It is set to be an incredible summer of women’s sport – and we are finally starting to see mainstream media coverage and the recognition that female athletes deserve.
But getting ordinary women interested in elite female sport is another matter.
There are deep-seated stigmas and stereotypes that still put so many women off from watching or engaging with sport – and changing attitudes is going to take some more inventive thinking.
This summer, we have the Netball World Cup on home soil in Liverpool, the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France and the Women’s Ashes – a veritable feast of the very best of female sport. But the question remains – how do we hook in an audience that has been repeatedly taught that elite sport is not for them?
New figures, released by Powerplay, found that only 31% of British women are planning to watch any of the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year.
Despite the rise in women’s professional football in the UK in the last few years, women’s engagement in the sport is still surprisingly low. There is a distinct disconnect between women who are willing to play at grassroots level and those who want to watch the elite game.
Only 18% of women have ever been to watch a women’s game live, which is half the number of men.
When you take into account the fact that women have historically been largely excluded from sports culture – these numbers are not exactly surprising.
Think about it – if there is no women’s sport on the back pages of the national papers, if your local pub never shows the women’s games, if the only stories you see about female athletes are misogynistic comments on what they’re wearing or how they look – the overwhelming message is that sport is not an area where women are welcome.
But things are starting to improve, and this summer’s incredible sporting line-up could be a catalyst for change and inclusion – but only if we find a way to meaningfully engage with a female audience.
The fact is, women don’t necessarily consume sport in the same way that men do – at least, not all of them. Governing bodies and event organisers need to be aware of this and carve a space for women to engage with sport on their own terms – not in a way that has traditionally ignored them completely.
England Netball seem to have the right idea.
International success coupled with smart partnerships with non-traditional brands – including a fashion line with high street retailer Oasis – has helped catapult their players into mainstream consciousness, and the hope is that this will help in generating interest from a new audience.
‘I think women, generally, are used to not really being involved in sport,’ explains England Netball captain Ama Agbeze.
‘Men will naturally go for a kick-around with their mates, or watch the game in the pub, and I feel like it’s not really in women’s psyches to do that. There are obviously lots of women who are in to sport, but they will be watching mostly male sport, because that’s what’s readily available.
‘Changing attitudes is going to take a long time. It’s amazing that there is going to be a summer of women’s sport, but we need to keep pushing it and putting it in people’s faces again and again, until it becomes the norm.
‘We need to see different industries supporting each other. For example, cosmetics brands working to push the tennis or the swimming – that’s the kind of innovation we need.
‘There’s no point relentlessly promoting something on the BBC Sport website if the women we are trying to attract would never go on the BBC Sport website.’
Ama thinks that sports working together to generate interest is the best way to reach the largest possible audience.
‘Women’s sport generally is on the rise in terms of success. But we still need people to actually pay attention to it.
‘I think cross-sport support is massive. We pretty much all do the same thing, so if we all stick together and back each other up – you get progress by working together.’
Spoken like a true captain. And Ama practices what she preaches. While speaking to us, she was on the tennis court helping to promote a huge women’s tennis event that will be hosted next month by Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham.
The current world No.1 Naomi Osaka, world No.2 and defending champion Petra Kvitova and British No.1 Johanna Konta will be joined in Birmingham by some of tennis’ most exciting young players this June for the Nature Valley Classic.
Using a netball star to help with the promotion of this event is precisely the kind of joined-up thinking that women’s sport needs to properly thrive.
Last year, Sky Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust teamed up to launch #ShowUp – a campaign designed to encourage both men and women to support women’s sport by watching, attending or playing.
A huge part of that campaign is about cross-pollination between different sports and embedding spectatorship into the culture of women’s sport.
But for this to happen, women need safe spaces to watch women’s sport, and incentives to show them that they are welcome in these arenas.
For real growth and lasting change, a sense of community needs to develop – and commercial venues need to get on board and actually show the games.
The Book Club in Shoreditch, east London, will be screening every single World Cup game, with free shots for anyone dressed in England kit. The venue will also be hosting a series of events with Festival of Football – from taster training days to panel talks about gender stereotypes, to a photography exhibition on the launch night.
Hannah works for Festival of Football and is also a member of the Goal Diggers – an inclusive football club based in London.
‘Huge stigmas still exist, for example if a male sports dominated media outlet posts something about women’s football, there is always a barrage of derogatory, misogynistic comments from social media users below it,’ says Hannah.
‘Women’s sport in general is still under-represented, however there are great platforms arising such as Slowe, which are trying to change that.
‘At a local level, when training, a month won’t go by without some form of unpleasant experience from males passing by – whether it’s gawping, commenting, yelling etc. it still happens too commonly.
‘At the more pleasant end of stigmas (if that’s a thing), when I explain my involvement in football, there’s still a sense of surprise and confusion.
‘Women’s football has made huge strides, and brands have begun to take notice, with Nike producing women’s specific World Cup kits and Adidas equalling bonuses for the winning World Cup teams.
‘The fact, though, that these things are only just happening is probably more startling – women’s football is going to be playing catch up for a while but it’s definitely starting to get the support and attention it deserves.’
Hannah lives and breathes football, but she knows that the scope for enjoying the Women’s World Cup goes far beyond the hardcore fans – and it brings something a bit different to the table.
‘Football is the most popular spectator game in the world, and this is another opportunity to see this at a professional level on a world stage,’ explains Hannah.
‘Having said this, I think there are some key differences in spectatorship of the women’s game – it seems to be much more family focused, is further away from lad culture and more inclusive.
‘Also, for any England fans among us, there’s a real chance of it actually coming home! The Festival of Football hopes to build a strong, celebratory atmosphere to come and watch the teams in France.’
Brands are cottoning on and we are seeing more and more innovation in the way women’s sport is covered, promoted and marketed to women.
The Telegraph’s launch of their dedicated women’s sport platform triggered a media scramble to keep up with that level of nuanced, specifically female content, and ad campaigns ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup are consistently outdoing each other.
In 2015, 750 million people tuned in to the Women’s World Cup and FIFA are pushing for a billion this summer. Ticket sales are strong and the momentum is there – but in order to really capitalise on this upswing of interest, FIFA need to make sure that their target audience are always at the forefront of their minds.
More than 3.5 billion viewers watched the men’s World Cup last summer – so aiming for a third of that audience isn’t out of the realms of possibility.
What is clear is that this summer is an opportunity for women to create a space in sport all of their own. And rather than following the blueprint of male sport, doing it differently is likely the best way to ensure success.
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