It is time broadcasters woke up to the passion and possiblities that women’s sport offers
By Sarah Crompton
The other week I spent an inspiring hour watching my niece play football. The sun was shining, the leaves were just turning colour in the Sussex trees and 11-year-old Chiara’s seven-a-side team secured an impressive and enthusiastic victory against equally impassioned local opposition.
Skill levels were high, and enjoyment even higher: there are so many girls who want to play at this under 12s level that there were substitutions made every 10 minutes just to give them all a chance. If you look at the website of the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League, there they are: Hurst FC Girls, fourth in their league.
You will notice two other things on that website. Firstly, the huge number of girls' and women’s teams playing football on a regular basis, and secondly the urgent appeals for sponsorship plastered over every available space. Passion outweighs pounds in the women’s game.
This is true at a much higher level. A report last week from the Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport, chaired by that campaigning Paralympian Baroness Grey-Thompson, revealed a “chronic lack of investment” in women’s sport in the UK from sponsors and broadcasters.
You don’t have to be a feminist to find the figures depressing.
Sponsorship of women’s elite sport in the UK accounts for just 0.5 per cent of the total market, compared to 61.1 per cent for men’s sport over the same period (between January 2010 and August this year). Mixed sports account for the remainder of the market.
This lack of interest from sponsors is matched by general apathy on the part of broadcasters, and of course related to it, since if you can’t get your match seen by a wide audience any putative funder is going to be much less keen on supporting you.
But it is not, interestingly, a reflection of spectator involvement, since – according to the report – interest in watching women play sports such as football is rising, as shown by the fact that the BBC bowed to public demand to show the women’s World Cup quarter-final live on BBC Two rather than as a red button option, after 700,000 watched the England team’s final group game.
This accords to my own view. I confess that I have for years thought that I didn’t much want to see football and cricket played by my sisters, at an inferior level – I thought – to that provided by men.
Since I wasn’t much interested in those games in which women have an equal profile – hockey and tennis for example – I tended to ignore women’s sports. The women’s football World Cup changed that view; it wasn’t the same as the men’s version, but it was thrilling and absorbing nonetheless. It could be better, but if women are starved of cash and visibility, they are unlikely to pursue such sports at a high level.
As sports minister Hugh Robertson pointed out at the report’s launch: “Without the backing of sponsors and broadcasters, women’s sport will continue to face an uphill battle to get the recognition it deserves.”
But the attitudes that keep sponsors away permeate the whole of sport. I do understand that for many men loving sport is like belonging to a private club; it offers an escape from women and the last thing they want is to share equally with the other sex. On the other hand, over the past half century, the female 51 per cent of the population has increasingly provided an audience for sport: and, dare one say, their presence in the stands has led to improvements in facilities to make them family-friendly and thus benefit everyone.
In this context, it seems entirely wrong that the Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport can report that only one in five of the members of the boards of sports governing bodies is a woman, and that a quarter of sports have no women at all in board positions. This, is turn, affects the encouragement of grassroots participation: if women don’t have a voice at the upper levels, then the attention paid to their desire to join in at the lower levels will be very slight.
Which brings me back to my pride at seeing my niece in her football strip. When I was her age, I loved football and cricket just as much as my brother, but I had absolutely no chance of having a go at either sport.
Now at least girls can play games that were once regarded as a male preserve. But we will really have made strides forward when the girls on the Sussex pitches have just as much chance of top-flight success as the boys.
And in the stands were 4 players from the men's team!!
from left: Conor Henderson, Craig Eastmond, Benik Afobe, Ignasi Miquel
Jack Wilshere was going to be there too,
but didn't go and had some lame excuses tsk tsk tsk.
After the game they were fanboying on their twitters: