Clodagh Finn: We can no longer pretend that women’s sport doesn’t sell

Clodagh Finn: We can no longer pretend that  women’s sport doesn’t sell

Guest editor Orla Chennaoui set out to prove that she could find “the stories, writers, illustrators and photographers to make an issue that was beautiful and interesting, a collector’s item”.

In these groundhog days, the arrival of the post is an event. And yesterday, although late with my order, I was thrilled to see the February issue of cycling magazine Rouleur thump on to the hall mat.

If you’re not a sports fan, don’t tune out because last month’s copy of one of the biggest cycle magazines in the world has just set an important publishing record. It was the very first all-women’s issue in the British magazine’s 15-year history and — here’s the bit worth noting ahead of International Women’s Day on Monday — it was also the fastest-selling edition. Ever.

Indeed, the enduring notion that women’s sport does not sell was the very perception Northern Ireland journalist Orla Chennaoui set out to challenge when she was asked to step in as guest editor. The former All-Ireland triple jump champion set out to prove that she could find “the stories, writers, illustrators and photographers to make an issue that was beautiful and interesting, a collector’s item”.

It is all of those things, and more. “Its one-week sales figure beat the magazine’s previous best by a whopping five weeks,” a pleasantly gobsmacked executive editor Ian Cleverly said. There was also a leap in subscriber numbers and a very healthy rise in female readership.

Most encouraging of all, perhaps, was Cleverly’s promise to improve the magazine’s coverage of women’s sport. He also noted that other publications and outlets were following suit, with one dedicating the month of March to women’s content.

That’s something to cheer about when International Women’s Day swings around on Monday. This year, the theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ and guest editor Orla Chennaoui led the way in exceptional style in last month’s Rouleur.

Provocative front cover

The deliberately provocative cover — a beautifully photographed close-up of a woman’s mouth — should be the subject of discussion not just in sport, but everywhere.

As Chennaoui writes in her thought-provoking editorial, she chose that image because society tells us that a woman’s mouth is sensual, sexual. “It is there to be consumed,” she writes, “it is an object. It is the accepted narrative of advertisers, film-makers, storytellers.”

But, she adds — and this can’t be said often enough — “a woman’s mouth is also the means through which they tell their stories. It is the gateway through which we women find our voice, a source of our strength, our power, our literal expressions of joy, love and anger.”

The cycling magazine goes on to tell those stories in a way that belies its specialist subject. They are not just stories about cycling but of women pushing against the norms that have told us, for so long, that women’s sport is somehow less worthy than men’s.

Indeed, that women are less worthy, full stop. In one piece — a conversation between four high-profile women in the cycling world — Orla Chennaoui, a seasoned cycling journalist who has covered two Olympic Games and 11 Tours de France, talks about how women often have to prove themselves over and over again.

No one ever comes to me assuming an expertise; a guy will always explain to me what’s happening or what races he’s been to, always underestimating me and my experience

During the same conversation, Fran Millar, CEO of motorcycle fashion brand Belstaff, had this to say: “Until we as women, both in positions of leadership but also in the world, accept the fact that we should not be penalised for carrying babies, and that becomes normalised throughout life, we are never going to reach equality. Ever.”

Hear, hear.

Roots of prejudice

What interests me in all of this is how those ideas took hold in the first place. For instance, when did the notion that women were less likely to play sport and people were less likely to watch it begin?

Let’s roll back the clock for a moment to consider this. In May 1927, some 12,000 fans flocked to Milltown in Dublin to watch a women’s soccer match between a Dublin selection and Scotland. David Toms notes the high turnout in Soccer In Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937 and goes on to explain that women’s soccer was huge in the UK in the early years of the last century, partly due to the absence of men who were fighting in World War l.

The Football Association then got nervous about the 20,000+ crowds going to matches in the UK and banned women’s football in case it undermined the male game.

Here, the match at Milltown was a one-off but an important one because it shows that prejudice against women in sport has taken hold relatively recently.

And what a hold, although much has been done in the last decade to challenge the notion that it is okay for a government to allot €3m to male Gaelic games players and teams and just €700,000 to female players and teams, as it did in 2019.

There is much to celebrate too, such as the exceptional work done by 20x20. The movement, founded by Sarah Colgan to challenge the perception of girls and women in sport, has made a calculable difference. As Colgan said when the campaign ended last October: “Our female athletes are becoming unapologetic, fans are asking for more, voices are becoming louder, and a change has taken place in the Irish psyche.”

The figures are encouraging too. To quote one: Three quarters of men surveyed said that 20×20 changed their mindset positively towards women’s sport.

But there is still a way to go. That was a point made this week by Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) sponsors Lidl who are now running a ‘Level the playing field’ campaign.

The supermarket giant started working with the LGFA in 2016 to show that women were putting in just as much time, effort and preparation as men but were not getting due recognition.

The campaign was a huge success and, happily, there has been a rise in interest and attendances, but we are still some way off the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm for women’s sport shown by our predecessors in 1927.

Why do we accept cultural norms?

It is easy to see how an idea takes hold in these hyper-connected days, but the question that intrigues me is this: how long does it take an idea (and, in particular, a flawed one) to dissolve?

This International Women’s Day, we might ask ourselves how we have come to accept cultural norms as fact, rather than just ideas that have burrowed their way into our consciousness at a time when it suited a particular (often male) narrative.

In the last decade, more women have taken part in sport. It has enjoyed greater crowds and more coverage. Now, thanks to the latest edition of Rouleur, we also know that women’s sport sells too.

Let’s continue to chip away at the other fixed ideas that hold us back. When doing so, we might look to Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, for a word of advice: “Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done.”

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