Here Come The Girls… Or Maybe Not

by Chris Barnes

The face of women’s sport is changing, although not necessarily for the better. The figures already in place are shocking – new research from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation suggest women’s sport receives just 5% of sport coverage in Britain – and have for a long time been the subject of much heated debate.

Yet things have changed recently. The London 2012 Olympics became a fantastic vehicle for female sports stars to showcase their skills in front of a wider audience. We need only look at Jessica Ennis and Ellie Simmonds being the British face of the Olympics and Paralympics respectively to see how much attention is being paid to women’s sport.

Add to that Nicola Adams (the first woman ever to win an Olympic boxing gold), Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Sarah Storey, Dani King, Jade Jones, Charlotte Dujardin and Katherine Copeland and suddenly women’s sport looks a lot healthier.

But has the Olympics made the difference to female sport’s profile that we all hoped it would? The answer, sadly, appears to be ‘no’. We all shared that sense of optimism when we saw the Team GB women fill out the Millennium Stadium during the Olympics. Yet their next match against Croatia was shown at 5pm on a Friday on BBC 2. Which, let’s be honest, doesn’t exactly help much to improve viewing figures.

Not that the women themselves are without fault. Speaking to The Guardian, Sue Tibballs, CEO of the WSFF, said, “Only 12% of girls at the age of 14 are taking part in the recommended amount of activity – and that has serious ramifications beyond sport.”

And this is on a national scale. It’s a much more desperate story on a local scale. Take Sussex Rugby, for example. Just two years ago, there were many women’s teams in the county. Now, teams from Crawley and East Grinstead have had to merge with St. Francis to form one team for the area due to lack of interest from women.

Football is slightly higher for participation, with ladies teams representing Brighton and Hove Albion and Lewes both competing in the Women’s Southern Premier Division this season. But still attendance figures are only a fraction of those for the men’s equivalent.

That’s not to say that women are being completely ignored in sport. Take, for example, the latest Sports Personality of the Year award. The 10-man shortlist (I use that term literally) had no women on it.  However, this year the list could choose from any of the women listed above and many more. You could form a shortlist made entirely of deserving women if you wanted.

Still, we can but hope that women’s sport will improve in popularity. Sure it will still continue, but without investment and viewing figures it will never be seen as anything other than a sideshow to men’s sport. This isn’t exactly the message we want to be sending to young girls keen to pick up a racket or ball.

But what can be done to prevent a decline in female sport? The WSFF believe that many different groups have to work together to boost the game’s profile. Sue Tibballs says, “More coverage is not going to just happen on its own – we need action from the government, media and commercial partners to make this happen.”

She is not the only one. Clare Balding, Harriet Harman and Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson have all been calling for the same thing for a long while. Dame Kelly Holmes is also vocal in her support for an increase in female sport awareness.

In an interview with Radio Kent in August the former Olympic medallist said, “Women have never really been given the credibility in sport they should have received. There’s always been talk about media coverage and now it’s critical we reap the rewards.”

She added: “For females, they really have a direct impact as role models for teenage girls; to show you can be someone who does not have to worry about your body image.

“It’s about trying to get those girls to have more self-esteem and this has now given them a sense of ‘look at what we can do’”

So what can we do? Short of forcing people from the street to attend women’s sport games, not much. All we can really do is stop putting the women’s national team on TV at stupid times and provide extra incentives for people to turn up and watch, such as cheaper tickets. If there are more people watching more women will feel inclined to take part. But until then, girls, just think of Victoria, or Laura, or Ellie, and get involved anyway. It’s all on you.

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