Move the goalposts for women’s sport

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ENGLAND have made it into the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1990, as the women’s football team have won the right to play current world champions Japan after playing with skill and flair throughout the tournament.

Yet, the lack of fanfare in this week’s newspapers, or excited conversations on the train or in workplace, suggests that as a nation England is not overly impressed by the achievement of the Lionesses.

To have reached the semi-finals is significant progress for England. They have adapted to manager Mark Sampson’s flexible tactics and formations, have a good blend of experience and youth, and enjoy a strong sense of camaraderie.

But there are still some major barriers to overcome before England will receive the support or attention that they deserve. Other countries have shown that this need not be the case in the women’s game. In the US, the women’s team arguably has equal status with the men’s and “soccer” has a long history of being a part of young girls’ education. Even in France and Germany, the Women’s World Cup has been front page news.

At London 2012, more than 76,000 saw the Women’s GB team beat Brazil at a Wembley Stadium buzzing with patriotism and Olympic hysteria.

The Women’s Super League, the first professional league for women’s football, had launched the year before. And the BBC had publicly stated its commitment to increase coverage of all women’s sport.

Back then, there was real optimism that we were witnessing a turnaround in attitudes. Attendances and media coverage were surely going to increase in England too, and the likes of television presenter Clare Balding have highlighted the importance of this.

However, researchers have found that coverage of women’s sport in the UK has actually slightly declined since 2012. This mirrors my own research at Sheffield Hallam University which demonstrates stubborn inequalities in the ways that women in sport are treated and represented.

Football is our national game and that may actually be a barrier, rather than an advantage, for the women’s game. For example, my research to date has found that over 85 per cent of all football coverage is dedicated to men’s English football. Women’s football, and football in the other home nations, is marginalised.

Coverage of women’s sports is also typically of poorer quality. There are fewer interviews, shorter timeslots and far less time spent on “expert” analysis than in coverage of men’s sport. Sport commentators seem to have difficulty in describing women’s sport on its own merits too, without comparisons to their male counterparts.

The recent success of the England women’s football and cricket teams have enjoyed some attention, but usually to berate the men’s teams for their own poor performances.

It is difficult to see how new audiences can be built for any sport when it is given scant, or poor quality, attention from our major broadcasters. When women’s sporting success and expertise is not valued in the media, this only reflects and supports the marginalisation of women who are playing and working in sport.

For example, football coaches have spoken to me about how they have 
come to expect ridicule from male coaches, and even young players’ 
parents, when they attempt to go about their job.

They have to work twice as hard to gain respect to overcome the attitude that football “shouldn’t be coached by a girl”. It is not surprising that women coaches often do not progress beyond the grassroots levels when facing such hostility.

Overcoming such attitudes is desperately important if young girls and women are to have female role models to look up to. The Football Association seem to recognise this and have clearly marketed the new Women’s Super League towards young girls. Top players from each club work as “digital ambassadors” using Facebook and Twitter to have direct contact with fans and boost their profile.

If England beat Japan and get to the final of the World Cup, any increased attention from the media and football fans will be well deserved.

However, that attention needs to be repeated in the newspapers we read, and the news shows we watch, every day. Only then might young girls and women see sports participation and careers as a possible part of their future.

Dr Beth Fielding-Lloyd is a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University researching sports participation and gender issues.