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What's the magic formula for women's sport?

Updated: May 19, 2020

With the return of the Bundesliga this weekend, sport behind closed doors is a reality. Over the past few months, it has been fascinating watching broadcast channels diversify their content to reflect public sentiment.

Sky sports cricket has been a favourite in our household. A show-stopping bank holiday weekend watching the unmissable Ben Stokes test at Headingley, followed by Anya Shrubsole bringing home the women’s world cup. By heightening the storytelling and reliving these moments, it’s maintaining our hope, joy and spirits.

Attention is also focused towards our unsung heroes. Captain Tom Moore, the legend, who at 100 years old completed 100 laps of his back garden, raising over £30 million pounds for the NHS. Alongside England Lacrosse star Dr Rebecca Jordache; who contracted corona virus whilst fighting on the front line in her full time profession as Doctor.

Despite this emotional roller-coaster. We must remain positive. As, ‘sport will be back'.

As a sports fan, I’ve appreciated the representation of female role models within the media during this time. Lauren Winfield and Kate Cross (England cricket players) taking over the ECB Instagram account, telling us their lockdown tales and reaching a broad diversified cricket audience. Katarina Johnson-Thompson (GB’s heptathlon star) sharing her motivational workout tips through the BBC. Amy Conroy (GB wheelchair basketball player) motivating the public, showing that hope and resilience should remain within us all:

"When life can be tough, we all have the ability to be tough right back and I do believe that good can come from hard times."

I’m an amateur county cricketer and I’m absorbed in this world. So, when I said to my sister, I think there’s been a strong representation of women in sport during COVID19, she was right to question… ‘really?’.

The stats don’t agree with me. In 2017 Women in Sport carried out a piece of research that uncovered only 4-10% of sports media coverage in the UK was female.

The under representation of diversity in sport goes beyond gender; it also effects: culture, social economic backgrounds and race.

In November 2019, Siya Kolisi (the first black South African captain), visited Sky Sports offices. He shared his story: “When we stepped on the pitch, the world cup final was bigger than just a game, it was an opportunity to unite our country”. After winning the world cup, his team were greeted in Tambo airport by a noticeably multiracial crowd. The sport united the country: “It was magical”.

This shows the power sport has to generate change within society. Sport teaches values. It creates a sense of community and purpose. It brings people together, from every walk of life. Sport represents society.

Siya inspired me to think more holistically about women's sport. How can we continue generating change in women's sport? To continue the growth and positively change perceptions about the game?

The women's sport fly wheel

In the most simplistic terms, to grow women's sport we need three things to work together: participation, audience and investment, but something needs to spark this magic.

  1. More people participating will engage audiences.

  2. Audiences encourage investment.

  3. Investment attracts sponsors, broadcasters etc.

Men’s football in the UK is a prime example. It is the most participated sport, attracts the largest audiences and broadcast rights alone are worth billions.

It’s not easy where to start with women's sport: investment, audience or participation? Not one entity owns women’s sport. In order to change the representation, the complexity of the game needs addressing. The complexity starts with the social stigmas attached to each stage of the women’s sport fly wheel (women's fly wheel = audience, participation, investment working together to grow the game).

Social stigmas in women's sport:

  • Audience = negative perceptions

  • Participation = the desirability to play

  • Investment = the negative value return

Growing audience

> Is women's sport as good to watch as men's sport?

> They're different games so need to be appreciated on their individual merit.

> By publishing and broadcasting women's sport you inspire future generation and create platforms to positively change perceptions.

Increasing participation

> Are women in sport feminine enough? Are they representative of what females should look like? > In 2017, only 4-10% of sports media coverage in the UK was female.

> Sport needs to be normalised so that it becomes more desirable for kids. Allowing individualism within role models, allows people to be their authentic selves and makes the game more inclusive. No one has to look a certain way, male or female.

Increasing investment

> Are women fighting for investment when they don’t bring in crowds?

> Without taking the game seriously, athletes can’t dedicate their life to train.

> See investment as a foundation for the future. With the right infrastructure, the audience will follow.

As there are less females playing sport, the benefits of growing the women’s sport fly wheel are significant and the growth will help represent a more balanced society.

By growing participation, building audiences and attracting investment, it means more females gain the values from sport: resilience, discipline, leadership - to name only a few. There are clearer career trajectories: journalists, coaches, players. Playing offers the opportunity to become part of a community, which often helps you gain a sense of purpose.

Image: Women's fly wheel.

Women's fly wheel shows how to grow the game.

Audience + participation + investment (social stigmas at each stage) = balanced society + more people in communities,with a sense of purpose.

WBNA - finding the magic and flying the wheel

Growing the audience and positively changing perceptions:

In the US, they take basketball seriously and professionally. This helps change the perceptions of the women's game. They don’t make direct comparisons to their male counterparts. You don’t compare apples and oranges so why compare men’s and women’s basketball?

In April 2020, the WBNA virtual draft made an impact across the WNBA and NBA social media handles, generating 6.5 million video views (up 165% vs. last year) and 1.3 million minutes watched (up 237% vs. last year). In addition, the @WNBA Instagram handle had its highest year-over-year growth, generating more than 3.8 million video views on draft day.

Guess what, everyone championed the game to make it cool. From LeBron James, to Nike, to the club itself. All players were welcoming their counterparts. Everyone uniting, making noise together, made it even cooler. PERCEPTIONS ARE CHANGING because we are influenced by everyone!

Increasing participation and making it desirable:

The US have a college system that feeds into its professional league. You cannot play in the WBNA until 21, when you have finished college. This is when they get entered the draft.

Sabrina Ionescu was 21, the first player to enter the draft, she totalled 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. Her talent alone is making the game desirable.

By making the WBNA desirable and attainable it is growing participation, which in turn is growing audiences. They are proud of their women's teams. They allow individualism to shine through. They have a strong infrastructure. The WBNA make playing women's basketball cool.

The long-term value return of investment:

In the US, the Chiney sisters (WBNA) secured ground-establishing agreements to improve basic employee rights, female athletes now get full maternity pay.

It hurts to invest in something that doesn’t pay back dividends. At some point you need investment to create opportunities to get the women’s sport fly wheel going. The opportunity size is huge. Kids will then start believing they can become sports women (full-time), the standard will improve. In turn, millions of people will be viewing women's sport. Just as, women’s basketball is now generating unbelievable audiences.

And as Nneka Ogqumike says...

There you have it.

The women’s sport fly wheel.

Social stigmas to tackle at each stage.

If you take anything from this, here's some thoughts:

  1. Take women's sport seriously, don’t underestimate it. Champion the game.

  2. Sport is cool. Everyone is a influencer - including you. Allow for individualism.

  3. Value return may take longer than anticipated. Start by changing the 4%-10% media coverage in the UK. See investment as a platform for the future.

Finding the magic formula and flying the women's sport wheel is why I’m passionate about the growth of women’s sport. It’s not about financial reward, it’s about being fair with investment and opportunities. It’s about creating a balanced society that gives more opportunities for females to be part of sporting communities. Use this time to help redefine the future for a stronger representation of diversity within sport.

I don’t want your daughter to just play sport.

I want your daughter to dream of being a sports woman.

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