From the over-reliance of clubs and leagues on TV broadcasters to the over-inflated wages of star players, owners and administrators, the under-funding of grassroots and amateur competitions, and the mental health of athletes, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many of the fractures that have run deep throughout world sport for decades.
It is hoped the current shock to sport’s nervous system will force these issues to finally be addressed. However, as lockdowns begin to ease and attention turns to sport’s resumption, there is another key aspect that will determine not just how well the industry bounces back, but also how it can flourish in the months and years ahead: the participation and representation of women.
While women have always been part of sport, the cultural momentum generated over the past five years by athletes, teams, and competitions such as the Women’s T20 World Cup and the Fifa Women’s World Cup has resulted in unprecedented numbers of fans, participants and corporate investment in women’s sport.
But the global shutdown threatens to halt this momentum. In fact, it is already happening as despite the fact that there has been no live sport to tilt media coverage in a certain direction, women’s sport has been disproportionately affected. A recent survey by Siren Sport showed women’s sport received only 8.4% of all mainstream sport coverage in Australia in the month of April, down from an average of around 10%.
In other words, the pandemic has laid bare the huge discrepancies between the way men’s and women’s sport stories are told – and who tells them – in mainstream and online spaces, spaces that are now central to the engagement habits of fans everywhere, shaping sport’s wider cultures and conversations in profound ways.
As sport stands on the threshold of a new era, its communities must consider the role that women will play in its recovery. Sport is going to look very different post-pandemic and the decisions that are made now will determine what it looks like and who will be part of its future. Which athletes, competitions and codes will be prioritised by sporting organisations when the restless, hungry punters come flocking back? And how much air-time and column inches will be dedicated to women’s sport, which still carries the burden of not yet being “profitable”?
This is where a balance must be found between short-term profits and long-term, sustainable growth. Because when we talk about money in modern sport, what we are really talking about is fans. It is they who pay subscription fees to watch TV broadcasts. It is fans who buy the products advertised on the pitch-side hoardings and the fronts of jerseys. It is fans who buy tickets, renew club memberships and prop up local businesses and volunteer at grassroots clubs. Ultimately, what happens to fans determines what happens to sport.
Put another way, sport’s economy is a by-product of sport’s culture. And culture does not change overnight. Given its long history of silence and exclusion, women’s sport in particular has not had the same time or opportunities as men’s sport to manoeuvre itself into the culture of the communities that now form sport’s economic bedrock. But that does not mean it cannot reach the same heights over time.
Women’s sport is currently in its adolescent stages – still anchoring itself in public consciousness, still developing the foundations of its fanbase, still fighting to be taken seriously as a professional industry – but the past five years show how rapidly it has evolved with far fewer resources at its disposal. Indeed, men’s sport proves that long-term thinking and consistent commitment can deliver unprecedented economic results. And it is this momentum which is at the greatest risk as club owners, league administrators and media executives chip away at women’s sport to keep the men’s industry afloat.
If sport wants to flourish after the pandemic, it will require these same decision-makers to look beyond their loyal fanbases and instead appeal to the women who have felt excluded by sport’s history and culture. Yet if there are no female athletes in our newspapers or on our social media feeds, an entire generation of new fans (and players) risks being lost.
This is the generation that will grow up to be the broadcast subscribers, ticket holders, club members and grassroots volunteers. They will become the next Matildas, Opals, Pearls, Hockeyroos and Jillaroos. They will develop the same traditions and routines around sport that structure so many lives and form the foundation of sport’s economy in the process.
It is more important now than ever that short-term financial gains do not take priority over the longer-term culture shifts that will come with consistent investment in and visibility of women’s sport. Solidarity payments, redistribution funds, dedicated broadcast blocks and guaranteed percentages of media space are just some ideas for how women’s sport can be structurally secured instead of relying on a handful of executives whose current priorities are shaped by the same cultural forces that have created the industry they’re now trying to salvage.
All sport is losing money through this shutdown, but the question we ought to ask is what kinds of losses will be better or worse for sport over the coming decades than others. While the current pause threatens the immediate viability of some clubs and competitions, the pay-off for continued support of women’s sport knows no bounds. The future of the industry will be determined by whether its decision-makers know that, too.