More than just a moment for women’s sport

More than just a moment for women’s sport

Well, there you have it.

Last July, the Camogie Association made the bold prediction, spurred on no doubt by the sisterhood over at the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association, that they could draw 25,000 to the All-Ireland finals.

Yesterday, they came close, a figure of 24,730 paid through the gates to get into Croke Park. It’s a leap from the 2016 finals when Kilkenny won in front of a crowd of 20,037, which represented a jump by almost 25% from the previous year.

Women in sport are having a moment, but there’s a greater permanence to it than that.

The rise of attendances at major events involving female Gaelic Games, the success of the Ireland hockey team reaching the World Cup final last August, and the mass appeal of the Women’s World Cup has led to an explosion of interest.

It’s the sort of momentum that the people behind the ‘20x20 – If she can’t see, she can’t be it’ campaign dreamt of when they launched last October.

Their aims were ambitious; 20% increases in media coverage of women in sport, 20% increase in female participation, and a 20% increase in attendance at women’s games and events.

They recruited a number of blue-chip corporate companies such as AIG, Investec, KPMG, Lidl and 3, and the likes of golfers Stephanie Meadow and Leona Maguire as ambassadors.

“It was the brainchild of two women — Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton — in an advertising agency in Dublin, ‘Along Came A Spider’,” explains the journalist Cliona Foley who hosts female sports podcast Off The Bench.

“One of the women had the idea for 20x20, and she was going along to matches with her little children. Her little girl said she didn’t want to go and she said: ‘that’s grand’ and went off the match on her own.

“At the match, she thought: ‘Why didn’t I make her come along?’ and why she was treating her children differently when it came to sport?”

The next port of call was the Federation of Irish Sport, where they found a sympathetic ear from CEO Mary O’Connor, a multiple All-Ireland winner in both codes with Cork and who had previously worked for the Camogie Association.

Where they have made gains is around the fringes of traditional media.

Foley spoke at a women’s sporting conference in Northern Ireland earlier this year, presenting a workshop on this facet.

“Women’s sport, like minority sport of all kinds, had problems getting coverage because there is a lack of space traditionally in newspapers,” she explains.

“Once phone technology changed, you had such capacity for filling your websites with content of all kinds — written, visual and all types. Highlights and streaming and all those things.

“There is now a fantastic tool for all of these bodies to promote their own sports and that had already started to happen. I also make the point that women in sport, they don’t suffer inequality in swimming or athletics or any of these. It’s women’s team sports that traditionally not got the same coverage as men’s. And the coverage also reflects that.

“With new technology, development on the web, all of these things have given us a capacity to develop our own coverage and to speak to their own audience.”

Other elements are helping the rise in popularity. Subtle changes in attitude are almost imperceptible, but are growing from the roots up.

The outspoken nature of the American women’s soccer team and their visible media presence, their willingness to put their equal pay campaign top of the agenda, is changing the world for women’s sport.

Sure, they have met with some resistance, and the market forces will make their ultimate ideals difficult to achieve. But never has the idea of women competing in sport been more mainstream.

“It’s great to unite behind a cause. There is a Women in Sport product now in Ireland, and it is important it leads, in a way,” says Dr Aoife Lane, former chairperson of the Women’s Gaelic Player’s Association.

“I think the notion of the awareness-raising, the consistent messaging and the branding, the reinforcement.

“The recruitment of those, all the corporate backers and individual athletes and national governing bodies; that’s unheard of. No-one has done that to such an extent for a particular cause in sport. I think that’s something that really has to be applauded. That they were able to harness all their energy together was brilliant.

“I believe that when you are in a minority, you are stronger together. And sport with women is one of those things. I think it has done that job in terms of when you bring all those facets together and having one strong message.”

Those that had had their careers now look at emerging players with envy. As you leave Croke Park and head under the Railway Bridge, you see the likes of Sinead Goldrick and Sarah Rowe staring back at you from the billboard, mean and moody in their playing kit.

More than anything, that odd stereotype of being a ‘sporty’ girl like some sort of stigma is gone forever.

The camogie players of Slaughtneil who have won three consecutive All-Ireland titles are lauded for their success by their male equivalents, and indeed throughout their county and province.

Jane Adams played camogie with Antrim for 20 years and won an All-Ireland senior championship with her club O’Donovan Rossa in 2008.

“I genuinely couldn’t wait to get up and go about my day to get to a match or training that night,” she said.

“Back in the day when you were a wee bit shy, you might have been slightly embarrassed about it.

“But in my head now, 100% I would have loved it.”

“It’s tough when you are training and sweating buckets, but I loved it so much, I never thought it was any sacrifice. I just thought this is what I wanted. I had complete tunnel vision.”

She adds: “If I was coming through and things were the way they are now, I would probably have been saying to myself that I really wanted to push this because of the amount of people coming behind me.”

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