‘You kick like a girl’…from unfounded insult to accolade in a matter of weeks. Why? Because thanks to the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the BBC’s coverage of it, more audiences have been able to watch or listen to, enjoy and celebrate women’s football than ever before this summer.
Steph Houghton and her England teammates have certainly been putting on a show in Canada. Their performances have given plenty of us, up and down the country, the opportunity to engage with and cheer for the Lionesses as they continue to break records. The more the merrier!
In the build-up to the tournament at the beginning of June, the inaugural Women’s Sport Week highlighted what we at Women in Sport have long known and championed: the vociferous demand, desire and passion for women’s sport to be more visible and accessible.
In 2014, 60% of sports fans said they wanted to see more women’s sport shown live on TV and 53% believed women’s sport to be just as exciting to watch as men’s.
If we asked that question today to fans watching the match in the early hours of Sunday morning in the UK, I’m sure much closer to 100% would have said the match was as nail-biting as any England World Cup performance we have seen in recent times. Willing England’s women to hold on to that 2-1 lead in the second half was draining and thrilling in equal measure.
BBC Sport’s commitment to show every match of the World Cup live has been a huge step in the right direction. Barbara Slater, Director of Sport at the BBC, and her Editorial Lead for Women’s Sport, Shelly Alexander, are two unsung heroes of this World Cup. Without their backing our Lionesses could have been roaring into thin air.
The BBC’s commitment is thankfully being replicated across other sports and by other broadcasters too. Following their support of the Netball Superleague, Sky Sports will, for the first time, show every ball of the Women’s Ashes series this summer – and without the time difference we are enduring to watch our football stars in Canada I’m sure coverage of a home turf tournament will have many cricket fans, male and female alike, hooked.
It is fantastic to see more media coverage of these high profile women’s sport events, not only because the phenomenally talented female athletes deserve recognition for their achievements, but because of the impact this type of coverage also has on normalising sport for women and girls.
In football, the grassroots game is definitely reaping the rewards. According to The FA’s State of the Game report, the nation’s favourite sport is now the most popular team sport for women and girls, with more than 211,000 women aged 16 and over now playing at least once a month.
Through the application of our research, Women in Sport has also been supporting The FA to create a new football themed workout to encourage more women and girls to give football a try. Soccercise – an exercise class to music with a football – is surely set to take us by storm following the Lionesses performances this summer.
At the elite end of the game, the importance of cohesion between sponsors, event organisers and the media – as emphasised in our Say Yes to Success report in 2014 – has come to the fore during this World Cup. These groups have worked tirelessly together to develop a World Cup billed by many as the biggest and best yet for women’s football.
I was privileged to speak at the first ever FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference for International Women’s Day in March this year. The conference gave us a flavour of what was to come. Moya Dodd was among the speakers, one of three female FIFA Executive Committee Members and Chair of FIFA’s Task Force for Women’s Football. Dodd, a former Australian international, along with our Lionesses and the likes of Slater, Alexander at the BBC and excellent presenters such as Jacqui Oatley and Caroline Barker, are just a few more examples of pioneers in women’s sport who most certainly kick like a girl.
The clock is now ticking for midnight on Thursday, where Mark Sampson’s charges will attempt to make a bit more history and replicate their 1966 counterparts in securing a place in the World Cup Final. The country will be behind them and we’ll be kicking every ball with them. Let’s hear those Lionesses roar!