What impact is Covid-19 having on women’s sport?

The Women’s Super League was just one in a long line of major sporting events to cancel the remainder of its season during this Covid crisis. It was yet another blow for supporters, starved of any form of UK sports action since mid-March – but many feared it might also herald a ‘crisis’ in women’s sport.

Having worked so disproportionately hard for so long for proper recognition in the world of elite sport, there are grave fears that Covid may have hit women’s sport harder than any other.

The thinking behind these fears appears to be that the meteoric rise in interest in women’s sport over the past couple of years (with 11.8m people tuning in to watch England play USA in a World Cup semi-final last summer and in increase of 850,000 women playing the game since the World Cup with a retention rate of 23 per cent) will just as quickly collapse if sponsors are driven away in the immediate aftermath and decide there is little value in coming back anytime soon.

Tammy Parlour, the Women’s Sport Trust co-founder, recently told The Guardian: “The whole industry has been totally rocked by this. 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.”

The old ways to which she refers are brands reverting to the comfort and safety of traditional men’s sports events. Organisations like the Women’s Sport Trust and Sport England have fought so hard for so long to take their rightful place at the top table of elite sport in the UK but now they fight a potentially even tougher battle to stay there.

Working at The Telegraph I have had a privileged front-row seat to see the monumental effort and drive it has taken to get the British public to properly appreciate women’s sport. The company launched a new print supplement, TWS [Telegraph Women’s Sport] last year to popular acclaim and for which it won Campaign’s launch of the year in its publishing awards. 

It deserved acclaim for an excellent product, throwing a spotlight on the incredible role models and stories that have been going on within women’s sport for years but went unreported for so long. 

The launch of TWS came hot on the heels of the brilliant Sport England This Girl Can campaign, which was responsible for the start of so many social media conversations that swiftly translated into action being taken by sporting bodies and clubs across the UK to get girls more active.

I was also fortunate enough to work in the Communications team at Harlequins Rugby Club which has led the way in women’s rugby over the past five years, and even had its ‘Game Changer’ fixture – a celebration of women’s rugby – at Twickenham this season. 

The effort put in by the Club to try to achieve its ambition parity with the men’s team is monumental. The fact remains that a men’s match against Saracens sells out at The Stoop every season, but the Club would see getting over 3,000 in to watch the women play the same fixture is an almighty achievement. 

So, at the moment, the returns are not there for the huge financial investment made. Indeed, women’s professional rugby suffered another blow this summer when it was announced that the league sponsor Tyrrells would not be renewing their sponsorship of the league. A new backer is needed but the immediate rewards are not obvious. 

It seems the way to take giant strides in the women’s game is to take a leap of faith. Quins did it, The Telegraph did it – and their bold moves have been recognised by the sports industry. But it is now more important than ever for these institutions to implore their backers to encourage women’s sport more than ever.

It would be very easy for sponsors to duck out now, to protect themselves from this unprecedented financial crisis in any way they can – but women’s sport needs them.

Without its role models playing their sport and being shown on TV or their exploits being written about or talked about on air, key sporting figures like former England women’s football coach Hope Powell have expressed grave fears for the future of women’s sport at elite level in this country – and the trickle down effect that can have on participation.

After last year’s World Cup Louise Gear, the FA’s head of women’s development, said: “The growth we’ve experienced is proof of the ‘see it, play it’ mantra that is at the heart of our ethos to inspire participation across all age groups.

But without being able to ‘see it’ right now, are we going to see a drop in young girls ‘playing it’? 

Again, speaking from my own personal experience, I have an 11-year-old daughter who, unlike her 13-year-old brother, is not obsessed with sport. She’s not inactive, but it is not her priority. And so, in lockdown, her go-to release is not an outdoor activity. 

However it has not taken much to get her going. In fact we used world champion Dina Asher-Smith as a role model when it came to devising a mini garden Olympics last week. Role models work and now more than ever we need them to the fore in women’s sport.

Women’s Sport Trust, meanwhile, continues with its excellent work to promote and unleash sporting talent in this country. Their latest campaign #Unlocked, pairs 40 elite athletes with 40 ‘activators’ from the sporting world to advise them on making their way in the precarious world of professional sport. It is another brilliantly devised campaign from a body that knows how to make a difference. But it also has three crucial big-name sponsors backing it: Sainsbury’s Disney and Facebook. 

Clearly big brands thought women’s sport was THE place to be pre-Covid so I think women’s sport remains in an optimistic place despite the crisis of 2020. A lot of the major sponsorship is nascent, so if some sponsors drop out, there will soon be others to step up and replace them next year. 

The impact of This Girl Can (funded by the National Lottery) and last year’s Women’s World Cup (with banking giant Visa behind it) – not to mention the 85,000 crowd that watched the Women’s Cricket T20 World Cup (with Nissan and Emirates just two of its global partners) just before lockdown – is still being felt and a few months away from our screens is not going to derail what is a truly powerful movement with some truly inspiring figures behind it.

The very fact that headlines were made and are still being made about the cancellation of the WSL season show that it is a subject that concerns the media – and the public at large. Even a few years ago this may not have been the case. Women’s Sport matters to the UK and post-lockdown it has a chance to show it like never before.

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