SARAH JUGGINS, the SJA Treasurer, reports on a women’s sport conference where media coverage was under examination
Two million fewer women take part in sport in the UK than men. That was the message from Lisa O’Keefe of Sport England, one of the speakers addressing an audience national governing body chiefs, teachers, coaches, politicians and journalists at the Westminster Media Forum on Women and Sport last month.
Other key messages to emerge were: the dearth of female role models in leadership positions, as coaches, managers or board members of clubs and national governing bodies; the role that schools can play in promoting sport and fitness from an early age; the role of the media in promoting women’s sport to the public and in attracting commercial sponsors; and a call from both the speakers and the audience for the UK to adopt a version of America’s Title IX legislation, to ensure equality of funding.
I was there representing the SJA, and was among the last organisations to put its point across. From a journalist’s point of view it is simple: journalists are (usually) gender blind and are simply looking for the best stories. Athletes and NGBs can exploit this by feeding the media information and being accessible for interviews. It is a two-way relationship in which the athlete or sport needs to get in front of journalists with a story to tell, and in turn the journalists can help raise the profile through column inches and airtime.
The day’s sessions were chaired by Barbara Keeley, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women’ Sport and Fitness and Tracey Crouch, the football-playing MP for Chatham and member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
Keeley opened proceedings by stating, “We have seen great progress in women’s sport and fitness since 2012, we have some amazing role model in our Olympic and Paralympic athletes and again at the Commonwealth Games. Our group was formed with the aims of raising the profile of women’s sport, to promote better coverage of women’s sport in the media and to investigate ways to increase the participation of girls and women.”
A common reference point throughout the seminar was the recently released This Girl Can video, which shows that women of all sizes and abilities can enjoy all manner of sports. Keeley was not alone in praising the video and its messages, which according to Sport England figures has already attracted in excess of 30 million views.
The panel was united in a call for a Title IX-type of legislation to be passed in Britain. This is the ruling that has been in operation in the United States for 30 years, and which insists that all public funding for sport is divided equally across the genders. Rachel Pavlou, the national women’s development manager for the FA, said: “If you read about the USA women’s soccer team, they all say Title IX is the reason women’s soccer in the States is so successful.”
In this country, however, there has never been the same emphasis on collegiate sport as there is in America, and that is where Title IX was aimed. Liz Nicholl, UK Sport’s chief executive, offered facts and figures demonstrating her organisation’s lasting commitment to gender equality. But she was keen to stress that UK Sport’s funding decisions are made on a gender-neutral basis. It is all about the medal prospects.
“The women in sport agenda has never been stronger,” she said. “There has never been so much support from a political level down, and I feel a real responsibility and accountability to do something about it.”
Nicholls said that 41 per cent of the 1,300 athletes receiving support from UK Sport are female. “Male and female athletes of similar talent are treated in an entirely equitable way.”
One of the most powerful talks of the day was delivered by international boxer and boxing coach, Amanda Coulson. She recounted her own history, telling how she worked her way through the Yellow Pages to find a boxing club that would take girls after she was inspired by reading an article in a national newspaper about female boxers. In the end, she joined Hartlepool Catholic Boys’ Boxing Club, and became the first girl to box in Hartlepool. At this point the club’s committee decided to drop the word “Boys” from its title.
In the final session of the day, focusing on the role of the media, the 150 delegates heard from Barbara Slater, director BBC Sport. She spoke of the “genuine step-change in the profile and impact that women are having in the world of sport”.
Slater said that 30 per cent of the BBC’s sports output was focused on women’s sports, ranging across 15 to 20 different sports. She said that 6 million people watched Jessica Ennis win gold, 9 million saw Victoria Pendleton’s gold in the velodrome and 11 million cheered Rebecca Adlington on in the pool. In the Winter Olympics at Sochi, 5 million people watched Lizzie Yarnold – the highest viewing figure for an event featuring a British athlete at the Games.
Social media is the growth area to watch, according to Slater, who said that more than 1,000 articles on women’s sport were published on the BBC website in 2014; more than 1 million people get regular updates on BBC Sport via Facebook and Twitter. “That’s a very powerful weapon to have.”
David Kerr, the managing director of Eurosport, added that women’s sport on his channels had a “rich and diverse” landscape. The women’s tennis tour, 325 hours of women’s football and a range of other events showcased the best in women’s sport. He said that 6 million women in the UK watch sport on Eurosport.
“Women’s sport is like most men’s sport, it has to compete with the three big men’s team sports in the UK – rugby, cricket and of course football.
“They suck in a lot of the rights fees, a lot of air time, promotion, marketing and production values. It so happens that Eurosport has made a business in the last 20 years in the area of individual sports, and by happy coincidence this is where a lot of successful women are competing.”
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