Remember France 2019 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup? Where English pubs reverberated with ‘It’s coming home” as the Lionesses beat Argentina and Scotland on their way to the semi finals? Nobody watches women’s football. That’s the narrative that has been force-fed to sports fans for decades. Well the 82.18M fans who watched Megan Rapinoe lead the USA to victory in the final, and a global tournament audience of 1.12 billion eyeballs, put paid to that theory.
The games accelerated a new understanding that women’s sports no longer started and stopped with the athletes; there was now a huge global fan-base just waiting to be tapped into. The Ashes, the British Open and the Netball World Cup cemented a glorious 2019 and for those who dared dream, it looked as if the gender equality tipping point was imminent. Not quite there, admittedly, but thundering towards its goal, nevertheless.
Who were we kidding? Sport's glorious return has seen men’s elite sports dribble back onto our screens: football, cricket and Formula One. And the only thing everyone is getting worked up about is how to replicate the sounds of crowds during big games and make things seem ‘normal’ again. The return of women’s sport in any meaningful capacity seems to be firmly on the back burner.
It’s this obsession with a return to ‘normal’ that is in danger of being our downfall. Apparently the biggest challenge today is getting the fans back. Fair enough. Teams need turnstile takings to survive and an injection of cash is desperately needed across all sporting disciplines and levels. However the sports earmarked for initial large crowd trials are the World Snooker Championship, Glorious Goodwood and a couple of men’s county cricket friendly games. With the exception of perhaps truck racing, darts and the World Burping Championship, you couldn’t have found three more male dominated activities.
We can’t allow the pandemic to let all that hard won momentum to unravel right before our eyes. The fanbase is there, that’s been proven. The athletes are more than capable of delivering first class events on a global scale. If we can agree that sport needs fans to survive, then we can agree that it’s the underfunded sports that will have struggled the most through the COVID crisis. And when it comes to defining underfunding, simply take any sport you like, and just add ‘women’s’ to the beginning of it. Talk of returning to normal is fine, just so long as the men at the top aren’t dictating to the sporting world what normal should be. The game deserves more.