A winter weekend in February and for the armchair viewer it was very much one of two halves. (Lack of) ethnic diversity and LGBT representation was top of the agenda at the Oscars. For the sports fan, our viewer switched between the human M&S Blue Harbour catalogue of Six Nations punditry; and River Island’s Jamie & Jamie in Sky Sports HD. White middle class men were very much to the fore in daylight hours.
Yet, women’s sport – participation, exposure and financial health – is on the charge. Broadcasters are covering more live events. Editors are devoting more space and airtime to report stories. The major sports brands are featuring more and more female athletes in their Gotham City billboards. This weekend’s Rugby Special covered the women’s Six Nations before the men’s action in Rome and Cardiff. I’d wager that more sports fans would pick out Charlotte Edwards over Gary Ballance in an identity parade. The rise will continue. Sponsors, on the other hand, are lagging behind.
This isn’t a polemic around discrimination, fairness or misogyny – it’s not difficult to find those arguments. However, I would like to examine one of the institutionalised factors of the sports industry that women may never overcome: the stupidity of men.
A fool and his money are easily parted – and I’m perfectly happy to include myself in that. The blind loyalty and devotion of men to other men kicking or throwing balls is at the root of an industry that has mastered the act of designing, presenting and selling sport back to men at a vast expense.
As men, we have an insatiable need for belonging; to support a club, to get Spurs badges tattooed on our forearms, to wear our colours on foreign soil, to be respected. That seemingly exceptionally basic male need is so easily exploited – who wouldn’t want to turn that to financial gain?
Retailers today routinely talk of shoppers (predominantly female-skewed) being “savvy.’ £7,000 on a debenture to reserve the right to buy an international rugby ticket? Savvy? Turning up at Sunderland for a 12.45 kick off because the company you already pay £100 a month to says you should. Is that savvy? An unquestioning £7 a pint, or a £20 steak sandwich on top of a £100 match ticket at Lord’s? “Well that’s just how it is right?” I mumble to myself every June at the Nursery End.
Sport creates a state in which men hand over their money in awe to an institution at its turnstile. Still, an undercurrent of awe lies at the heart of many of the requests for sponsorship cheques. By its very definition, the antiquated term and device the sponsorship ‘right’ implies subservience to the heroic sporting body, resplendent in its blazer.
Progressive brands are trying to build narratives that show their commitment to their customers or a wider audience. They know that talking ‘at’ people – especially the savvy shopper – cuts no ice. The arrogant brand built on pomposity and prestige is un-liked. Brands that make peoples lives better or more meaningful are the brands that win.
Women’s sport provides a wonderful platform for brands wishing to follow that meaningful path. Women’s sport needs financial investment. It needs people and brands willing to invest time and offer practical support. It requires the ongoing support of established sports brands to promote the parity and - deliberate use of quotation marks here – “normalisation” of women’s sport.
So yes – you - SSE and the FA and your women’s football partnership. “We’re entering this partnership with one simple ambition – to make a difference to the future of women’s football and sport,” they clearly stated at launch. Their money and downright graft will create more access points for girls and women to enjoy the game across all levels and abilities. Who can argue with that?
Kia’s financial and practical investment is changing the lives and livelihoods of the England women’s cricket team. The team collectively drives 300,000 miles a year. Kia gave each squad member a car. The aforementioned Charlotte Edwards quit her job to become a full-time cricketer, earning a £40,000 a year salary off the back of the deal. “I had to pull my car over into a lay-by, and I just sat there, stunned. I never thought I’d see it in my time.” That’s Charlotte Edwards MBE speaking about the deal just two years ago. The cricket community will never forget.
There is a simple logic. Bold, brave brands that invest in women’s sport will improve the product. The better the on-field product, the bigger the audience. The bigger the audience, the greater propensity to grow participation. The bigger the participation levels, the better the product – and so it continues.
Above all, the greater the game grows, the more lives are changed through sport. Respect, love and warmth goes to the brand that helps change those lives in the first place.
Bravery ought to conquer stupidity. But as we’re used to being told by the expert analysis, sport is played on paper.