kick off the season." ($1 = 0.8112 pounds) (Reporting by Christian Radnedge Editing by Toby Davis)