Sport

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Comment: The 20x20 campaign for women's sport is a fine idea but it's a catch-22 situation

 

16 September 2018; Noelle Healy and Lyndsey Davey of Dublin celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup following the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
16 September 2018; Noelle Healy and Lyndsey Davey of Dublin celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup following the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Casey Stoney was the keynote speaker at the event
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The room in Google's suitably flashy headquarters on Dublin's Barrow Street was filled to capacity.

The idea behind the #20x20 launch was that everyone who was there could, in one capacity or another, contribute to the idea behind the event - namely to garner 20pc more media coverage of women in sport, 20pc more female participation and 20pc more attendance at women's events by 2020.

It's a noble idea and given the growth of women's sport in this country over the last few years, something that would seem more than achievable.

Slowly but surely, old prejudices have been chipped away at. The ever-growing participation rates, the demand for coverage of women in sport and the increase in the number of media outlets covering sport beyond the traditional houses have seen to that.

Still, there's plenty of road left to travel.

Among the panellists was Cork hero Rena Buckley. With 18 All-Ireland medals across two codes, she could hardly have done more to earn respect.

There was a record attendance at this year's All Ireland ladies final
There was a record attendance at this year's All Ireland ladies final

However, she told a story about how, when she was asked to present medals to a club in her own county, she was informed on arrival that they didn't want her to present to the U-12 boys. As she pointed out herself, this was 2017, not 1986.

It was a stark reminder that are there are still issues to address and hurdles to overcome. Still, it's not just as simple as dedicating more airtime or column inches to the women in sport.

Casey Stoney was the keynote speaker at the event. She has enjoyed a long career at the top of women's soccer in England and captained Team GB at the Olympics in 2012.

That career spanned a time when, starting out, she had to do the laundry at Arsenal to supplement her wages.

Towards the end of her career, she made a decent living playing soccer full-time. And earlier this year she was put in charge of the women's wing of one of the biggest brands in sport - Manchester United - meaning she's well-placed to comment on where women in sport have been, where they are and where they could possibly go.

She summed up the challenge succinctly. Coverage for coverage's sake isn't the answer. The game has to offer something more than just being played by women.

Mayo’s Sarah Rowe at yesterday’s launch of the 20x20 campaign for women in sport. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Mayo’s Sarah Rowe at yesterday’s launch of the 20x20 campaign for women in sport. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

"If the quality on the pitch is not there, it is not sellable," she said.

"If you are looking at women's football now compared to 20 years ago, it is a world away. Is every game brilliant? No. But is every game in the Premier League brilliant? No, there are some seriously dull games.

"It needs big names, it does, so Manchester United coming in is huge in the women's game. You need rivalries, you need fans from the men's club to get behind the women's club and you need the men's club to do what my club is doing, and invest in it and resource it."

The thing about media houses is that they follow the public interest at least as much as they can lead it.

They can take stands on various campaigns but at the end of it all they are a business with bean counters and a bottom line. If they thought the bottom line would be best-served by ramping up coverage of any sport, regardless of who plays it, then they would be all over them.

That's borne out by the success stories in minority Irish sport. For a couple of weeks during the summer when the Irish women's hockey team were slashing their way through the world's best, we suddenly grew a new understanding of the nuances of penalty corners.

That's why they were everywhere in the media for a few weeks. And why the women's rugby team had media organisations hurriedly dispatching reporters to France when they beat New Zealand in the World Cup a few years ago.

Interest from the public and the media comes and goes and that's not something specific to women's sports.

The O'Donovan brothers are world leaders in rowing but outside of world championships and Olympics they'll command only limited column inches.

Every year the Puissance and the Aga Khan take centre stage for a few days but the fortunes of our showjumping team are largely ignored otherwise.

The public in general and the sports media at large follow success stories, largely blind to gender. After that, they'll return to their sport of choice. You just can't make people care.

So is there an element of cart before the horse about the campaign? Maybe. But it's a complex issue that needs buy-in from all stake holders.

That more than 50,000 people went to the All-Ireland ladies football final shows what can be achieved when the likes of Lidl get involved and the game rockets in terms of standards.

As Stoney pointed out, coverage will come with better standards and achievements. Standards can only rise with investment. And investment follows media interest.

The 20x20 campaign will help. But it's a catch-22 situation.

Irish Independent

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