Women’s sport sometimes seems to run along a parallel timeline, one that lags behind the rest of life. It was 2012 before women were able to compete in every event on the Olympic programme, 2014 before they could play professional cricket in England, 2016 before they could play professional rugby, and in 2017 they were finally allowed to join Muirfield golf club, this last providing the best excuse yet to recycle Groucho Marx’s old line: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Rory McIlroy was asked about male-only golf clubs back in 2013. “It’s something we shouldn’t even be talking about,” he said. Four years later we still were, and McIlroy was asked again. “In this day and age,” he said, “where you’ve got women that are heads of state and not able to join a golf course – I mean, it’s obscene.”
Obscene, but in keeping. A quick flick through the history of women’s sport shows that these milestone dates invariably run late. Until 1960, women were banned from running distances over 200m in the Olympics, because the IOC was convinced that their bodies couldn’t cope with the strain. Until 1971, women were banned from playing football on many grounds because the FA thought the sport “quite unsuitable for females”. Until 1976, women weren’t allowed to even step on to the outfield at Lord’s, never mind play cricket on it. It was 1991 before Fifa organised the first women’s World Cup, and 1998 before the IRB finally sanctioned a rugby event. All in all, female athletes have had to put up with an awful lot of bullshit.
This summer will give a good idea of exactly where women’s sport is at. The Cricket World Cup starts in England on 24 June, the Uefa European Championship begins in the Netherlands on 16 July, and the Rugby World Cup is being played in Ireland from 9 August. England are among the favourites in all three. The football team is ranked fourth in the world, their cricket team is second behind Australia, and their rugby team are the defending world champions. If these were men’s events there would be wall-to-wall coverage of all three tournaments. But they’re not, and there won’t be. Instead they will have to fight for space with the Lions tour, the Test series against South Africa, Wimbledon, the World Athletics Championships, and, of course, all those football transfer stories.
According to Women In Sport’s most recent survey, women’s sport makes up only 7% of all sports coverage in the UK. Broken down, that’s 10% of TV coverage, 5% of radio coverage, 4% of online coverage, and only 2% of newspaper coverage. Some argue that the media doesn’t cover women’s sport because there’s not enough demand for it, others that there isn’t more demand because the media doesn’t cover it. Either way, Women In Sport also found that in 2014 only 0.4% of all the commercial investment into sport in Britain was going into women’s sport. Sponsors won’t invest if there’s no exposure, and without marketing, female athletes won’t get the exposure that would increase the demand for coverage.
These aren’t new arguments, they’ve been running around in circles for years now. Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, who captained England’s cricket team and also worked as a sports journalist, put a version of it in her autobiography way back in 1978. “It’s all something of a vicious circle. The media will only take notice of minority women’s sports if the sport has the personalities to promote. But until at least one part of the media takes a chance on a sport, who is to know whether the personalities exist or not?”
To break this spiral, football, rugby, and cricket, have all set up new women’s Super Leagues. The ECB and the RFU have also started to stage women’s matches alongside men’s games and packaged the two products together in their broadcast rights deals. It’s working. All three tournaments taking place this summer will be shown live. The football is on Channel 4, the rugby is on ITV, and the cricket is on Sky.
As the BBC’s head of sport, Barbara Slater, explained in a recent interview with the Guardian, the audience for the Women’s World Cup rose from 5.1m in 2011 to 12.4m in 2015, and that, of those 12.4m, almost half were, apparently, watching women’s sport for the first time. Slater says that women’s sport makes up 30% of the BBC’s coverage. And Sky, meanwhile, has committed to broadcasting eight live games from the ECB’s Kia Super League, all five majors on the LGPA Tour, England Women’s Six Nations games, and some netball internationals and Superleague matches.
This feeling that a change is under way is exactly why England’s current cricketers think a little differently about all this to Heyhoe-Flint. “Thirteen years ago when I first started playing, all we had was a little bit of lottery funding,” says Jenny Gunn. “Now we’ve come through into the professional era, which is just crazy. I never thought I’d be playing professional cricket. I thought I’d be long retired before it ever happened”. Similarly, “we don’t have much coverage, but it’s improved every year. So for me, even though you obviously want more, and you want to see it on free-to-air TV and in all the papers, it is improving so much you can’t really complain.”
“It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come in terms of the coverage we get,” says Gunn’s team-mate Anya Shrubsole. “The Ashes series in 2015 was live on Sky and on BBC radio. We had sell-out crowds for the games at Chelmsford and Hove. These things would not have happened before, but now they’re becoming much more commonplace. It’s a testament to how far the game has come.” Shrubsole and Gunn were talking at a coaching session for a couple of hundred schoolgirls in Regent’s Park. The ECB has joined up with England Hockey and England Netball in a three-year campaign to increase schoolgirl participation in those three sports, because the hockey World Cup is taking place in London in 2018, and the Netball World Cup in Liverpool in 2019.
Two of England’s hockey squad were there too, Sabbie Heesh and Suzy Petty. Like the cricketers, they were keen to point out how far their sport has come since they started playing. England Hockey set up a professional programme in 2009, and now has 28 full-time players. “When I was 10, it wasn’t possible to get a job in hockey,” Petty says. “I wanted to be an accountant. Then, in 2009, for the first time you could actually do this for a living. It is amazing to be able to tell kids that.” Hockey has its own set of problems. Every four years, at the Olympics, the sport is in the spotlight, then the players have to fight to keep it there till the next Games comes around.
“As a squad we realise that we’ve got a really good opportunity,” says Petty. “When GB won the gold in Rio it meant that hockey, for once, was a sport that people were talking about. I remember going into work after Rio and my boss said to me ‘Oh my gosh, your girls!’ I don’t think people realise how good we are.” Petty and Heesh talk about trying to find ways to spread the message outside of the mainstream media, “social media is huge, Instagram, Twitter, you can have an influence there. Then we’re constantly doing school visits and club visits. But we’re always thinking about how to get the sport on TV. Because that’s the really big thing.”
The men will get covered whether they win or lose. The women don’t have that luxury. As Shrubsole says, “all we can do is keep being successful. Keep winning games, keep winning series, keep winning tournaments.” Which is impossible, because no team wins every game it plays. But England’s women’s cricket team did win the World Cup, in 2009, and the Ashes in 2013 and 2013-14. England’s women’s football team finished third in the 2015 World Cup, England’s women’s rugby team won the World Cup in 2014, and the Six Nations earlier this year, in a grand slam, and Great Britain’s hockey team are, of course, Olympic champions.
So the women do win, and they still don’t get the sustained coverage they deserve. Which is why Shrubsole says that she’s started to think that victory isn’t enough. “But we also have to win by playing it in a way that makes people want to follow us. Yes, we need to win, and we want to win, but the more we play in a way that people want to watch, and the more of that coverage we’ll get. So I think there is responsibility for both sides, for the players and the press.” Or, as Karren Brady once said: “In sport a woman has to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as even half as good”.