I recently found myself back on the Cork Ladies Football team bus. It is one of my favourite places, not for nostalgic reasons. More for atmosphere.
I was invited to join the team travelling to Dublin to support the Cork Camogie team for their All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. I am new to the thrills and anticipation that sport can offer a fan. Given the amount of time I spent training and playing, I never fully immersed myself in appreciating sport as the spectator or following a team for the love of watching them play.
I loved it. And I learned from it.
Although the Cork girls lost, it was a great feeling to be a fan and watch the game with friends. I was struck by the low attendance in Croke Park and I was disappointed for the players, but I set sights on the next big women’s match – the Ladies football final.
Two weeks later, I travelled to Dublin - not on the team bus this time - and for the second year in a row there was a record-breaking attendance at the Ladies football finals, 34,453. It was wonderful for players on all sides to be supported and appreciated. Everybody in Croke Park that day loved ladies football and appreciates all it has to offer.
There were young and old and most things in between on the day and it seemed a pity the camogie finalists didn’t get the opportunity to experience the same. I wondered why there had been an emergence of more support for the footballers over the camogie players, and I did think to myself on both Sundays, there could and should have been a lot more women present.
Hence I thought it might be beneficial to gauge the demographics of match attendances at Croke Park so that we can better understand who is attending the games, why and work towards making a positive change in engaging supporters to attend women’s sport.
I know from experience that for the vast majority of the year it is the predictable few fans attending matches – family, partners and friends of the players make up most of the crowds. I have often racked my brain as to why more people don’t actually bring their backing to the table.
It’s complicated really and there are several impediments - the expense of travelling to a venue that’s off the beaten track, the lack of awareness of the match fixtures and details, the patchy media coverage, lack of chatter on social media for female sports, lack of awareness of players names and skills and, in relation to the bigger games that are (thankfully) now televised, creating a handy excuse not to stir from the armchair on an inclement day.
This year’s Ladies Football All Ireland was well covered before the games and there was even an ad on national radio informing listeners of the games. Something so small was evidently effective. The papers ran different articles with player interviews and the effort by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association to “Change the Record “ was well publicised.
The previous record was just over 33,000 and a real effort was made to break the record for the best-attended women’s sporting event in Europe. Compare that figure to the 20,000 that attended the Camogie final two weeks previous and it’s apparent that zoning in on the little factors can be incredibly influential. Even tackling one or two of issues can make an enormous change quickly.
The key factor though, at least the one I consider to be the main factor in attendance, will be a lot more difficult to change.
We need to change tradition.
A cultural shift is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve because patterns are established from a cocktail of social factors. But it’s also true that even in the most challenging circumstances, itpossible to alter traditions, to foster better, more inclusive ones for the next generation.
I don’t just mean that our tradition in Irish sport is for fathers to bring their sons to matches. I mean that our tradition is to support male sports and male athletes. There is a ever-growing female fan base for Irish sports, but the majority are attending men’s games.
I am sure there are some men and women who prefer to watch the men’s games just as I know there are those who prefer to watch the women’s games. There are even fans who just love watching their chosen team. But tradition plays the biggest role in determining which matches will be most enthusiastically attended each September.
We want excitement, heritage and pride to be the bedrock of our passion – all of the emotions I felt on my guest bus ride. The thrill of being part of sport as a fan is what brings out the joy when a team wins, the disappointment when they lose and the desire to watch them try to meet one fate and avoid the other. Without friends, family or other supporters by your side that atmosphere isn’t there and neither is the desire to attend the games.
Our current culture makes it popular to attend the men’s games. Your family, your friends and neighbours are following the same tradition and you can share in that excitement.
We are at a crossroads now in equality terms, where women have come to understand the importance of having a voice for all things. Unfortunately we have not reached a place where women are willing to break with tradition and create new habits and new cultures.
I thought about this observing the crowd at the record-breaking final.
Although there were fans of all ages and genders, to offer an educated guess, I reckoned over 60% were girls under 18, accompanied by a massive amount of volunteers bringing them from their clubs. I wondered if building a generation of girls with a habit of attending games together underage will be enough to influence a new tradition for the future. We will need more than that. We need our older generations to help make a change.
I feel some pride at being part of a team, and a legacy, that gathered national recognition in a sport that didn’t feature in those traditional supporting values. I hope that the continued success and domination for the Cork Ladies Football team has been a significant factor in capturing the attention and excitement of supporters of all ages.
I have no doubt that the intense efforts of other counties to dethrone us has attracted fans and forged a new tradition when it comes to Ladies Football. Achieving the award for RTÉ Team of the Year in 2014 was the first indicator that perhaps Irish fans were willing to embrace new traditions after all. But how long must we wait for the day when attending the women’s finals will be the trendy thing to do and tickets will be like gold dust.
I’m not suggesting that people go to a female sports teams to simply show support for women. That is a road to nowhere. The draw needs to be excitement and quality and talking points. Believe me, the quality is there. The trouble is it’s not seen by enough to to be talked about by more.
Until that changes...