Kieran Shannon: Gains made by women's sports can't be allowed to slip away

Kieran Shannon: Gains made by women's sports can't be allowed to slip away
16 June 2020; Irish triathlete Emma Sharkey trains in isolation at her home in Finaghy, Belfast, while adhering to the guidelines of social distancing. Following directives from the Irish and British Governments, the majority of sporting associations have suspended some organised sporting activity in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

It seemed the most perfectly timed as well as inspired of campaigns: 20x20, by and for 2020, a year in which more young girls – along with the rest of us – could see her to aspire someday to maybe be her: another Noelle Healy or Niamh Kilkenny.

But, little did we know but know only too well now, 2020, or a certain Covid-19, had other plans, leaving everyone else’s scuppered or altered.

No category or aspect of sport has been unaffected but women’s sport, here and everywhere else, has been particularly impacted.

While the men’s English Premier League resumes this evening, the women’s season won’t. Even though there were still multiple games left, Chelsea were declared champions and Liverpool were deemed relegated on a points-per-game ratio, because while the Premier League has been willing to fork out £4 million on testing for players, the FA made no extra funding available for the WSL to test and extend its season. “It seems to always happen that the women get pushed aside a bit,” said Kelly Smith, the former Arsenal striker who won 121 caps for England and Great Britain.

Another observer of British sport has found the same.

Dr Ali Bowes, a sociologist who lectures in Nottingham Trent University, yesterday wrote for The Conversation that around this time last year women’s sport was in the midst of a six-week window in which it was enjoying virtual parity with men’s sport. The UK, much like Ireland, was closely following the women’s World Cup, to go with all the tennis from Roland Garros and Wimbledon where Serena was as big a draw as anyone. The BCC, which the same summer had launched the #changethegame media campaign, reported that on its sport website, women’s sport was not only commanding half of its homepages, but made up over half of its most-watched video clips.

That was then. This is now. And according to Bowes, “One message has been clear from this lockdown: sport is for men.” With sports media, especially television, having to lean so much on nostalgia, well then there’s not going to be much women’s sport to see when there’s so little of it in the archives.

That does not necessarily apply here. Just last Sunday my son and myself were able to enjoy RTÉ reshowing the women’s hockey World Cup semi-final and hearing George go all David O’Leary again when Gillian Pinder tucked her penalty away. A few weeks earlier flicking through the channels we saw Katie Taylor’s 2012 Olympic final was on again. Cork’s epic 2014 comeback against Dublin has also got another airing recently. And one of the achievements and successes of the 20x20 campaign and mindset has been the number of women’s sportspeople that have featured on all the various Mount Rushmores that are being carved out in every county thanks to a certain series of Off The Ball debates.

But the thrust of Bowes' thesis remains valid, and it applies just as much here as over there. “As people consume live sport for the first time since March, that sport is going to be primarily men’s sport. It seems that women’s sport will potentially lose the crest of the (small) wave it was riding.”

Women’s sport here enjoyed a similar wave in 2019, not least because of the brilliant 20x20 campaign as well as the exploits of some of our leading sportspeople. But with the women’s hockey team and all our athletes not heading to Tokyo until 2021, how will women’s sport, especially of the domestic variety, fare in terms of visibility when it resumes later this year?

In her analysis of media coverage of women’s sport, Bowes made another discerning finding, one that the summer of 2019 reaffirmed. Women’s sport enjoys most coverage when men’s sport is absent.

With the inter-county men’s hurling and football season not due to commence until October, there was a potential window for the women’s inter-county game in both camogie and football to have August and September to itself, much like the women’s World Cup enjoyed last summer. For a Tracey Leonard and Sinead Aherne to leap to another level of continuous recognisability comparable to what a Megan Rapinoe enjoyed this time last year now that they weren’t competing with a Con O’Callaghan playing four times in five weeks.

The camogie association gave it real consideration: in great difficulty there was also a certain opportunity. However, in the end, after heavily consulting all its relevant units, the overwhelming majority of members decided it should go the same way as the GAA itself as well as the LGFA have: club first. That’s your biggest and most important public there.

It’s an understandable stance but such caution will have a cost. As it was, the inter-county (men’s) GAA games programme was going to be completely condensed and hectic, with major hurling games going up against major football ones more than ever. Where will the women’s game squeeze into that?

The management committee of the LGFA were meeting last night to discuss a number of championship proposals, one of which would involve four groups of three with the winner in each advancing to the AllIreland semi-finals, with the final likely to be played on the last weekend of November. It should be one of the most exciting championship programme of games in the association’s history, but even its final is likely to be scheduled for the same day a major hurling or football game will be played, with the men’s finals not due to be played until a week or two before Christmas. The women’s final will hardly have the same standalone day it has traditionally enjoyed. The same with camogie.

Both sports will still be televised this autumn; TG4 afterall sponsor the ladies football championships. But it could struggle for the same audience it has previously enjoyed and will certainly miss out on what it could have had if it had gone for an August-September slot.

The 20x20 campaign is still vibrant, controlling its controllables. Top athletes are still doing social media day takeovers. And there are still good news stories emerging every day; just yesterday, for instance, Peamount United were able to announce that UEFA had awarded them a licence to compete in the 2020-2021 women’s Champions League.

But it’s going to take even more of an effort from everyone for the spirit of 20x20 to be maintained. Can the GAA in drawing up its own schedule bear in mind the year that’s in it for women’s sport? That a curtain-raiser to the big hurling match we’re either attending or watching at home, is a big women’s game? And that both the ladies football final and the camogie final remain on standalone days with nothing else clashing with them?

The 20x20 campaign still has a lot it wants to do before the end of the year, but with the time it has lost, and opportunity some of its units might have missed as well, we all might need to subscribe in spirit to extending the campaign and go for 21x21.

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