This summer sports stadiums will roar with noise, newspapers will allow sports coverage to escape from the back pages and pubs will be packed with eager fans watching the big matches.
So far, so usual, right?
Well not quite. There’ll be one significant difference about the world of sport in summer 2017: the stars at the centre of the excitement will be women.
From the England team winning the Women’s Rugby World cup in 2014 to the Lionesses stealing our hearts in the 2015 World Cup, the status of women’s sport has rocketed in recent years - and with a number of women’s tournaments on the horizon, things are only set to get better.
The question is, will 2017 be the year women’s sport finally gets the recognition it deserves?
What’s on in 2017?
While it’s a given that men’s sporting tournaments will be shown on mainstream TV, the same can’t always be said for women’s games, but things are slowly improving.
This summer there is more women’s sport scheduled to be shown on UK television than ever before.
In the world of cricket, Sky Sports is set to televise every match of the ICC Women’s World Cup in June, then in August, live domestic women’s cricket will be broadcast for the first time ever on UK television thanks to the channel’s support of the Kia Women’s Super League.
Meanwhile in football the UEFA Women’s Euro tournament will once again grace our screens in July. This time, the matches will air on Channel 4 after the station successfully outbid the BBC for the rights.
But there’s a catch. While ITV and BBC split the rights to air all the knockout stage games, plus the semi-finals, quarter-finals and final of the men’s Euros in 2016, Channel 4 has only committed to show all of the women’s England and Scotland matches, plus “at least one semi-final”. Full details of all the matches to be broadcast live will be revealed nearer to the tournament - and we’re waiting with baited breath.
This year will mark a huge step in the right direction for rugby though, as in August, the Women’s Rugby World Cup will show on a UK free-to-air platform for the first time thanks to ITV.
According to Harlequins and England Women’s rugby player Leanne Riley, this mass coverage is an essential step in pushing women’s sport forward.
“The more publicity you get on the TV, the more you’ve got people watching and the more money that’s going to be thrown towards the game,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
“That will hopefully go towards the players themselves, because they’re the ones putting in the hard work so the public can watch it.”
Sport England’s director of insight, Lisa O’Keefe, adds that television helps to “normalise women’s sport” and encourage participation.
“We ought to be able to switch on the TV on a Sunday afternoon, and watch a major women’s event just as easily as a men’s competition,” she said. “How refreshing would that be?”
What are the biggest challenges?
Funding still remains at the heart of the gender inequality in sport.
While pay may have improved for many women players, as O’Keefe said: “The profile and pay of women’s sport is still absolutely dwarfed by men’s sport. It’s barely comparable and that needs to change.”
Football is one of the few sports where all members of the national women’s team have full-time professional contracts (meaning they don’t have to juggle a second job), but the discrepancies between the men’s and women’s games is still startling.
According to the 2016 Women on Boards ‘Gender Balance in Global Sport Report’, the last England Women’s world cup team earned significantly less than their male counterparts, despite the fact that they far outperformed the men by reaching the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.
Steph Houghton, the England women’s captain, reportedly earns around £65,000 a year including sponsorship. It may seem like a decent salary, but compared to Wayne Rooney’s reported £250,000 per week, it pales in comparison.
England defender Laura Bassett is one of the players now feeling the benefits of a full-time contract, but at the start of her career she had to balance training with getting a science degree at university, before working for a logistics company.
“I was travelling around for conferences then travelling to Arsenal for training - it was just really, really hard and difficult at times to juggle it all,” she told HuffPost UK.
Despite salaries improving for women in football, Bassett says players can’t rest on their laurels while inequality still exists across women’s sport in general.
“It’s something that we’ve always had to fight with. I just think that we need to keep pushing. We can’t accept it,” she said.
In the run-up to the Women’s Rugby World Cup, the majority of the England players are now on full-time, short-term contracts, which will end after the tournament ends.
However Riley - and a couple of other players - are still holding down second jobs. When she’s not training, Riley is self-employed as a personal trainer.
“Depending on what the competition brings in terms of funding for us next year, they may all return to regular full-time jobs and it’ll go from there,” she said of her teammates.
Ruth Holdaway, CEO at Women in Sport, believesfor women’s sport to receive the status it deserves “there needs to be fundamental culture change within the sports sector itself”.
The percentage of women on the National Governing Body (NGB) boards in sport remains static, with an average of 30% of board positions continuing to be held by women.
“We need transformation at every level of sport, but especially at the top as female board members and CEOs of sports organisations are still a minority,” Holdaway told HuffPost UK.
“Women’s sport will never receive the recognition it deserves when female voices are in short supply.”
O’Keefe added that “sports and brands need to recognise the power and potential of women’s sport” in order for issues such as funding to improve.
“The energy supplier SSE and the Football Association are doing it with their partnership around all levels of women’s football, but others need to follow suit,” she said.
“Women’s sport is a growing market and the opportunities to reach new audiences are great. I’d also like to see more women in sports boardrooms. That’s something Sport England is actively working to achieve.”
What’s being done to close the gap?
Earlier this month, the Football Association (FA) launched a ‘Gameplan for Growth’ initiative to double participation in the girls’ and women’s game by 2020 and “increase the number and diversity of women’s coaches, referees and administrators in the sport at all levels”.
The commitment includes the creation of four new posts dedicated to championing women’s football: a head of women’s performance, a head of women’s coach development, a new women’s refereeing manager and a head of marketing and commercial for women’s football.
England centurion and Arsenal captain Alex Scott thinks the action plan is a vital step in the right direction.
“When I was growing up there weren’t any female footballers I could look up to and know that it could be a career for me,” she said.
“That’s definitely changing and it’s great to see that the strategy will push to show that football is a game for women in all areas.
“I’ve been playing since I was eight and the game has developed so much. There is so much potential for the game to grow further from international to grassroots level and I do believe The FA’s strategy will help us all achieve that aim.”
In addition the Rugby Football Union has committed to will make a multi-million pound investment in a new domestic women’s rugby competition - the Women’s Super Rugby - which will launch in September.
It’s yet to be confirmed if the competition will be televised, but Riley believes if it is, it could help close the wage gap between male and female players.
“The men are contracted at club level and not international, whereas the women are contracted on international level, which is a different pathway,” she explained.
“The more we grow the club level game that will only grow the international game going forward. I think that’s where we’ve got to start.”
What will women’s sport look like for the next generation?
Each of the women we spoke to agreed that the increasing publicity for women’s sport is encouraging more girls to get involved themselves, butRuth Holdaway pointed out that watching sport on TV is just one way to get the next generation interested.
“At Women in Sport we know, through our own research into role models, that girls are more likely to be persuaded to take part in sport by their peers, the women in their lives and social media, than by elite sport stars,” she said.
“This is why giving sport a go and actively encouraging the women and girls around you to give it a go is so important, it will help build a movement for change in society that makes women playing sport the norm.”
Last year, the Harlequins Foundation launched the Switch initiative to do just that.
The programme is designed to encourage more girls to get involved in rugby by running sessions in schools across the Twickenham and Richmond boroughs. The project is now engaging with more than 600 girls across different schools and the Foundation has plans to extend the initiative across the UK in the future.
Meanwhile Sport England’s groundbreaking This Girl Can campaign inspired more than one million women to start exercising in its first year, and judging by its most recent kick-ass video, the campaign’s influence isn’t set to slow down any time soon.
With more women enjoying fitness than ever before, things seem on the up for women’s sport, both at amateur and professional level.
In 2017, we still have a long way to go until the gender gap in sport is closed, but at least one thing is for certain: women in sport are here - and they’re here to stay.
As Riley said: “There’s nothing that’s ever going to be a ‘men’s’ or a ‘women’s’ sport. Every sport is open to everyone - whether it’s rugby or another sport - and to anyone who disagrees with that, I would say come down and watch us play. Make your decision after that.”