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Up, Up and Away – The Rise of Women’s Sport

The BBC Breakfast Sports Bulletin was dominated this morning by women’s sports.  Should this be a big deal?  Well, not really, but for some reason it felt strange.  Good, transformational ‘strange’.  Our sports media is now filled by news of the Premier League with the beginning of the domestic football season and the transfer window still wide open.  It is, after all, the nation’s favourite sport.  Shame the only thing that caught my eye yesterday was Dr Carneiro’s relegation to Chelsea’s training ground for following a physio onto the pitch during the game on Sunday!

However, back to the matter in hand.  The English Ladies’ performance in the Ashes and the fact that every ball was commented on in the opening day on the TV and radio.  For the first time!  Would you believe it?  The other item being England’s progress in the Netball World Cup, despite the loss to champions, Australia, in the second group stage.  We are still in it and that is the important thing.  Well done to Tracey Neville in incredibly difficult times.

‘Say Yes To Success’ - a report commissioned in 2014 by Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation - told us that women’s sport accounted for just 7% of total sports coverage in the media during October 2013.  Maybe there were no marquee sports events but in a separate poll held by the WSFF at that time, 6 out of 10 of sports fans wanted to see more live coverage of women’s sport on TV.

Well what a difference 2 years makes.  This year, on the BBC TV broadcast alone, we have seen women’s football World Cup, Wimbledon (a given) and the Women’s Boat Race, not only live but also on the same course as the men, again for the first time.  Hats off to Barbara Slater,  Helena Morrissey and Clare Balding.  Rewarded by broadcast figures of 5 million compared to the 6.2m who watched the Men’s.  For the first year you’d take that wouldn’t you?

Added to that the sensational performance of our women’s football team at World Cup.  Now as famous off the pitch, as they are on it.  And deservedly so.  Heck, they could have been in the final.  According to The National Federation Of State High School Associations, participation in girls’ football in the USA is around 375,000 in 3rd place to Basketball and Volleyball.  Women’s football is big business in the US, Germany and Japan.  And thanks to Mark Sampson, Steph Houghton, I am sure there will be more girls asking their PE teacher if they can have a go.  And today the FA have just announced a £260m investment in grass roots football.

Coming up later this month is the return of Jessica Ennis-Hill at the IAAF World Championships.  An athlete who is transcending gender with her achievements on the track, through her commercial deals … and taking a stance by protesting over her name being used on a stand at Sheffied United after they planned to sign a convicted rapist to the playing squad.

And I haven’t even ventured into the world of tennis, cycling, rugby, boxing, taekwondo and the extended world of athletics.  The list of sports is a long one.

There is a different debate, nevertheless relevant, in the world of motorsport where again strides are being made.  Women are now leading the teams, in the engineering department, in the driving seat and in the editor’s chair at Autosport but editor, Edd Straw, who shared his chair with William’s test driver, Susie Wolff this week, commented,  “What is clear is there are no real barriers in motorsport, save perhaps that of perception.”

Paul Smith, CEO at Repucom,  summarised the situation in this year’s report Women and Sport, “We now see the impact of a second generation of young women growing up with a much higher chance of developing an interest in sport, and female sporting celebrities providing role models who are closing the gap with non-sport celebrities and their male counterparts.  Fans are at the centre of the sports marketing equation and one of the primary reasons why sponsors invest in sport - and female fans are of particularly high value to some sponsors given their influence in purchase decisions.”

So what am I saying? Support and success of women’s sport is up to us now.  It’s time to celebrate this hard work and achievement being made in this area.  To all the athletes, media and brand investors…. as one pundit observed… Take a bow.  We need to repay the faith by getting to the stadium, arena, track and putting bums on seats. By watching, tweeting, applauding.

As a fan of many sports played by men and women, and a sports marketeer who has worked in Formula One and the Premier League, I am in the results business and this is one result where I would love to see a draw in men’s and women’s professional sport.  That would be a real win:win situation for our industry.

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