Jessica Ennis

Here Come The Girls

21st June 2013

Team GB’s female athletes had their best ever Olympics last summer, but the men are still miles ahead in the race for publicity. Sarah Shephard investigates how women’s sport can start to catch them up…

There’s a battle being fought. It’s raging on the sports fields, in the newsrooms and behind the scenes at all the major broadcasters. It’s a battle that dates back further than any of us can remember and yet has lost none of its momentum – in fact, it’s being fought with more vigour now than it ever has before.

On one side there are the advocates for women’s sport. These are the people who are passionate about all aspects of women’s sport, from the likes of Jessica Ennis and Serena Williams at the top of the earnings, sponsorship and fame lists to those plying their trade on the football, rugby and cricket fields, who often sit at the opposite end of those scales.

Who’s on the other side? Well, they certainly don’t make much noise these days – wider society tends to frown upon the discrimination that once decreed no women were allowed to even watch the ancient Olympics, let alone take part in them – but they definitely still exist. We know this because in a study undertaken by the Women’s Sport & Fitness Foundation (WSFF) last year, just five per cent of all media coverage given to sport in the UK was found to focus on women’s sport; the barriers to increasing that number must come from somewhere.

Nicola Adams

There were, however, a few magical weeks last summer when the sports pages were filled with the inspirational stories of strong, athletic women excelling on the world’s biggest sporting stage. At the London 2012 Olympics it was a woman (road cyclist Lizzie Armitstead) who won Team GB’s first medal of the Games and two women (rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning) who won Britain’s first gold. With Nicola Adams securing the first ever Olympic gold medal awarded for women’s boxing, rower Katherine Grainger finally winning the gold she’d missed out on so painfully for three Olympics running and Ennis fulfilling her role as GB’s golden girl on a sensational Saturday in the Olympic Stadium, it certainly felt like a watershed moment for women’s sport in the UK.

Indeed, WSFF Chief Executive Sue Tibballs agrees that “London 2012 was an amazing time for our female athletes and there has definitely been an increase in media interest in women’s sport since then. The absolute need now is to ensure that the Games mean a real change for women’s sport – not just a temporary one.”

But while Tibballs insists that there is a strong appetite for increased coverage of women’s sport (“we looked at the numbers before the Games, and found out that 61% of sports fans want to see more women’s sport on TV – and after last summer’s Games that had risen to 75%”), some remained unconvinced.

The sports editor of The Guardian, Ian Prior, recently scrapped a weekly women’s football report because of a lack of interest. Explaining the decision in a piece on the newspaper’s own website, he observes that a report on the deciding match in last season's women's football premier league, displayed on the football home page of the website on the evening of the game and throughout most of the next day, was read by only about 800 people.

"We get flak for not covering women's rugby, cricket and football enough,” says Prior, “but it's expensive to cover and the level of interest makes it hard to justify… When there are signs of increasing popularity in a women's sport we try to react to that, but it's difficult to keep putting things up that aren't being read."

His argument is perhaps understandable considering the current commercial climate in which newspapers are trying to survive, but it’s also short-sighted according to former sports journalist, Eleanor Preston. “If you tell people about (men’s) football all the time and you fill your newspapers with football and put it on TV all the time people are going to engage with it and get attached to the stories and personalities. If you suddenly do a piece about women’s football and you haven’t done much on it before and don’t do much on it after, then you can’t really expect people to engage with it immediately. Things need to develop and grow; you have to build the audience over a long period.”

Preston’s standpoint is an interesting one. In 2009 she left sports journalism to work alongside athletes and brands in media relations, setting up her own media communications company – the Emilia Group – in 2010, with business partner Faye Andrews. It was a move that changed her perspective on the difficulties facing women’s sport. “When I was a journalist I was probably as guilty as anyone else of accepting this tacit understanding that women’s sport is intrinsically less important and therefore less interesting than men’s sport.

Preston recalls her own particular dilemma. “As a female sports journalist – particularly back then – I didn’t really want to be identified as someone who was rattling the drum for women’s sport. In fact it was quite the opposite – I just wanted to be seen as another sports journalist. So I never felt comfortable trying to pressure the desk into doing more women’s sport; it wasn’t the done thing and I never felt it would be good for my career.”

Now, having worked in sport for a long time, Preston says thata she sees the situation from different angles “I feel we need everybody in sport, not just women, but everybody from the media to fans, broadcasters and governing bodies to say: you know what? It’s not okay. Women’s sport is important, it does matter. It can be full of rich and wonderful stories and amazing role models and incredible athletes. We saw that during the Olympics. We’ve got so many inspiring female athletes in this country with so many great stories and only a small proportion of them are being told.”

Preston’s mention of governing bodies is important. While the media should take some responsibility for the visibility (or not, as the case may be) of women’s sport, sports leaders also have a key role to play. It’s an issue that Danielle Sellwood, co-founder of the website Sportsister.com says needs to be addressed to help outlets like hers with their coverage.

“I know that the national governing bodies do want to help promote their women’s sport but the old structures are still in place in a lot of instances and they don’t know how to go about getting more coverage for their women. This needs to be a period of education for them to understand what they need to do and we have talked to them ourselves about what we need to help us, but they really need more guidance on how to present their information.”

Sponsors come into the equation too, with the WSFF finding that just 0.5 per cent of commercial investment goes to women-only sport. “Women's sport is a second class citizen in terms of sponsorship, prize money and profile” says Tiballs, “and that creates a vicious cycle of under investment.” The problem is that no one can put their finger on where that cycle begins, which means no one has a definitive answer on how to bring it to an end.

The first step though has to be dealing with what Preston calls “the invisibility issue.” Women’s sport is often simply too easy for people to ignore. Together, the media, fans, sponsors and governing bodies can change that. It’s a process that has – hopefully – already begun, with the BBC acting on the Olympic enthusiasm for women’s football to announce a raft of women’s football coverage for the new season (even if The Guardian aren’t on side…)

But it cannot end there. As Tibballs says, “the absolute need is to keep up this momentum. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a battle that’s certainly worth fighting.”

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