It’s been a major question for a long time now: Why is elite level women’s sport so widely ignored? It’s unreasonable to generalise this to all sports, as women’s tennis and athletics seem to be the exception to the rule, but the other flagship sports of England – football, rugby, cricket and golf – continue to be dismissed from the mainstream.
A frequently heard response from spectators (albeit, generally male and predominantly from football or rugby) roughly proclaims that; “women aren’t as fast and powerful as men, so it’s less competitive and entertaining to watch”. Women and men are of course physiologically different, hence the gender separation in most competitive sport – it just makes sense. But to universally degrade women’s football or rugby as not entertaining or competitive is nonsense, and reeks of ignorance. The skill levels are generally high throughout women’s sport, and the competitive edge is as fierce as you would find from men. Women’s sport also seems to contain an honesty and integrity that is frequently forgotten by the men, making the viewing experience a refreshing and pleasant alternative to the ‘win by any means’ (including cheating) attitude that appears all too often in men’s sport.
Where is the blame to be laid though for this consistent disregard for women’s sport? The governing bodies must shoulder some of the responsibility; however numerous sums of money and schemes have been implemented to attract spectators over the years, though to relatively minor success. The media are possibly the main culprits, offering little to no live or retrospective coverage of events from women’s sport (until there’s a reason to jump on the band wagon). If the attitudes of one Richard Keys and Andy Gray are anything to go by, those working in popular sport coverage certainly aren’t a bunch of liberal feminists – at least not until someone blows their cover.
A new dawn may be on the horizon for women’s football though and consequently, women’s sport. Last week, the FA’s new Women’s Super League (WSL) kicked off with a match between Chelsea and Arsenal that was broadcast live on ESPN, who have committed to broadcasting six matches live. ESPN applies to a restricted audience yes, but more importantly it could signal a future of regular televised slots for women’s football and possibly other sports on television; which is certainly the biggest key to tapping into a mass audience. The WSL is the FA’s first semi-professional women’s league, and highlights their intentions to rejuvenate and popularise the women’s game.
The idea to hold the WSL in the summer is an ingenious move. Trying to recruit new spectators to a women’s football match on a cold rainy night in December is a near impossible task, but summer scheduling could throw women’s football into the spotlight while the men are in the off season, hopefully leading to a repeat of the attendance seen at Imperial Fields for the inaugural match last week. The FA has to stick with the publicity they are giving it at the moment though, any neglect could see the whole scheme crumble around them; leaving the women’s game back at square one.
The continuing success and improvement of both England women’s cricket and rugby teams could prove vital in the future sustainment of spectators for each sport. The successes in the respective world cups (the cricket team won while the rugby came runners-up) for each team have gone a long way to raising awareness, while also providing a well-deserved media spotlight. No-one likes to see people clambering aboard the success ship when it comes to town then jumping ship when things go sour , but any mass publicity will do for now.
Women’s cricket has benefited massively from being broadcast on Sky Sports, something that will hopefully continue this season. The ECB have also made a tremendous effort to semi-professionalise as many players as they can, even providing work for some of the players within the ECB itself, so they can purely focus on cricket; something which can only have contributed to the recent successes of the national team. Their grass roots schemes encouraging girls to participate have also been crucial. If kids get involved the parents get involved, and so the word begins to spread.
Can 2011 really be the year women’s sport finds its feet on the popular stage? We can only hope so. More importantly though, is the willingness from those involved to make these current changes stick for the long-term. It would be catastrophic to have seen so much investment, yet no progression. The changes are being made and more people are beginning to accept and appreciate women’s sport. Something one would hope wouldn’t be too difficult in this supposed liberal century we live in. The rise of women’s sport may be coming- and not too soon either-but sporting women must look to the long-term future for success, and continue to keep their patience in abundance.