‘Women’s sport must be judged on its own merits’

Joy Neville’s success in rugby refereeing shows it is time for other women to be given similar opportunities in non-playing and governance roles, according to Ireland’s Six Nations-winning captain Fiona Coghlan.

‘Women’s sport must be judged on its own merits’

“There’s now enough women with the necessary knowledge and experience to take on such roles if opportunities are provided to them,” Coghlan told a conference on women in sport yesterday.

“What’s really important now is that they are given such opportunities,” she added, citing recent ground-breakers like World Referee of the Year Neville and broadcaster Joanne Cantwell who has been selected to present RTÉ’s ‘Sunday Game’ from next season.

A record 46,286 attendance watched the women’s ladies gaelic football finals last September, making it the best attended women’s sport event in Europe in 2017.

But delegates at yesterday’s Liberty Insurance event heard that 2017 was also particularly significant because of the huge number of other ‘firsts’, especially for women in non-playing and leadership roles in sport.

These included Jessica Harrington training the winners of the Gold Cup and the Irish Grand National, Raelene Castle becoming the first female CEO of a major governing body (rugby) in Australia and Norway agreeing to pay parity for its women’s soccer players, when the nation’s men volunteered a pay cut to help their female colleagues achieve financial equality.

Among yesterday’s speakers was Anna Kessel, the Guardian sportswriter and author of best-seller ‘Eat Sweat Play’, a bestseller about why more women need to get involved in sport.

She was previously unaware that almost 50,000 attended the 2017 LGFA finals but pointed out that one of the reasons for smaller crowds at some women’s events in Britain is because crowd-sizes are often capped for insurance and security purposes.

She echoed the panel’s view that women’s sport needs to be judged on its own merits and not compared to men’s sport.

“It was quite interesting to hear about the GAA culture and the family culture around that and sport as a community hub for everybody. We have that in part in England and perhaps we had it in a much bigger way in the past but not so much at the moment.

“We’re clawing back from what football academic Professor Jean Williams has called ‘the tabloidisation’ of the media which marginalised women’s sport,” Kessel added. “Sport as a community hub for the whole family is the ideal and I’m not sure we’re as close to it as you are.”

Kessel said two recent changes in world sport indicated more progress towards women’s equality in sport.

“To see darts announce that they are getting rid of the walk-on girls, and then for Formula One to say they’re getting rid of grid-girls, I genuinely thought I would never see that day,” she said.

“Those are massive for me. Someone like Joy (Neville), her career has been subjected to barriers but she is so excellent as an individual that she can thrust through them.

“When we have mass cultural change like that in darts and Formula One, I think that has even more knock-on effects.

“They’re now talking about having grid-kids - girls and boys - in Formula One. I believe that kind of thing will create a whole new culture around those sports.”

New research commissioned by Liberty showed that Irish people are significantly more likely to attend or watch a female sports event than in the UK.

The research, by RED C Research, surveyed 1,000 adults in Ireland and 2,000 in the UK and 36 per cent of Irish people attended a female sports event in 2017 compared to only 17 per cent in Britain.

However the statistics continue to show that men are still better at supporting female athletes making up 43 per cent of their support compared to 30 per cent women.

Men aged 55-plus also make up the biggest percentage (57%) of support for women’s sport in Ireland compared to just 30 % women in the same age bracket.

A ‘general lack of interest’ is the most frequently cited reason for the low engagement in women’s sport with approximately 50 per cent of those surveyed citing this as their prime reason for not attending or watching women’s sport.

Other barriers to engagement in Ireland included a lack of knowledge (16%), lack of time (15%), insufficient excitement (12%) and not growing up with women’s sport (16%).

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