How to raise the profile of women’s sport

One of the iconic images in women's football, Brandi Chastain wins the first women's World Cup

One of the iconic images in women’s football, Brandi Chastain wins the first women’s World Cup

After reading a recent article about the lack of women’s sport coverage I started to think how the profile of women’s sport could be improved. There have been several admirable suggestions from noble sporting bodies about how this might be achieved, but I can’t help but think that tighter shorts can only do so much to promote gender equality. In this post I will use football as an example as it is the most popular sport in the world, so realistically should be the easiest to grow. But there’s no reason my suggestions cannot be applied to other sports.

The popularity of women’s football has fluctuated over the last century. In the early 1900s crowds of as much as 50,000 people turned up to watch women’s domestic football in England before the FA decided to ban women from using their grounds in 1921, a ban that lasted 50 years. The recent World Cup in Germany saw crowds of 70,000 turn up to watch the host nation, and women’s football at the Olympics saw healthy crowds. Yet attempts to establish professional leagues consistently fail around the world. Arsenal Ladies, who dominate the English game only train twice a week.

The problem facing most sports is that the product produced by men will be superior to the product produced by women due to physiology. Men are able to go faster, higher, and stronger. But marketing plays a huge role in the popularity of sports. The English Premier League is arguably the most watched league in the world due to it’s ability to market itself, as opposed to it having more entertaining matches than, for example, the Bundesliga. If FIFA genuinely want to increase the profile and popularity of the women’s game then I think they need to consider taking a leaf out of tennis’ book. The four major tennis tournaments (Wimbledon, the Australian, French, and US Opens) are held each year with men and women competing simultaneously. Men are better tennis players than women, but the disparity in viewing figures is far smaller than the disparity in viewing figures in other sports. Integrated or simultaneous tournaments give exposure to women’s sports that no amount of marketing can. Rather than the viewing public being required to seek something out that they wouldn’t usually watch, it is presented to them as part of something that they would be watching anyway. In the case of the World Cup this means the most watched sporting event in the world outside of the Olympics (where women’s sport, as well us other low profile sports, get a boost from an integrated event). 

The profile of women's tennis has benefitted from Grand Slam events being held alongside men's tournaments

The profile of women’s tennis has benefitted from Grand Slam events being held alongside men’s tournaments

A concern may be raised that the pitches could not take the extra load of the games played on them, which could deplete the quality of the men’s game. This seems unlikely given that the World Cup is played in summer so there is no need to deal with rain churning up the pitches. But if this really was a genuine problem then the games need not be played in the same venue, nor the same country for that matter. If they are televised simultaneously (so that the tv schedule goes men’s-women’s-men’s-women’s) it seems more likely that viewers will stick around to watch some women’s football, or tune in early to catch their country play. This is nwoot the only way that television could help. Not everyone can watch every game so football is often consumed through highlight shows like the BBC’s Match of the Day. Would it be that much effort on the part of the BBC to integrate highlights from women’s domestic football into their show. It could be argued that it is not the BBC’s obligation to raise the profile of the women’s game, but as they are tax payer funded it would seem that there is some responsibility.

Women’s tennis is the most watched women’s sport in the world. It’s point of difference from other women’s sports is that it is shown simultaneously with men’s major championships. If other governing bodies are serious about raising the profile of the women’s game for their chosen sport then they should adopt the same model. Concessions may need to be made to begin with, like lower ticket prices to draw in crowds. This would have another bonus as it would allow more people to take part in major tournaments. Tickets to major championships are expensive in all sports, if cheaper tickets were offered to women’s matches this would not only entice bigger crowds, it would expose more people to the qualities on offer from female participants. As the popularity of women’s fixtures grow then governing bodies can do what they do best and start charging spectators an arm and a leg.

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