Will Covid-19 halt the rise of women’s sport?

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One of the first things that brought the Covid-19 global pandemic close to home – right into my living room in a way – was the short-lived ‘behind closed doors’ football. The novelty of being able to hear players shouting with an audience of empty seats felt surreal. But after the football leagues around the world decided their increasing Covid-19 case numbers warranted early ends to the season, many other sports followed suit.  

Before talk of bats and vaccines, the 2020s looked to be shaping up well for women’s sport. A whole lifetime ago, 2019 saw women’s sport thrust wholeheartedly into the limelight from the Football World Cup and the Women’s Ashes series all the way to the Netball World Cup hitting our television screens for the first time ever.

Sportswomen like Lucy Bronze, Meghan Rapinoe and Katarina Johnson-Thompson became household names as nations got behind their athletes with incredible support. The BBC’s ‘Change the Game’ initiative alone garnered 45 million views of women’s sport across television, online platforms and radio throughout 2019.

2019 saw women’s sport thrust into the limelight

But with sporting events stopped in their tracks for the foreseeable future, many leagues suspended and training from home having to take centre stage, there is a worry that this pandemic could undo the progress made in women’s sport.

Remarkably quickly, the Colombian football club Independiente Santa Fe introduced indefinite suspension of the women’s team’s contracts, but the men remain club employees. Being without employment in the current situation isn’t easy, but now careers in the long term could be at stake. Many female athletes work several jobs normally as their sporting wage alone is not sustainable, and making further cuts increases the likelihood of dropping numbers of women in sport altogether. Although Santa Fe remain the only club so far to set up their agenda so boldly, the fear that women’s sport could be disproportionately hit by the pandemic is real.

Having expanded from four teams in 2017 to 10 this season, the Betfred Women’s Super League, alongside all England rugby league activity, has been suspended indefinitely. Gaining official Betfred sponsorship was a huge step for the league, with the women’s game having over 200,000 viewers on the Rugby Football League’s streaming platform in 2019. But with it being less established and with lower paid salaries than the men’s league, there are fears of huge damage undoing recent successes in the field.

Many female athletes work several jobs, as their sporting wage alone is not sustainable

Cuts to cricket, tennis, cycling and golf due to cancelled tournaments and media exposure that propel athletes to the forefront could have knock-on effects on women’s sports that are comparatively underfunded against men’s. According to the England and Wales Cricket Board, there could be losses of up to £380 million this summer, alongside the possibility of no professional women’s cricket at all. That’s not to say cricket will be cancelled, as the men’s game may be prioritised in an attempt to quell losses due to the difference in money generated from men’s and women’s games. If other sports take this route in the following months or year, women’s sport could take a dramatic hit. 

The delaying of huge international events like the Tokyo until 2021 won’t just affect the training plans of athletes but could also affect their income. Athletes who rely on the exposure and opportunities for sponsorship deals, including runners, track athletes and swimmers, may face financial struggles additional to those of figuring out how to train for swimming in their front room.

For women’s sports to make it through the pandemic they might have to rely on help from men’s clubs or other sources. Funding already comes from bodies including universities and some men’s rugby clubs for many Superleague netball teams, who will suffer if cuts come into effect. 

Women’s sports might have to rely on help from men’s clubs

As of yet the sporting calendar is looking ambiguous, with even the rescheduling of races and marathons for the autumn looking a little too optimistic — the Berlin marathon has already been axed having been initially pushed back to September. No one knows what will happen to next season, or to next year’s scheduled events from the to the Women’s Rugby Union World Cup, but there is a glimpse of hope that high-profile events in the years ahead can help both men’s and women’s sport get back on its feet.

Although 2020 has brought surprises no one expected, perhaps looking slightly into the distance to 2022, with the Women’s European Football Championships and the Commonwealth Games scheduled for Birmingham, can bring a revitalising leap so that all the momentum gained in the past decade is not swept under the rug for women’s sports.  

Image: James Boyes via Flickr

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