Covid-19 has rocked women’s sport but its future remains bright | Sport

The images come from a different time and place: before the sporting world became submerged in sepia and nostalgia, before the great stasis began. Dina Asher-Smith running a bend so geometrically perfect it could have been drawn by a compass before rocketing to the first global sprint title won by a British woman. The MCG swollen with a record 86,174 crowd watching Australia’s cricketers win the Women’s T20 World Cup. England’s Lionesses attracting so many converts and casuals to their cause that unheard of numbers – 11.8m people, in fact – tune in for their World Cup semi-final against the USA.

In truth the most striking sporting photograph of the past 12 months – that of Megan Rapinoe with her arms wide and chin regally tilted in celebration – felt like a metaphor for women’s sport itself: standing tall, oozing attitude, ready to take the fight to all-comers. No wonder that throughout 2019 and early 2020 there was a sense of tectonic plates being shifted, and prejudices being shattered. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic. And with it a clawing fear that what had been made could be rapidly unmade.

“The whole industry has been totally rocked by this virus,” Women’s Sport Trust co-founder Tammy Parlour tells the Guardian. “We have to acknowledge there is a very real threat to women’s sport, especially as under pressure people often revert to the old ways of doing things.”

Such evidence isn’t hard to find. When McKinsey produced a report on coronavirus’s impact on the sports industry it grouped women’s football alongside youth and futsal in football’s food chain. Meanwhile the incessant chatter about sport’s return largely focuses on men’s sport – with little concern about the lengthier lockdown of women’s sport.

In fact, with the FA’s Women’s Super League about to be cancelled, the athletics and tennis seasons in limbo, and the prospects for women’s cricket this summer uncertain, it is entirely possible that professional sport could be female-free zone stretching into the autumn – aside, perhaps, from an occasional sighting of a female jockey.

Leah Galton fires home Manchester United Women’s first goal in their 3-2 win at Everton on 23 February, the last day of WSL matches before the league was postponed. Photograph: Paul Greenwood/BPI/Shutterstock

Contrast that with Germany, where the Frauen Bundesliga will start up again next week. “We can’t just rush to get men’s sport back and not think about women’s sport,” says Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, one of Britain’s greatest athletes and now an influential voice. “There has to be a balance and diversity, otherwise some of the strides women have made could be lost. But, as with a lot of the things I have sat on over the years, the default is always men.”

Out of sight, out of mind, out of pocket? The sports marketing agency Two Circles projects that global sports sponsorship rights fees will fall from 37.3bn in 2019 to 23.4bn this year because of the pandemic. That is a colossal drop. Would Barclays, who last year became the first title sponsor of the WSL in a three-year deal worth £15m, make the same investment today given it recently announced a 38% fall in profits? The fear is that women’s sport, which has risen so fast, is also more fragile – especially with the worst economic recession since 1709 forecast and no gate receipts coming into the accounts.

Some sports will be hit much harder than others. Olympic athletes are financially supported by UK Sport – but many of those in football, rugby and cricket face far more uncertainty. As Zarah Al-Kudcy, Formula 1’s head of commercial partnerships development, puts it: “The irony here is that the sports that have tried to become commercially independent, and more reliant on media rights, are the ones that face more business challenges because they are not getting funding from the government.”

It’s not just at the elite level where progress has been abruptly reversed. Sport England, which tracks the nation’s weekly activity levels, reports that the gender gap has widened since the lockdown. “It had been coming down, thanks in part to campaigns such as This Girl Can,” explains Sport England’s executive director Ali Donnelly, “But we are seeing a retreat in the numbers of women being active in the pandemic.”

Yet for all the myriad challenges, it is notable how much optimism there is. No one fears a steep retreat to the margins, or a return to the bad old days. Indeed, many involved in women’s sport expect it to quickly get a second wind; and to not only to survive but to further thrive. “The pandemic will definitely impact on the momentum that we were building,” says Donnelly, who is also a prominent figure in women’s rugby. “But at the same time, there’s expectation from young girls in particular that they will see sportswomen on TV.

It undoubtedly helps that a key priority for most governing bodies is to grow their numbers of participants – and the easiest way to do that is through supporting the women’s game. “Strategically it makes sense for them to keep investing in the growth area of a sport,” adds Donnelly. “I also don’t get the sense that a massive sponsorship hit is coming either because many women’s sports are only on the start of that ladder.”

Indeed some sponsors could possibly cut back on their big-ticket items in men’s sport in favour of women’s sport which is often seen as more authentic. A 2018 Nielsen survey, for instance, found that women’s sport was regarded as more progressive and inspiring than men’s sport – with 46% of respondents also wanting more of it shown on free-to-air TV.

Another crucial factor is that there is far greater public expectation and pressure on sports to invest in their women’s programmes nowadays. When Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief executive, appeared before parliament earlier this month he was criticised when he admitted that women’s cricket could not be completely ringfenced if the lack of play this summer cost the ECB £380m. Would that have happened five years ago?

Beth Barrett-Wild, the head of the women’s Hundred at the ECB.

Beth Barrett-Wild, the head of the women’s Hundred at the ECB. Photograph: Tom Shaw/ECB

But Beth Barrett-Wild, who is in charge of the Women’s Hundred, insists the ECB’s support for the women’s game remains undimmed. “All the statistics and data that we have just shows this upward trajectory that we’re on,” she says. “We know women’s cricket is our single biggest area of growth opportunity – it’s indisputable. And I think as a business, and not just as a sport with a social responsibility, women’s cricket is just so fundamentally important to what we do.”

The Hundred has divided opinion, but Barrett-Wild promises it will herald a huge shift forward for the women’s game. “Being able to properly position men’s and women’s cricket on the same platform, with the same marketing investment, for the first time is really important,” she adds. “Prior to lockdown, I had a couple of really good meetings with BBC and Sky, where we talked about what we are going to do to make the Hundred a real game-changing moment.”

Heather Knight, of London Spirit, faces a delivery at The Hundred launch in October 2019.

Heather Knight, of London Spirit, faces a delivery at The Hundred launch in October 2019. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for ECB

Elsewhere the next generation of women’s leaders are quietly being developed. The Women’s Sport Trust has used the downtime to set up an “Unlocked” programme for 41 top athletes, providing them with mentors to help them develop what they call “a side hustle” beyond their sport, whether it is in media, marketing, or helping the young athletes come through.

One of those involved, Stacey Copeland, professional fighter, stresses that the recent difficulties should be placed into wider context. “When I started boxing it wasn’t even legal for women to compete,” she says. “And yet I’ve been able to compete for my country and win a title as a professional. We’re used to coming up with creative ways to get around barriers. I don’t see why this pandemic should be any different.”

Another participant, Alice Dearing, who is hoping to become the first black woman to compete for Britain at swimming in the Olympics, is just as bullish. “This enforced break has been like driving hunger for us: it has only made us more determined to succeed. Yes, women’s sport has taken a knock. But it will come back bigger and better than before.”

Loghborough Swimming Club’s Alice Dearing competes in the Women’s Open 400m Freestyle event at the BUCS Short Course Swimming Championships

Loghborough Swimming Club’s Alice Dearing competes in the Women’s Open 400m Freestyle event at the BUCS Short Course Swimming Championships Photograph: David Crawford/Still Sport

One aim of the scheme says Al-Kudcy, who is a WST trustee and mentor, is to get more diversity across the whole ecosystem. “If sports have that across every level of decision-making, they are going to make better decisions,” she says. “And, what we have seen where there is a lack of diversity, there is often a lack of lateral thinking.”

That view is reinforced by Grey-Thompson. “The Davis review of business made it really clear that women on business boards are vital. Sport is in this really weird place, where it likes to think it is different but it is not. Governing bodies to be thinking more about women. The pandemic could be a moment where there is a massive step forward for women’s sport. But that will take greater commitment and not just words.”

For the time being those in women’s sport will continue to do what they have always done, even in the darkest and flintiest days when they faced a lack of interest, visibility, sponsorship and lack of money: roll up their sleeves and push on with one eye on a brighter future.

“There are little girls who are relying on us to succeed, to make sure they’ve got the role models and a pathway to be successful,” says Copeland. “We are committed to that. We’re passionate about it. And, trust me, we are definitely not going anywhere.”

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