New research shows there was a sixfold increase in UK print media coverage for the 2019 Women’s World Cup compared to 2015 – but with so much buzz for this summer’s tournament, there’s still plenty of room for growth, says writer and broadcaster Jessy Parker Humphreys…
While the recent boom in media coverage of women’s football has been considerable, the tagline for the 2023 Women’s World Cup – ‘Beyond Greatness’ – encourages us to push on.
With an expanded format of 32 teams, a total prize pot that’s more than tripled compared to France 2019, and a FIFA audience target of 2 billion worldwide, the tournament is being taken to the next level – and then some.
But will British newspapers keep up? Do they have the capacity and the commitment to match the hype?
Sports sociologist Stacey Pope has recently published new research on UK print media coverage of the Women’s World Cup, comparing the 2019 output to that of 2015.
There was a substantial increase in not just the number of articles but also the prominence given to the big stories. The overall tone was more respectful towards players than it had been in the past, and there was a notable focus on issues such as gender inequality in the game that had rarely been written about in certain publications before.
In her paper, Pope – an Associate Professor at Durham University – makes a series of recommendations on how to further advance media coverage of women’s football.
She calls for the coverage to be “sustainable” outside of major competitions; be as “knowledgeable” as that of men’s football; include more “honest evaluations” of the product; promote off-field stories; and recognise the need to tackle “thorny” issues of inequality.
Ahead of the big kick-off in Australia and New Zealand, we invited Jessy Parker Humphreys – one of the UK’s leading women’s football journalists and broadcasters – to respond to Pope’s findings in a special Q&A.
In our conversation, they also shared their expectations of what the 2023 tournament will look like in terms of media coverage; explained how their own Women’s World Cup (WWC) writing has diversified this year; discussed issues of Indigineous rights and LGBTQ+ inclusion; and offered up two South American players as ‘ones to watch’…
Hi Jessy, thanks for taking the time to chat. How important is it that WWC coverage in UK papers this summer continues in the positive direction shown in Stacey’s research?
I think it’s super important. Increasingly, we’ve seen that if you give women’s sport the column inches, representation and exposure to different audiences – something that print media offers compared to social media – that people will come and support it.
Front and back page positioning is key as well. It subliminally tells people that what’s happening in these sports is equivalent to what happens in men’s sports.
It’s not just that readers get the opportunity to learn what’s happened and find it interesting, but it puts these events in places of importance that gets them taken more seriously than if you just came across a report on page nine of a sports section.
Look at the Women’s Ashes this summer – I heard that they sold 8,000 tickets to the Oval T20 off the back of the Edgbaston T20. Information will have been available from various sources, but it shows that when people realise what’s going on and why it matters – a function print media provides – then their interest in it changes.
The data in Stacey’s research from the 2019 coverage is really encouraging. Where is there still room for improvement? When you reflect on that tournament, was there anything that you read or saw that was still somewhat frustrating?
I do think there was a notion which still exists today that the focus is too much on the narrative relevance of women’s football rather than its status as a sport.
Some focus is not a bad thing. The WWC rightly holds a place in the global exposure of feminism, and it’s doing a lot to challenge misogynistic attitudes.
But from the perspective specifically of a football fan – and this comes back to front and back pages – if all the coverage is around that narrative relevance, you’re not bringing in as many fans who just love football.
You’re almost saying it’s only there for women or for girls, and that can be frustrating because it’s just not true in terms of the interest in women’s football. There was a statistic I saw the other day from ESPN which said that 75% of people who watched the 1999 WWC final were men.
So 24 years ago, most people engaging with women’s sport on TV were men, and speaking to people at Sky Sports, they still find that’s broadly the case.
When you have these stories where it’s all about doing great things for women and girls, it reinforces this idea that it’s not for men or for general sports fans. It feels like the rest is taken away.
In 2019, the proximity of France to the UK meant many papers sent their senior journalists out to cover the tournament. That raised its profile in print and delivered more prominence, but inevitably it was reported more through a male lens. How different will 2023 be, in that regard?
Maybe we’ll see the difference in terms of coverage of teams that aren’t England.
In 2019, it felt like lots of print media outlets were able to use extra, senior journalists to mop up the other stuff that was interesting. Scotland were there – and this year, Ireland are there. With Australia and New Zealand being so far away, that could be where the coverage might diminish.
There’s a sense sometimes that senior print journalists – and overwhelmingly these positions are held by men – get parachuted into big tournaments, but the difference this year is that no one is paying for anyone to go to Australia unless they have to.
Also, general coverage of women’s football has come on so much since 2019, that your average senior journalist at a paper would know a huge amount more than they did four years ago, just in terms of the exposure. You’d have to almost be actively not following the WSL to come up short.
So more of a concern for this WWC would be that print media titles only send one journalist and the rest of their coverage is done from the UK, and the impact that has on getting the narratives of the tournament as a whole.
Part of what was so amazing about England winning the Euros was that there was media interest all the way until the end. It would be a real shame this summer if, for example, England went out in the round-of-16 or the quarter-finals which is not impossible – it’s a knockout tournament, and they’re playing good teams – and fans missed out on coverage of the final chunk of the tournament because there’d been so much focus on covering England.
There’s also the tension between print media and alternative sources of media. Budgets tend to be declining as circulations dip and perhaps our expectations of what coverage in papers should look like for a men’s World Cup are more from 10 to 20 years ago. What happens when you put women’s sport, where budgets are always going to be smaller, into that?
I’d be more frustrated at online outlets who sent 10 or more people to Qatar who then send only two or three to this Women’s World Cup. There wouldn’t be that same minimisation in print coverage that we might see from certain digital outlets.
What print media opportunities will you have for this tournament and how does that compare to the Euros, for example?
I’ll be writing for Metro on the WWC – as it stands, that’s the only piece of print I’m doing. There’s often only one person at these places who does almost everything for women’s football and even if there are a couple of other writers who come in and out, they tend to cover other sports which I don’t do.
For the Euros, almost all the print gigs I got came from lifestyle. I did lots of Evening Standard articles that were more like, ‘an intro to the Lionesses’, from a fun angle.
I enjoyed that because I don’t pretend it was a sports piece. If you want to ask me to write for your magazine or for a lifestyle section, that’s fine, we can do that! I’d be less keen when sports space and budget is being used to do that kind of women’s football content.
In Stacey’s report, she wrote about how new areas of coverage for the 2019 WWC were “considered criticism” of players, and coverage of gender inequality issues. What are we likely to read about this time around that’s new or more prominent?
I think we’ll get more tactical analysis, but it will be very dependent on how much space is given by the papers.
When you’ve got only one dedicated writer for your print title, for some of those people tactics is not what they want to write about and that’s fine – that’s the point of having a broad and interesting set of writers in a press pack for women’s football.
Much has been said about how the broadcast times aren’t great for UK viewers but one benefit is that writers won’t be held back so much by print deadlines, in the way you would be for an evening game in this country. So that could be a factor.
I hope there’s more awareness of teams other than England. The Women’s Champions League broadcast deal and English teams doing well in that competition has exposed people more to players from across Europe so we should see a move away from the ‘England or USA’ coverage which it felt like we got a lot of in 2019.
What would you expect in terms of coverage of issues like Indigenous rights and human rights?
We’ve seen a lot of players and teams airing their disagreements with their federations recently. At times, it’s felt quite overwhelming.
What that tells you is that the players feel more power to talk about those issues, because they know there are eyes on them, whether that’s on social media or in print and digital coverage.
You’ve also got that flip side of when players mess up, they get criticised, like we’ve seen with the Netherlands and Spain in New Zealand around the haka.
There will be greater scrutiny on federations but again, it’s very hard – and we saw this with Qatar as well – to balance having important conversations around the social justice realities of these tournaments whilst not being perceived to have ‘denigrated’ the sport on show.
In Qatar, ultimately the direction went in the way of the interest being very much on the football.
For the women’s game, it felt for a long time that it had to be relentlessly positive. There was a fear that people weren’t going to want to watch something where, for example, some women in a team had said they had been sexually abused by their coach and then they had to go out and play.
Women’s football is now established enough that people feel much more able to have those important conversations publicly and not feel like it reflects on the game as a whole or on the people playing it. That’s a big shift that we’ve seen over the last eight years or so.
On your ‘Flying Geese’ Substack, you’ve been charting the history of the Women’s World Cup in a fascinating series of blogs about past finals. How can the wider media help to counteract the fact that we don’t have as great an archive of footage and coverage of past tournaments compared to the men’s World Cup?
What I wanted to do with these blogs was to creatively think about trends within women’s football and that’s tough to do within print journalism, when you rarely get given the space to take on writing of a think piece or in-depth nature.
Each one is around 2,000 words – the idea that you’d be able to get that space in print media is wild, as is the idea that you’d get paid for it in a way that’s fair.
As it’s a Substack, whoever pays pays me, so it’s on my own terms. But I do think this kind of writing is really important because – and I touch on it in the intro piece – we don’t have a shared heritage of these tournaments.
Most people haven’t watched them or know much about them – there was a lot I didn’t know until I sat down and made myself do it. But it takes time and work, and that’s a great thing about a Substack. It’s what I wanted to do. I even quoted Foucault which I wouldn’t do for a piece in print media!
It’s a shame that we’ve missed out on more longform stuff about the women’s game. But people felt that about men’s football for a long time. The Athletic, Jonathan Wilson’s The Blizzard and Mundial would be examples from recent years of creating space for different ways of exploring football.
Again, it also comes down to titles having just one person covering a tournament or a whole sport – can you even find the time to sit down and write more creatively, let alone be given the space? For me, I sometimes get a little bored of writing group previews, for example – they’re not why I got into football journalism.
The website Outsports has reported on the LGBTQ+ representation at this Women’s World Cup – their ‘roll call’ currently has 87 players who are out, which is almost 12% of all the competing athletes. What’s the value and the risk of this coverage?
The benefits are obvious – that level of visibility is inspirational for a lot of people – but also we should recognise that women’s football is in a tricky place with this topic at the moment.
Understandably, a lot of players feel like they don’t really have to come out nowadays but you wouldn’t say they’re closeted either. It’s very much, ‘if you know, you know’.
So then in terms of being named, what does that look like? It’s a tough line to walk. Lots of players explicitly don’t want to talk about sexuality which I think is just generally a broader trend in society, and that’s cool. Many women in their 20s don’t necessarily feel the need to come out in the same way or feel the same pressure not to be able to explore their sexuality that they did a decade ago.
However, there are also players like Quinn who want to talk about not just their experiences but experiences that are hidden from public view and are contentious as well, in terms of being a trans person within sport.
That has a lot of value. Ultimately, everyone knows loads of lesbians play women’s sport and have done for ages. I’m sure it’s amazing to be 16 and learn that your favourite player is gay, if you’re thinking about that – certainly I would have found that amazing when I was that age – but also at the same time, it doesn’t really have that same ‘beacon’ factor as it once did.
What’s interesting as well in terms of a modern discussion around sexuality and what it means is that there’s a very clear line between being someone like Megan Rapinoe who wants to use their platform and their experiences of their sexuality to talk about broader injustices, and then other players who think ‘I’m gay and I don’t care so much about what happens to other gay people’ – that’s not in a rude way, it’s just that that’s sometimes how people feel about their sexuality and that’s kind of OK.
Sometimes, naming almost pushes athletes into an activist mode that they aren’t really interested in or don’t want to be in. That’s sort of the strange thing about women’s sport, in that everyone who participates in it is almost expected to be an activist, whether in terms of ‘go women!’ or even ‘go gay!’ It’d be nice to get to a point where people are a bit more relaxed.
You mentioned Quinn, who is non-binary and trans, and we’ve just had an awareness week about what it means to be non-binary. As it relates to our industry, do you sometimes find yourself educating others – perhaps unintentionally – on that experience?
That’s fair to say. I use they/them pronouns and for a lot of people who I come across, they haven’t necessarily worked with someone who uses different pronouns. It gets them thinking about that, and appreciating how different people have different genders, including in sport.
I’d say it’s generally quite a miserable position to be in, in terms of discussions around trans people in sport. As a result, it’s something I feel like I shy away from.
But one of the podcasts I do, Counter Pressed, has been a great space to be able to have those conversations. For example, we had Natalie Washington [campaign lead of Football v Transphobia] as a guest a few months ago, and to be able to have a long chat with her rather than be part of something that feels like some sort of argument was so helpful.
Whenever I’ve written about trans people in sport before, the Twitter storm around it is horrible – you just have to accept that that’s what you’re going to get – but also it feels exhausting.
So it’s been nice to have more relaxed conversations, and sometimes in a way that’s a little funnier, even sillier, which I hope does more to ‘normalise’ the idea that there are trans people in life and in sport, rather than trying to argue about individual cases or justifications for X person’s inclusion or Y person’s inclusion in a specific sport.
Stacey’s article in The Conversation concludes by saying “keep an eye on how newspapers talk about the matches, teams and players – it may well affect the future of the sport”. How do you think media coverage impacts the future of women’s football?
For us here, the biggest impact from this World Cup – and it’s a hypothetical that depends on how well England do – would be for the whole tournament to be covered with the same kind of seriousness we show towards men’s World Cups.
If and when England go out, it would be for the same rigour to be applied to the teams in the subsequent rounds and then provide reflections on what that means for women’s football as a whole.
That would be the biggest game changer because otherwise we’re moving towards a world where we’re only interested in women’s football if England are good at it. It’s great right now because England are quite good, but that might not be the case forever.
There’s still so much value beyond the Lionesses, particularly when we’re so lucky to have such a thriving league ecosystem. The stars of the WSL are going to be the stars of the World Cup and I hope that our media coverage recognises that.
That’s where a lot of men’s football coverage comes from, particularly around international tournaments – the idea that everyone knows the players even if they’re not English, because they often play in the Premier League.
We now have the opportunity to do the same thing – for example, Chelsea alone have 19 players at this World Cup – and there’s a huge number of names who people should recognise and can then watch next season as well.
I hope that regardless of how well England do, that there’s a focus on the fact that we’ve basically got the equivalent of a World Cup on our doorsteps every week and we’re very lucky to have that.
I know I’m biased but I do think the WSL is the best league in the world and I want people to know it’s here for everyone. If you’ve enjoyed the World Cup, women’s football is not going away, you don’t have to wait four years.
Let’s finish up with ones to watch. For example, there’s a lot of pre-tournament hype around Zambia striker Barbra Banda after her glorious winner against Germany recently. Who else should we keep an eye out for?
On Banda, I hope she has an amazing tournament. Her performance at the Tokyo Olympics [she scored back-to-back hat-tricks in a 10-3 defeat by the Netherlands and a 4-4 draw with China] is one of the most bonkers breakout things I’ve ever seen. There’s really no one like her.
Especially with the experiences that Banda had to go through last year [she was excluded from the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations after the Zambian FA said she had failed a gender eligibility test], I really hope she does well because she deserves to be on a big stage. I think she will. There are a lot of fun players in that Zambia team, though.
As for other players, honestly you could go through every country at this tournament and pick some out. There really is no team too small in this World Cup not to have a star on them.
With the expansion, we’ve got all these debutants – there are teams where you might not recognise any of their names but I can tell you, there are a lot of cool players.
I often get a bit annoyed when tipping points get spoken about in women’s football but I’m going to do it! We’re at one now because of the expansion of league systems in Europe.
Colombia have got two forwards in Mayra Ramirez and Linda Caicedo who are both phenomenally talented and are both playing in Spain. It feels like four years ago, when Liga F wasn’t as good as it is now, that those players wouldn’t have been there and they wouldn’t be getting the experiences and the opportunities.
This globalised league system that’s been in process for the past decade really feels like it’s starting to bear fruit, in terms of everyone having very talented players who can make an impact at an international tournament.
UPDATE: Superb to see Jessy spotlighted on the front and back pages of the Metro print edition on Friday 21 July!
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