An even playing field: women in sport

Nicola Adams
Tuesday, 16 October 2012

There is no doubt that women's prevalence in professional sports and involvement in the industry has lagged behind their male counterparts. Professional sports have historically been played by men and operated by men. Both in terms of airtime, sponsorship and talent, female athletes have not had the investment or opportunity to demonstrate their skills which has meant that whilst some of the sports they play are main stream, the female game is actually classed as a minority sport because of the lack of revenue stream.

One of the most positive aspects of London 2012's Olympic Legacy was the recognition and celebration of women in sport. The BBC's coverage of the Games provided a platform to showcase talent; from references to the suffragettes in the opening ceremony to the glory of female athletes winning gold medals for Team GB; Jessica Ennis, Anna Watkins, Katherine Grainger and Victoria Pendleton to name but a few. Nicola Adam's winning the very first women's boxing gold medal was a triumph that finally broke the stereotype that some sports should be played by men alone. However, was this Olympic Games for female athletes any different to previous years, or has women's place in sport finally been recognised and given the voice it deserves?

I recently spoke to Diane Modahl about this issue to discover whether women have become more successful in sport over time or whether the measure of success is actually a change in attitude. Having competed in four Olympic Games and as former 800 m champion in the Commonwealth Games of 1990, Diane is well placed to comment:

"No doubt that London 2012 provided an opportunity for the world to notice that women are brilliant at sport!  This is not a new or ground breaking fact, it's a reality.  Many successful female athletes such as Paula Radcliffe, Ellie Simmonds, Dame Kelly Holmes, Tessa Sanderson and Sarah Storey have been quietly breaking records, winning medals and inspiring athletes for decades.  The difference now though is that we can all be genuinely excited about the commitment from the media to continue to showcase world class female athletes."

The power of female athletes to draw audiences in London 2012 confirms that there is an appetite for women's sport. However, the current lack of coverage is creating the same glass ceiling effect that for decades prevented women rising to the top of their professional careers. At the inaugural Asia Pacific World Sport and Women Conference in Melbourne this month, Australian's Sport Minister, Kate Mundy attributed the lack of television coverage for stunting the growth of female sports. Sponsors can only be attracted if they are guaranteed airtime which creates a vicious cycle. Considering the number of products marketed specifically at females, broadcasting female sports would create multiple sponsorship opportunities; take Victoria Pendleton as the new face for Pantene as just one small example. Imagine the extent of the branding opportunity for female aimed products if there were opportunities to sponsor a female team in a sport that was guaranteed to be broadcast on a regular basis.

This lack of exposure for women on the playing field is reflected in the board room with few women in senior positions at sports clubs and governing bodies. This is hardly surprising given that equality in business roles at the top level has yet to reach equilibrium. Sport and business are not distinct as sport is indeed a multibillion pound commercial enterprise. The recent European Commission's proposal for Europe's listed companies to reserve 40% of their non-executive director board seats for women by 2020 or face sanctions is interesting when set against the context of sport. Whilst this proposal does show a positive change in attitude, I believe that women would rather succeed on merit rather than fulfil a quota based on gender. Attitudes continue to evolve and when sport is your business, it makes commercial sense to showcase both male and female talent both on and off pitch.

Sean Cottrell

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