By Drew Nicol
2013 has been a historic year for women’s sport.
TV presenter Clare Balding, prophesised back in January that: “When the history of sport is written in 100 years’ time they will look back at 2012 and the Olympics and Paralympics and see the impact in 2013.” – How right she was.
The legacy of the Olympics has galvanised millions of people who previously had little or no knowledge of women’s sports beyond the mainstream to become active followers; or even participants.
Increased interest from the public has also brought forth lucrative new sponsorship opportunities. Sportswear brands and other companies are beginning to compete for the positive publicity that comes from showing support for top female athletes.
Significantly, Sky Sports and BT Sport have both declared their ambitions to place a greater emphasis on women’s sports in coming years.
Sky has signed a three year deal for exclusive coverage rights to the Netball Superleague, including all home England international fixtures in September. In addition, it has launched ‘Sportswoman’, a weekly programme featuring all the news, views and analysis from a variety of woman’s sports.
Sky has also become the co-sponsor of the ‘Sportswoman of the Year Awards’ alongside the Sunday Times. The award ceremony was broadcast for the first time on Sky Sports on 5th December which saw runner Christine Ohuruogu, the 400m world champion and 2008 Olympic, champion crowed as the 2013 winner.
Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, said: “Women’s sport is thriving and these announcements reinforce our unrivalled commitment on screen and off.”
BT has also shown an awareness of the growing public interest in women’s sport. In July BT confirmed it would deliver live coverage of several of the Liverpool and Arsenal Ladies football matches throughout the season, as well as the season finale of the Continental Cup final.
The BBC has been the slowest to address the issue of poor coverage of women’s sport. This year it has received greater criticism for the obvious inequality than its competitors due to its status as a public media centre. Despite calls from senior figures within the BBC for increased coverage very little action has been taken.
Women’s football has been flirting with mainstream coverage for a long time but finally it got its big break this year. Balding described how: “Sponsors are looking to get involved in women’s sport because they know it is not tainted by aspects that have tainted men’s football.”
“Players aren’t abusive to referees, they don’t spit, swear or dive and there is no racist abuse.”
The recent allegations of widespread match fixing on at the highest level of men’s football can only serve to strengthen Balding’s argument. Disenchantment with men’s football thanks to the regular scandals has given the comparatively unblemished women’s league a chance to flourish.
Of all the big names that have come out in support of female athletes this year, the most successful contribution is also one of the most unexpected. Dana White, president of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), has been named ‘Sports Innovator of the Year’ by Sports Business International, in part for his u-turn decision to allow women to compete alongside men for the first time. The UFC hosted its first female fight between poster girl Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche back in February this year.
When Rousey was asked about how she had convinced the UFC president, who only two years ago stated, he would ‘never’ allow women to compete, replied: “I was going to be so good and capture so much attention it’s going to be impossible for him to ignore me. It was something that had to be done if I wanted to have any future in this.”
White was quick to capitalise on the positive attention that the female debut achieved. He announced that season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter (An X factor style show for mixed martial arts) would host female coaches, including Rousey, as well as having both male and female competitors. White also announced the creation of a women’s straw-weight class, in addition to the existing bantam-weight class, and an all female series of TUF set 2014.
Despite being in the UFC for less than a year Rousey has already secured a place in the top 40 ‘richest MMA fighters in the world’. She recently signed with WME (William Morris Endeavor), one of the world’s most prominent talent agencies. WME’s client roster includes some of the most well-known names from the music and film industry. Rousey has since secured a cameo appearance in Expendables 3. There are even rumours of a role for Rousey in the third instalment of the Hunger Games. This shows an acknowledgment by Hollywood of the increasingly prominent roles female athletes are taking in society.
Time Magazine has recognised Rousey’s influence in paving the way for other young women in sport by including her in its list of ‘people under 30 changing the world’ for 2013.
Despite all this progress for women’s sport there are still several hurdles left to clear. Accusations that sponsors are choosing athletes on their appearance rather than their ability are still rife. There is also still a huge disparity between the amounts offered by sponsors to male and female athletes. For every female athlete that secures a sponsorship contract there are many who are forced to work second jobs or have other personal sources of income to fund their training.
However, the steps being taken towards equality within sport are undeniable. The consequences of trail blazers like Rousey and the many women who competed in the 2012 Olympics has paved the way for many more young girls to compete at a professional level. Crucially, the appearance of charismatic spokeswomen for lesser known sports, such as Rousey in the UFC, have captured the hearts and minds of fans and brought in the necessary financial interest that is so vital to allowing female athletes to prosper in the future.