Last year I took part in an event with four professional athletes, two male and two female. It included a Q&A and one of the questions was about childhood heroes. The male athletes offered a couple of names immediately. They recalled watching their feats on television and having their posters on bedroom walls.
When it came to the female athletes they were stumped. They thought for a few moments but couldn’t produce a name. Not one. It might have been different had they been tennis players or track and field athletes, but they were the cyclists Hannah Barnes and Nikki Brammeier. Both said they struggled to watch women’s cycling on TV when they were teenagers, and there was next to no coverage in the magazines.
If they were teenagers now, would it be any different? Marginally.
This week the new sports minister, Mims Davies, pictured, speaking at the launch of UK Sport’s future funding strategy, called on broadcasters to increase coverage. She said that women’s sport on TV “remains too much of a novelty. We are still surprised – or grateful, even – to see it appear on terrestrial channels and this does need to change.”
She went on to make some points that Barnes, Brammeier and others would no doubt nod along to: “Equality means visibility. Whoever we are, we have the right to be inspired by diversity in sport that shows the best in all of us. I urge sports bodies, broadcasters, and the wider media to do better. It’s 2019 and it’s about time women’s sport was shown on television without a second thought.”
You only have to look at some of the comments on social media to see how much of a leap some would have to make before accepting women’s sport on television “without a second thought”.
Currently, the presence of a female pundit on a men’s game of football can provoke fury. As for women’s sport: there are those for whom it isn’t enough to not be interested – they go further, defining themselves as being in opposition to it. I co-present The Cycling Podcast and also a show dedicated to women’s cycling, The Cycling Podcast Féminin. The former, mainly but not exclusively focused on the men’s sport, had an average 72,000 listeners per show in 2018, while the 18 women’s shows averaged 57,000. That meant a total of one million for the women’s podcast over the year, which merited a celebration on social media. Mostly this attracted a positive response, but some appeared to object to the very existence of a show dedicated to women’s sport.
Nowhere is this anti-phenomenon more apparent, or more toxic, than in football. The former England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis was a pundit for the Brighton-Burnley game on BT Sport this week. Jake Humphrey, the presenter, read out a few of the tweets addressing her presence in the studio: “What’s with all the women punditry? Both BT Sport and Sky doing it. Horrible,” read one. “The women’s game does not interest me… PC waffle,” said another. “They’re taking over and it’s awful.”
Humphrey and Brown-Finnis discussed sexism after the game, the clip of their discussion was posted on YouTube, and the comments underneath were predictable. “Elite level women’s football, I’m done,” read the first one. “It feels like women pundits are being forced on us,” read the second. Another said: “These feminazis are the real poison in modern football. Ruining the beautiful game.” Humphrey followed up the discussion with his own comments on Twitter: “The sexism that spews out on social media whenever a female pundit appears on TV is a disgrace.”
A big test – or a big opportunity – is this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. In a little more than two weeks, tickets will go on sale to the general public, though 330,000 have already been sold through an exclusive Visa presale. Tickets are affordable, starting at €9 and rising to €23-€84 for the final itself, which will be in the 59,186 capacity Parc Olympique Lyonnais on 7 July.
I asked the BBC, who own the rights to the tournament in the UK, about their plans and was told that they are making “a massive commitment,” including showing every game “across our channels, TV and digital, with extensive coverage on radio and online”. Important details such as who will be in the presenting team, and when and on which channel games will be shown, will be revealed in May.
Scotland start their World Cup campaign in Nice on 9 June, 24 hours after Scotland’s men play Cyprus at Hampden and 48 hours before the men play Belgium away in European Championship qualifiers, which is unfortunate timing, and could affect the size of the travelling support.
Having said that, one regular says that a different set of supporters tends to attend the women’s games. “Those who are not in the Tartan Army will outnumber those of us who go to the men’s games too,” says Hamish Husband of the West of Scotland branch of the Tartan Army. He is planning to go to Scotland’s third game, against Argentina, in Paris on 19 June. But the logistics are a challenge: from Nice to Rennes, where Scotland play their second game against Japan five days after the first, is 1,200km.
A few other things count against some of the regular Tartan Army attending the Women’s World Cup – as well as the clashes, there’s the cost of going to men’s games as far away as Kazakhstan this year, but also, adds Husband, “there are those who sneer and look down on the women’s game”.
He is not one of them. “It’s a completely different atmosphere but the interest is far greater than it was when I started going and the standard is better too,” he says. “It’s interesting, because the men’s team that I have followed for so many years has declined in world stature, while the women’s team has grown.”
You feel that this World Cup is an important moment. There are some big venues to fill and France is an interesting place to have it, with some, euphemistically speaking, very traditional attitudes to women’s sport. On the other hand, it’ll be the biggest Women’s World Cup yet. It’ll be relatively easy to watch. And that visibility, as the sports minister, Barnes, Brammeier and others would say, is so important.