To improve women’s participation in and viewing of sports, we believe three issues are paramount:
1. Don’t lose them young
2. Reframe sport to attract women
3. Explain the rules
1. Don’t lose them young
We know from this research and wider sources that there are a number of barriers that hinder young girls’ engagement with sport from as early as 7 years old. From this early age many girls start their negative or ambivalent relationship with sport compared to boys who begin to form strong bonds. This is a generalisation and there are many exceptions, but it is still broadly true. The major reasons for this are:
Social stereotyping/biases/embedded beliefs – If we are a product of our environment and there are embedded gender biases surrounding us, these will naturally be adopted by our children. The quote from the 7 year old girl in Chapter 1 is a perfect demonstration of this – the boy plays football and is “really strong”, whereas, the girl does gymnastics and cleans the house “because she likes making her house clean for her children”.
If we do nothing then this prejudiced cycle will continue. There is some great work happening around this subject with brands and organisations launching campaigns and initiatives to tackle the issue. However, there’s still a long way to go.
So what can we do? It’s not an easy task to change long held societal beliefs, but we should start by treating the cause not the symptom. We should focus on: family, friends, school and media. Let’s tackle each briefly:
More fathers are engaged with sport than mothers. Our research suggests that fathers tend to introduce sport to their sons more than their daughters, for example, handing down a passion for your football team from father to son is a well-known practice. We must encourage fathers to engage more with their daughters through sport.
Research by the Women’s sport and Fitness Foundation states: “While sporty boys are admired by their peers (influenced by society and the media), sporty girls are not. In fact, they can be viewed negatively, for not paying enough attention to their appearance, and can be seen as unfeminine. As girls grow, they begin to place greater emphasis on appearance over health, and feel it is more important to be thin than fit.”
If girls playing sport leads to a negative response from friends and peers rather than a positive one at a time where you are trying to form friendships and build social groups, many will conform rather than risk alienation (particularly if they’re not being actively encouraged by their family). We must continue to demonstrate that being “sporty” as a girl is something that is valued and admired by society not something that is unfeminine.
Teachers are subject to the same societal biases facing women in sport as everybody else. It is inevitable that these biases will be present in teachers’ attitudes, however, in order to improve girls’ engagement with sport, teachers should play a crucial role in encouraging girls to participate in sport and removing the biases that hold girls back.
There’s a lot of fantastic work already being done here – the Youth Sports Trust programmes Girls Active and FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships are just two examples of initiatives aimed at improving girls’ engagement with sport. There has also been recognition by the Government that this issue is one that needs to be tackled. The School Sport and Activity Action Plan published in July 2019 highlights the importance of improving girls’ engagement with sport:
“As part of the successful This Girl Can campaign (which has inspired over 3.9 million women and girls to take steps to get active), Sport England will provide up to £1 million of National Lottery funding to develop a new digital resource for use in schools, to be launched in 2020. This will include a digital library of workout videos which can be used in PE lessons and elsewhere in the school day, particularly focused on reaching those girls who don’t enjoy PE lessons.”
The message is out there – the Department for Education, the Youth Sports Trust, Sport England, The FA and many others have initiatives and resources in place to support schools and teachers. However, no strategy will work, no matter how good it is, if the operational side of the plan isn’t in place. How do schools and teachers implement initiatives that start to break down the barriers and how do they overcome the barriers and challenges that they will face? What do they do if they launch a girls’ football initiative and the uptake is slow? Is the support in place to create a network of local schools that together can recruit enough girls to a specific sport to make sessions meaningful and engaging?
From the outside it feels like more practical help is needed on the ground for schools and teachers. Change does not happen easily – how can the wider sporting world help teachers and schools overcome the challenges that they face?
Turn on any sports channel or read any national paper’s sports pages and you are likely to see male sports coverage. There’s a chicken and the egg debate here –many say there is less coverage of women’s sport because there is less demand for it. Perhaps this is true, but without equal coverage aren’t the media encouraging the view that women’s sport is less valued than men’s?
What we do know, is that during the Olympics female athletes are as celebrated as much as male athletes. We also know that the 2019 women’s football World Cup was hugely successful with nearly 12 million people tuning in to watch the final. The interest is there when high profile events are available to view. However, the visibility of free-to-air women’s sport is marginalised. A good example of this is the Premier League and the Women’s Super League (WSL) highlights broadcasted on the BBC. Premier League highlights are broadcast on both Saturday and Sunday evenings on BBC One. WSL highlights are broadcast on a Sunday (when most matches are played) on BBC Four and very late at night after Match of the Day on BBC One. It’s obvious that the Premier League has been given priority over the WSL.
Match of the Day has huge viewing figures – surely the BBC could use this to promote the WSL? We’re not expecting extended highlights of WSL games, but by showing the best goals of the weekend in a 60 second montage, the BBC could bring the WSL to the attention of mainstream football fans. Doing this every week would be unlikely to alienate viewers and might get the WSL into their viewing consideration. It would be a small, but positive step.
Pressure is also being applied by the Government. Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, recently called for free-to-air broadcasters to represent women’s sport equally and for major women’s sporting events to be added to the list of “crown jewels”. This would ensure that the majority of the population would have more access to women’s sport. For women’s sport to grow it must be accessible and the free-to-air broadcasters have an important role to play.
If young girls, who already face many challenges engaging with sport, don’t see sportswomen being celebrated and talked about in the media consistently, then they don’t have the same access to inspiring role models as boys do. By addressing the media imbalance, girls will find it easier to believe that sport is just as much for them as it is for boys.
Through addressing this media imbalance, you will undoubtedly target women who already engage in men’s sport and watch programmes such as MOTD regularly. However, this strategy will most probably pass by the majority of women (including myself) who don’t regularly sit down to watch sport, aside from global competitions such as World Cups or Olympics. We need to recognise that for most women the idea of watching a sport on the TV isn’t a typical behaviour and we won’t see an immediate spike in female viewers. In conjunction with rebalancing media coverage, other media strategies should help draw in the female audience. Social media is a great way to begin to target women who have an interest in sport, but don’t necessarily engage with it on TV. While I follow a considerable amount of male and female sports stars on Instagram, my newsfeed is still inundated with fashion, food and fitness. Don’t get me wrong, they are all interests of mine – but there is a missed opportunity here to begin to target and draw in new audience of women to sport.
2. Reframing sport
A major rethink is needed. Instead of “selling” sport to women in the same way it has historically been sold to men, we need to go back to the drawing board and reframe sport in a way that will resonate with those that are not currently engaged. This is a big job and more research is needed to flesh out a strategy that addresses this deep rooted engagement issue. Without this reboot, nothing will change and engagement could drop further, because some of the major barriers are more prevalent with younger age groups (for example, 58% of 18-24 year old women worry about embarrassing themselves at sport vs. 41% of all women).
While competition is essential to sport, sporting competition does not have to follow the existing macho template. Take Strictly Come Dancing. It’s a sporting competition in an entertainment wrapper. It’s a competition without the machismo of traditional sporting events. It has almost 10 million viewers and doesn’t struggle to attract female spectators.
What can we learn from programmes like Strictly Come Dancing? Elite sport is competitive and we should not be looking to replace this, but we should look to take learnings from programmes that pull in a wider audience of women. First, we should be looking at the world of reality TV for tried and tested formats that could be repurposed to great effect; back stories, experiencing success or failure through somebody else’s eyes, building up heroes (and villains) and creating a more personal connection with the contestant (athlete). Second, celebrities attract viewers. The bigger the celebrity the more people want to watch. Not only should we explore the option of bringing celebrities into the sport space, we should elevate our current female sport stars into bigger names.
3. Explain the rules
Populus analysed what the ‘ideal’ women’s sport programme would be if designed from scratch amongst all women. These results should be firmly front of mind when planning any broadcast:
There is a clear winner. Female viewers want to be educated on what they’re watching. Without an appreciation of the rules, the teams and players, how can we expect them to connect with either the sport or the women participating?
During the Olympics people are watching events that they have never watched before. This works and has been well done by the majority of broadcasters. Why can’t we take the same approach when broadcasting women’s sport? Yes there’s a risk of annoying existing, hard-core viewers, but without explaining the rules, we run the risk of putting off a bigger audience of potential fans. We have demonstrated that there’s a clear confidence barrier that stops women engaging with sport. If they’re watching and feeling out of their depth, unsure of what is going on, this confidence barrier will be reinforced. Our broadcasters should be more active in explaining the rules to build confidence and get more women watching and engaging with sport.
We hope you have found this research and analysis interesting and useful. We don’t have all of the answers, but hope we have added some insight into what it will take to drive engagement with women’s sport forward.
There’s lots of data, insight and analysis that we couldn’t include. If you would like to discuss this subject with us, we would be delighted to do so. Please get in touch with Caitlin Rees at email@example.com