Time for a more level playing field

Last week, I went along to an agency-hosted panel discussion, which posed the provocative question, ‘Is the business of sport business as usual?’.  The event had a great line-up and was really well attended, but it’s fair to say it didn’t go quite the way the agency had hoped.  A slightly unclear agenda was compounded by two avoidable errors;

– the inclusion of a ‘token woman’ on the panel. This means absolutely no disrespect to the lady herself, but placing a woman who runs a ‘wellness’ website alongside blokes from Arsenal, Barclays and Adidas was always going to look a bit lopsided

– a compere who spoke to the men at length about the business of sport, but – despite being an experienced sports journalist – could only think of one question for this woman, which was… ‘do women like sport?’

Unsurprisingly, this drew an audible gasp from the audience, so I kicked off the Q&A by asking the panel how they intended to tackle gender inequality in sport when the issue was clearly attitude, not interest.

In all honesty, sport doesn’t interest me much, but gender equality and commercial opportunity do.  Business as usual?  It would appear so.

My question clearly hit a nerve in the room.  The rest of the discussion focused almost exclusively on this issue, and several people came over to thank and congratulate me for sparking the debate at the drinks reception afterwards.  (And huge credit to the agency, who are already planning a follow-up event on this topic).

Meanwhile, women’s sport remains the poor relation.  A few facts and figures…

  • The BBC pay report revealed sexist, foot-in-mouth, old dinosaur John Inverdale is paid more than national treasure Claire Balding
  • The England Women’s Cricket team just won the World Cup and the Lionesses football team are in the Euro semi-finals having beaten France for the first time in over 40 years (they also came third in 2015 World Cup and reached the Quarter finals in 2007 and 2011)
  • By comparison, England’s highly paid footballing men, have only made the quarter finals of the World Cup four times since winning in 1966, more often going out in the early stages
  • Yet women’s captain Steph Houghton earns just £65k/year while Wayne Rooney pockets £300k PER WEEK.  (Though he’ll soon have to manage on just £150k/week when he goes to Everton)
  • Meanwhile, England’s rugby women recently beat New Zealand and became the world’s top-ranked female rugby team.  As they celebrated and prepared to compete in the 2017 World Cup, the RFU rewarded them by cancelling their contracts.  How motivating!
  • And let’s not forget that around 40% of Olympic medals are won by women (38% of Golds in 2012, 37% of all medals in 2016).

When England’s women’s hockey team reached the Olympic final one Friday night last year, the BBC rightly stuck with the nail-biting game and postponed News at 10. So try telling the 9m people who watched that match that there’s no audience for women’s sport on TV.  According to the Guardian;

“After (they) won bronze in London, funding for hockey went up and led to 25% more participation among women. The gold in Rio will surely have an even bigger impact; (many) women have already announced their intention to take up the sport since the final.”

And this is the crux of the issue.  Decent media coverage coupled with grass roots investment encourages the participation of ordinary girls and women who ARE interested after all!  Who knew?!

I have written before about the importance of strong role models, not Disney princesses, for young girls, so the link-up between the FA and Disney is a hideously wrong-headed and retrograde step, as perfectly summed up in the piece in The Independent.  Girls need to grow up thinking they’ll get a fair punt at the rewards and recognition, not ‘what’s the point of putting in the hours and achieving success for 5% of the media coverage, 0.5% sponsorship money and a fraction of the salaries?’.

Of course, things won’t change overnight.  But maybe we should stop measuring women’s sport with the same yardstick as men’s.  It may never attract the same audiences, the same investment (though those two things are clearly interlinked) or the same salaries, but that doesn’t make it unwatchable, unnecessary or unsuccessful.

On Radio Four’s Today programme the other day, an interviewer talked about ‘women getting parity with the men’s teams’, which is laudable, but ignores the fact that, based on performance, the men are largely overpaid (especially in international football).  Perhaps it’s time the men got parity with the women?  When it comes to payment by results, the men that dominate the sports industry seem to conveniently move the goalposts.

Sadly, many men still think it’s only their view that matters. At the event, a very nice (male) rugby fan told me, “the thing is, I’m not interested in women’s rugby”.  I smiled politely and replied, “the thing is, it’s not all about you, love.”

In his fabulous Ted talk, ‘Why gender equality is good for everyone‘, Michael Kimmel sums it up neatly, “without confronting men’s sense of entitlement, we’ll never understand why so many men resist gender equality.”

We have to engage more men in this debate, or change will never happen.  During Wimbledon, Andy Murray was widely applauded for his (not for the first time) unamused response to a journalist’s suggestion that Sam Querrey was the first American player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in 8 years.  Even if you put this down to ‘unconscious bias’, it’s hard to forget that Serena Williams alone has won 14 titles in that time.  One of them whilst pregnant.

Change most often happens because money talks.  And there are huge commercial opportunities awaiting those savvy enough to challenge the outdated status quo.  The men in the industry have the power to do this  – the panel at the agency event were in complete agreement and embraced the debate with relish.

Just a few days later, Arsenal announced they were dropping the word ‘ladies’ from the women’s team to “move the modern game forward.”  It would be nice to think this had something to do with their Head of Business Strategy being on the panel that day…

I’ve worked in many male-dominated sectors and have delivered real results by demonstrating the business opportunities that can be realised by refocusing the ‘male gaze’ to a more gender-neutral view.  Sports marketing seems ripe for this attention.  So if you could do with some help, just get in touch.

Hopefully the next event will be Business As Unusual.

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