Women's sport is currently on an upwards trajectory. Whilst parity with its male counterpart is, in the majority of sports, still a distant dream, in recent times we've seen some excellent examples of increased media coverage (the BBC showed every match of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup live) and increasing professionalisation (the ECB took the bold step of awarding central contracts to 18 female players in 2014). Organisations such as Women in Sport are working hard to increase the visibility of women's sport and promote equal opportunities, and on the participation side of things, Sport England's award-winning 'This Girl Can' campaign is aimed at reducing the gap in participation and promoting opportunities for women to get involved in sport. People are beginning to really talk about women's sport.
Yet it remains a commonly held perception that women's sport serves as a conduit for championing equality, rather than actually holding any real interest for its audience. How could it? Women are smaller, slower, weaker. Only women watch women's sport. Men's sport, on the other hand, will always be more popular, because both men and women want to watch it. Right?
Wrong. New research conducted by Sportswise with almost 2000 sports fans evidences that the appeal of women's elite sport is far broader than many may think: men, as well as women, are increasingly engaged with elite women's sport. 57% of men, as well as 55% of women, stated that they are more interested in elite women's sport than they were two years ago. And when it comes to viewing specific major events, a clear picture starts to emerge. The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup was watched by 40% of men and 37% of women surveyed by Sportswise. The picture is similar for other major women's sporting events: 27% of men watched the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2014, compared to 19% of women, whilst 16% of men and 12% of women tuned in to this year's Women's Ashes series. Ladies and gentlemen, we are gaining ground.
All good stuff, I hear you say, men like women's sport too, but why does it matter? And the answer is this: it matters because in failing to understand its audience, we are placing restrictions on the speed and extent of the growth of women's sport. By failing to champion women's sport as exciting and engaging for everyone, we're reinforcing sport's very own glass ceiling, denying it the equality with its male counterpart that it deserves.
For a start, we may not be marketing it in the right way to the right people - both men and women - or not giving it the exposure it deserves on the implicit assumption that male sports fans are not interested. But more importantly, if we can illustrate (as this research goes some way to do) that the appeal of women's sport is broad, this will facilitate vital investment at all levels from commercial sponsors, who must first understand the value, and indeed the potential value, of any sponsorship agreement. This value is driven by the sport's audience and reach - so to underestimate the potential reach of women's sport would be to undervalue it, to sell it short. And if you're unsure about the importance of sponsorship in growing women's sport, look no further than Newton's title sponsorship of the Women's Oxford-Cambridge Boat race, which, driven by CEO Helena Morrissey, saw the race move from Henley to the Tideway in 2015 and enjoy equal standing and television coverage alongside the men's race.
Whilst other sponsors are beginning to follow suit (Kia Motors made history with a stand-alone sponsorship of England women's cricket in 2014), the potential for growth and investment remains huge. The general public, both male and female, are increasingly seeing the value in women's sport. Now it's for the media, rights holders and sponsors to ensure they are doing the same.