Funding for women in sport: the challenge of Covid-19

Sport’s cure for the coronavirus cannot come at the expense of female athletes

Elite rugby referee and former Ireland international Joy Neville spoke last week on The Dugout podcast about the challenging circumstances the women’s team faced during her playing days. In particular, she recalls their journey to France for the Six Nations in 2011. After a gruelling 17 hour journey on an overnight train, they then faced Les Bleues in Pau the next day, only losing by a point. Since their creation in 1991, the women’s team had always been the poor younger sibling to the far more established male equivalent. This latest injustice proved to be the final straw.

The IRFU were roundly slated for allowing a national representative side to go through a saga which would make Odysseus feel that he got off relatively easy, and from that point on, significantly more funding and resources were made available to the women’s team. “From that moment on, a lot was addressed,” Neville explains. “The biggest improvement was in data analysis; we had a data analyst come into us to monitor each player’s activity. Instead of simply tapping a player on the shoulder and telling them where they went wrong, you could now hold them responsible for each of their actions during a game.” Bringing in these resources goes a long way towards establishing legitimacy for female athletes, ensuring that this wave of success for women in sport is not a fad, but the new norm. 

The IRFU were roundly slated for allowing a national representative side to go through a saga which would make Odysseus feel that he got off relatively easy”

This is a common narrative for female players and teams across the world, but especially in Ireland. First, a team achieves unprecedented success in spite of their lack of resources. Afterwards, the challenges and financial struggles of the team are exposed, either through the media or from team members themselves, mounting huge pressure on governing bodies to resolve their unacceptable conditions. Finally, the powers that be provide the funding and resources to ensure that a team can remain competitive for the foreseeable future. The Ireland women’s rugby, hockey and football teams are good examples of this arc; each have put in immense work to get to where they are now, and will do their utmost to prevent all the good work from being undone. 

However, Covid-19, and the widespread disruption that it has caused to sport, poses a huge threat to these hard-fought gains. Already, the pandemic has had huge implications for the industry, but the real indication of where sport goes from here will only become clear once the uncertainty has subsided. Therefore, there is a danger that in rebuilding sport for this brave new world that men’s teams will be prioritised and female athletes will be neglected. 

One area of concern for clubs and organisations is funding. The lack of actual sport taking place has resulted in the stream of matchday revenues completely drying up, a vital stream of income for all clubs. This means no gate receipts, no sponsorship revenue and no TV money (for the clubs who collect the eggs of that particular golden goose). 

Just as there is significantly less money coming in, the money going out of clubs has increased dramatically. On top of the usual regular expenses (wages, utilities, maintenance), creditors will naturally increase pressure on clubs to repay debts, while the threat of TV companies such as Sky and BT cancelling their deals with the league and demanding reimbursements hangs overhead like the Sword of Damocles. As demonstrated by Bury FC and Bolton Wanderers earlier this season, many clubs and organisations are already on the brink of collapse and this latest crisis could be enough to persuade the man upstairs to shut off the power. Just last week, USA Rugby filed for bankruptcy as a result of the blanket shutdown of sport; all signs suggest that they are merely the first of many sporting bodies who will not survive the storm.

Kathleen McNamee of ESPN believes the smaller clubs will be worst affected by the disruption and instability: “The unfortunate reality we’re facing is that a lot of big clubs and well-supported athletes will come out of this fine but we will lose a lot of good people from sport because they can’t deal with the financial toll of not being able to compete for sponsorship deals, competition money or benefit from TV rights. I think the effects will be felt at a much lower level and then ripple up through the top tiers.” 

One can assume that there will be a similar situation for clubs in Trinity. Dublin University Central Athletic Committee (DUCAC) Chair, Jemil Saidi, has stressed that the body have “tried to keep things operating as normal [as possible]” and are still settling on how best to assist struggling clubs. “The closure of the Pavilion Bar during this time has an effect on DUCAC as it is not in the position to make contributions to DUCAC as it normally would,” Saidi has said to Trinity News. He also added that “at the time of college closure, the majority, if not all, of the clubs hadn’t fully claimed their budget allocations so they should all be in a financially stable position. Should they require more funding, the possible solution would be for them to make an application and a decision would be made based on their application and taking this situation into consideration.” He also confirmed that DUCAC hope to meet members from all clubs to discuss a contingency plan in the wake of the pandemic, but admitted that a date for this proposed meeting has yet to be finalised. 

Trinity, like all other universities and schools in Ireland, closed from 6 pm on March 12. By that stage, some clubs, such as Dublin University Football Club and Dublin University Association Football Club, were approaching the end of their seasons, so funding and competition money may not be in jeopardy. Clubs in other sports such as cricket and rowing, for whom the seasons were about to begin, are in far more dire straits. Miriam Kelly, captain of Dublin University Ladies Boat Club, explains that Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on their season: “All of our domestic regattas that would have been held in April have been cancelled, including the Irish University Championships. Domestic regattas from May onwards have been suspended; however, Rowing Ireland are currently looking at the possibility of holding the Irish National Championships in September, as they are usually held in July. We were also hoping to go to Henley Women’s Regatta and Henley Royal Regatta but these have also been cancelled.”

The lack of events will have consequences for the club’s funding. “I suppose it’ll affect things like how much money we get from the [Bank Of Ireland] grant next year because they won’t have results or events to base figures off [sic],” Kelly adds. It is a situation that a lot of clubs will face, both in Trinity and the wider world. When it comes to ensuring the survival of clubs and organisations, McNamee is not confident that the emergency measures taken by higher powers will be enough: “Certain bodies have put money aside to help clubs but I can’t see it being enough in the long term… I think largely the pressure will be on leagues and individual clubs – possibly even fans – to keep their favourite clubs and athletes afloat.”

In order to keep from going under, clubs and organisations may be forced to introduce emergency measures. One can imagine that a club will redistribute their funding and resources, with priority given to the more financially lucrative teams (e.g. a senior men’s team) at the expense of other teams which are perceived to be less important (e.g. underage sides). The real issue surrounds whether it is decided that women’s teams may also fall into the ‘less important’ bracket. As McNamee explains: “One of the dangers for me is people introducing ‘temporary measures’ to get funds back on track and suddenly it is a couple years down the line and we have lost the progress of the last few years.”

The real issue surrounds whether it is decided that women’s teams may also fall into the ‘less important’ bracket.”

It is easy to see how this scenario may become a reality, even accidentally. All the efforts of both the players and the media to secure more resources and respect for female athletes would be completely in vain. Hellish 17 hour train journeys, having to foot the bill for the right to represent your country, sharing tracksuits and changing in toilets; nobody wants to see a return to those dark days. If these cost-effective measures are to the detriment of women’s teams, the onus is on the media and the public to ensure that clubs and organisations are held responsible for their actions. It should also be much easier for journalists and media outlets to cover these issues, with the lack of a hectic match-week schedule weighing them down. 

Given the uncertainty arising from these precarious times, it is entirely understandable that the media has resorted to discussing classic matches and all-time greatest teams – there is nothing like the warm, comforting blanket of nostalgia to offer a brief respite from fear. If anything, the reaction of journalists and fans alike has highlighted the importance of sport to the fabric of normal life. 

Women’s teams, however, may not remember the past with any great affection. This is why once the storm blows over and sporting authorities begin to dig through the rubble and start rebuilding, female athletes cannot be left behind.  Of course, extraordinary times will require some form of sacrifice and one will face tough decisions, but sporting bodies can no longer be permitted to rob Patricia to pay Paul.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.