In recent weeks I have seen numerous columns, opinion pieces, webinars and debates covering the topic of women’s sport and how it has been specifically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Just last week, Sky Sports hosted a really interesting debate looking at how women’s sport has been affected by Covid and how it rebuilds from here. Multiple voices from across the industry discussed the issue and there was a lively conversation happening on social media under the #WomensSportDebate hashtag.
Of course no element of this industry has been left untouched by the havoc the virus has caused, but I think it’s fair to say that the timing of the pandemic has been particularly cruel to women’s sport, which had undoubtedly been building significant momentum in the months before the outbreak. It’s also fair to say that when it comes to Project Restart women have had to take a backseat with female athletes, generally speaking, remaining on the sidelines whilst their male counterparts get back to work. Having said that, there is no denying the commercial realities that exist within the world of sport and organisations, teams and leagues have had to make some very difficult decisions about their priorities in what are undoubtedly very challenging circumstances.
However, amongst all of this pessimism I can find reasons to be optimistic. Do I find it cheering that the upward trajectory of women’s sport has been interrupted? Absolutely not. But I can find significant positives in the fact that the debate is happening at all, and with such vigour. I’m not suggesting that we women should be grateful that our opinions are being listened to or points of view considered, but the increased space now being given to discuss women’s sport and the issues that effect it, is, undoubtedly, progress.
It isn’t too much of a giveaway as to my age to say ‘I remember the days’ when this type of conversation – to this extent, across the mainstream media – just simply wouldn’t have been happening. It’s only really been in the last few years that women’s team sport has made it on to the agenda at all. I have seen it said by many people that they long for the days when ‘women’s sport’ and ‘men’s sport’ can be just simply ‘sport’. But we had this not so very long ago. We may have called it ‘just’ sport, but the men’s prefix was there, albeit silently. We didn’t need to say it because all sport was men’s sport as far as the mainstream media was concerned. Now at least, we are talking about women’s sport, worrying about women’s sport, listening to female athletes and considering the female perspective.
There are a number of reasons for this of course, and the entire sports landscape has started to wake up (albeit slowly) to the opportunities and potential that exist within the women’s game. However, a really crucial part of the puzzle is the increasing amount of space that the mainstream national media are now giving to the subject.
Whilst there is still work to be done, there has – without doubt – been significant progress made in the last couple of years. In a recent BBC Sport survey of elite female athletes, a whopping 93.4% of them agreed that coverage of women’s sport across the mainstream media has improved in the past five years.
I know some will be quick to point to the stats which show women’s sport is still hugely underrepresented on the sports pages, and I am well aware of the continued overwhelming dominance of men. I also know there is still a long way to go before female athletes are treated with parity. The BBC Sport athlete survey also found that 85.1% of female athletes still think that, despite progress being made, the media still don’t do enough to promote women’s sport. BUT – and it is a big but – there are undoubtedly more opportunities for women’s sport stories across major media outlets now than there has ever been before.
You just have to look at the brilliant work the Telegraph are doing with their Women’s Sport section for clear evidence of this. Day in, day out, that paper is now championing women’s sport, breaking a diverse range of stories, giving female athletes a voice and shining a spotlight on important issues that affect women from the elite level to the grassroots. This dedicated team didn’t exist until March 2019, but since it’s launch it has been a significant game changer. The Telegraph deserves an awful lot of credit for pushing women’s sport up the agenda and for dedicating significant resource to covering the topic.
There has been visible and obvious progress at the BBC too, although as a public service broadcaster of course they should be representing a diverse range of voices and stories across their platforms. But the number of reporters and correspondents who are working on women’s sport stories has continued to rise and, in another sign of progress, so too has the number of female sports reporters.
I could go on with dozens of other examples… Rebecca Myers is a fantastically talented journalist doing great things at The Times and Sunday Times, Natalie Morris at the Metro regularly tells the stories of female athletes and champions women’s sport stories, Suzy Wrack at the Guardian, talksport’s Women’s Football show, Sky Sports Sportswomen series…. These are all examples highlighting how mainstream media outlets are now telling women’s sport stories, and doing so on a regular basis, with proper resource and with talented journalists. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The data also unequivocally shows us that TV audiences for women’s sport are growing, live attendance numbers are growing (well, at least they were pre-Covid) and social media engagement is growing. At the same time, acquiring rights in the women’s sport space is still – generally speaking – relatively affordable.
There is therefore certainly huge untapped potential for brands who have the forethought to throw their commercial hat in to the women’s sport space. With a well-chosen partner, a commitment to developing a deep and meaningful relationship, some creative thinking (from both the brand and the rights holder) and a well executed communications campaign which makes the most of the opportunity that exists for women’s sport across the mainstream media – the value that is there for the taking could be huge. It will be very interesting to see which brands, and from which industries, step in to capitalise.