The rise of women’s sports

Although growth of women’s sports over the past decade has been impressive, why is it not yet higher?

The rise of popularity in women’s sports has been a gradual endeavour, but one which has seen surges of growth in recent years. If asked to name a famous female athlete of the 90s, it would likely be a struggle for the majority of the population. But a male athlete? Innumerable examples immediately spring to mind – from Maradona to Michael Jordan –  primarily due to the infiltration of men’s sports and their greatest personalities to popular culture.

One of the biggest features of a female sport in 90s newspaper headlines was not a celebration of female success, talent, or ability, but rather a blown-up image of a woman in a sports bra after removing her jersey in a moment of sheer euphoria. Her name was Brandi Chastain, and she had just won the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the United States of America. I asked a male friend if he had ever heard of Brandi Chastain. “No” was the answer, before a sighting at the computer screen bearing the infamous photo, revealed a comment of “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” While the photo is now an iconic image of women’s sports and is celebrated in many circles, too much of the population saw nothing except exposed skin. Yet most consumers of this media didn’t know the woman’s name, nor that she had just scored the winning goal in the world’s biggest football competition. All that was advertised to them was that “some woman” had just “ripped”, “stripped” or “tore” her shirt off. Some newspapers at the time went as far as claiming that Chastain was “seizing the attention for herself” and “undermining her team’s success”. Male players received no such criticism.

“The media…..still underestimates the growth in popularity of women’s sport”

Now, things have changed. This year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup “exploded” onto our headlines and our screens,  with millions tuning in to watch the events and thousands attending the games, breaking a plethora of records with each stage. As an event, the 2023 World Cup surpassed the previous record of 1.35 million attendees and generated more than $570mn in revenue. The President of FIFA, Gianna Infantino, stated “proudly” that “we didn’t lose any money”, as well as generating “the second highest income of any sport, besides….the men’s World Cup on a global stage”. Additionally, there were huge numbers seen in viewership. Over 7 million Australians tuned in to watch the Matildas’ semi-final versus England, making it the most-watched TV program on record in Australia.  The thought that European television almost missed out such viewership figures, due to their measly offer of only 2% of the amount paid for viewership of the men’s World Cup (as Infantino put it, “a slap in the face”), is ironically comedic. The media, and the world, still underestimates the growth of interest in women’s sport.

This growth is also evident across many other sports. During the Rio 2016 Olympics, the women’s hockey final was viewed by over 5.5 million people on BBC. The match was so highly anticipated that the 10 o’clock news was pushed back in order to await its end. On August 30th of this year, the world record for the highest-attended women’s sporting event was broken, when 92,003 fans flocked to Memorial Stadium, typically home to the American Football team of theUniversity of Nebraska, to watch the Nebraskan women’s volleyball team defeat the University of Omaha 3-0. Attendees reportedly paid up to $400 (€373) on the secondary market for their seats.

“92,003 fans flocked to Memorial Stadium to watch the Nebraskan women’s volleyball team defeat the University of Omaha”

The hard work and dedication of  female athletes themselves to win equal treatment and equal pay has had phenomenal results. Particularly, the US women’s soccer team (USWNT) had huge success in 2019 in securing equal pay for both men and women. The USWNT filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in March 2019, and after their win at the World Cup in July, the fight was brought to the international stage when thousands of fans chanted “equal pay” at Groupama Stadium, France. This led to a $24mn agreement being signed in February the following year.

This topic cannot be discussed without drawing attention to inimitable Billie Jean King, one of tennis’ greatest ever stars, whose unprecedented talent led the way to the achievement of in 1973 or equal pay for women and men in tennis. Her threats to boycott events like Wimbledon directly led to the introduction of equal winner’s cheques for female as well as male tennis wins. Her legendary actions changed tennis forever almost single-handedly, moving it to a sport where women are regarded as equally talented and equally worthy of respect as their male counterparts. This September saw 3.4 million US viewers tuned in to watch Coco Gauff’s victory in the Women’s Singles Final of the US Open over Aryna Sabalenka, whereas only 2.3 million viewers tuned into Novak Djokovic’s win over Daniil Medvedev in the men’s final.

“Over 60% of Irish people would like to see more visibility in women’s sports”

However, these changes have not yet extended far enough. In Ireland, there is only a 3.4% gender gap in sports participation, yet only 6% of sports media coverage in Ireland encompasses the sporting endeavours of women. This is despite a survey carried out by HerSport, which revealed that over 60% of Irish people would like to see more visibility in women’s sports.

In 2020, both the Irish men’s and women’s rugby teams played against Italy in the Six Nations tournament on the same weekend. On those same dates, the All-Ireland Hurling Championship and the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championship held their opening fixtures. The coverage of women’s sports in the lead newspapers that weekend failed to surpass 20%, with The Irish Times being the worst culprit, with an appalling 0% coverage.  Certainly, there have been some movements towards change, such as the FAI now paying the national women’s soccer team the same as the men’s; however, other areas await much work. In women’s Gaelic football, there is €700,000 being made available for the athletes, versus the €3mn made available for men. As one Oireachtas committee put it, this is a “scandalous” pay gap. In rugby, the winners of the Women’s Six Nations receive €0 in prize money, versus the £325,000 collected by their male counterparts. More change is still needed.

The gender pay gap in men’s versus women’s sports can no longer be supported by the same tired arguments – “where would the money come from if no one’s watching”, or “who’s watching women’s sports anyway, it’s not half the spectacle – it’s just worse.”

The numbers are there and the statistics are there – everything leads us to one conclusion, being that women’s sport is still on the rise.  When will this be recognised by those in charge, and when will structural support lead to women’s sport getting the recognition it deserves?