There is a huge gap in our lives right now: sport. Wimbledon cancelled for the first time since the Second World War. Our national game, football, postponed for the foreseeable future. The Olympics, the ultimate sporting show, has been delayed a year. For many,a world without sport is a world without purpose.
Sport is more than just watching and playing. It’s more than just a game. It gives you a sense of community. It gives you purpose. It defines your values and it shapes your mindset. You experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Through sport, you learn how to be autonomous, how to be a decision maker, and how to be a team player. You’re constantly trying to better yourself. It’s exhausting but, quite frankly, beautiful.
However, there is a gap in the way we perceive sport. For men, sport generally represents opportunity: the opportunity to be at the heart of a community, to gain recognition and respect, to earn huge wealth and live a desirable life.
Peter Crouch was asked: ‘What would you be if you weren’t a footballer’. He answered: ‘a virgin’.
For men, sport is unashamedly and undoubtedly cool.
As a female athlete, I’ve always envied this empowering and encouraging view of sport. At 12, I travelled over 3 hours to play 'local league' football. I was the only girl in my friendship group that played sport on a weekend. I played men's cricket to get 'good local competition'. I didn't really know national teams existed. Until University, as a female playing sport, I felt like an anomaly.
Things are improving. In June 2019, 47% of the UK's population tuned in to watch the Women's Football World Cup Semi-Final. This year, on international Women's day, over 86,000 attended the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), to watch the T20 Women's Cricket World Cup Final. In February, the Ogwumike sisters secured ground-establishing agreements to improve basic employee rights for US basketball players in the WBNA (Women's Basketball National Association) - female athletes now get full maternity pay.
For many sports, we are at the Tipping Point of something special. We are starting to see value returns from opportunities given to female athletes a number of years ago. Despite this, women's sport is still the minority. Fighting daily battles striving for parity. Cathy Engelbert (WNBA commissioner) stated in an interview with Chiney Ogwumike “The state of the game on the court has never been better,” Engelbert said. “It’s the ecosystem around women’s sports that is broken.”
In today's society, a swan is a good analogy for women's sport. On the surface, the swan seems elegant and composed, just as many people perceive women’s sport to be thriving and desirable. However, people are uncertain how to approach the swan in the same way that businesses and sponsors are unsure how to champion women’s sport. Underneath the water the swan is frantically paddling, much like the thousands of female athletes who fight a daily battle against limited resources and minimal investment.
To continue to grow the women's sport, we can all do our bit. We need to challenge perceptions and the ecosystem that surrounds the game. Women’s rugby would be faster and more physical if more female athletes could devote themselves to their sport in the way that Owen Farrell does (only 15 UK contracted female rugby players). Women’s football would be more widely enjoyed if it wasn’t relentlessly compared to the men’s game – for example, the women’s game is a much clearer strategic contest, because of the slightly slower pace. If we can move beyond the lazy comparisons, women’s sport can be appreciated and enjoyed by far larger audiences.
The responsibility falls to male and female role models to champion sport. To challenge perceptions and to question both our conscious bias and, more importantly, to question the unconscious bias that exists in society. This unconscious bias is revealed through comments like ‘she was better than I expected’ and ‘I was actually surprised by the standard of the game’. It is scientifically proven that women are not as strong or as fast as their male counter-parts – our job is therefore to educate and challenge these perceptions so that women are no longer asked: ‘Do you support that team because your boyfriend does?’
COVID19 poses questions on the whole economics of the sports industry. Business models are changing. Premier league players are potentially taking 30% salary cuts and donating millions to the cause to support COVID. This virus may collapse many clubs up and down the country and around the world. Businesses and sponsors may pull away from deals they are uncertain on their returns.
Billy Jean King’s famous words, ‘The dominant group will always support the dominant’, are of huge relevance today.
Will sports businesses look at the wider good of society to keep sport running from grass roots right up to the elite level? Where will the cuts be made? Will clubs support other clubs? These questions are not directed at the players – footballers have taken a lot of wrath over the past few weeks. These questions are aimed at the CEO’S - how can they support the game in its entirety? How can they support lower league clubs, disability sports and, of course, female athletes. Sport is a business: the bosses make the decisions, not the players.
Post COVID19 it will not be easy to invest to maintain the recent progressions in women’s sport. There will be more challenging question about businesses bottom-line return. How can we invest when they have smaller audiences? Is there even a desirability for the game?
I hope after COVID19 we continue the positive movement to empower women’s sport, by re-balancing investment levels to grow participation, expand our audiences and challenge perceptions.
Now, more than ever. Be the champion that women's sport needs. Talk about it, showcase it, protect it.
Let's make sport, unashamedly and undoubtedly cool.
Please comment to let me know your thoughts…