Blog Article:

The Impact of Covid-19 on Women & Girls in Sport

As we write this, the long anticipated Covid 19 vaccines are successfully being rolled out and there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel but just around a few corners before we fully get to see it. 

Cautious optimism is being felt across the entire events industry (used collectively for festivals, music and live performances) as we still wait with baited breath to fully understand the role vaccines play in relation to a full reinstatement of the industry.  The focus is still very much on the here and now. 

Benjamin Franklin famously quoted ‘out of adversity comes opportunity’. 

So let’s start with adversity, the pandemic and what it has revealed. 

The pandemic has exposed pervasive inequalities across our society, from health, ethnicity, education, occupation and sport and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (¹), has the potential to threaten the very fabric of society. 

The opportunity; We build back better. 

As an industry and as individuals, we have an opportunity to listen and better understand where, how and why the ever growing chasms of inequality exist and how we can help make a positive social change as and when our industries re-emerge.

As research, global initiatives and programmes have shown, sport can be a very powerful tool for social change(²).

Inequalities in Elite Level Sport

As we’ve mentioned the pandemic has put the many inequalities that exist across our society into the spotlight. This is no less evident than across sport. Elite men’s and women’s sports will be just one of many areas of inequalities that have and will continue to come to light. Whilst all sport has undoubtedly been affected, women’s sports and girls’ opportunities to participate will take the biggest blow. 

womens sport impact covid

We’ve seen multiple examples over the past nine months of the massive disparity that exists between elite men’s and elite women’s sports. In some sports, women’s events and entire seasons have been either cancelled completely or have faced longer postponements than their male equivalents. Whilst naturally many events have been delayed, some elite women’s sports, such as football, have endured up to 6 months’ postponement when there’s been as little as 2 months for men. The driving force of decisions taken on which sports resumed when is believed to be the size of the broadcast deal, which immediately puts women’s sports at a disadvantage because their deals are significantly smaller.  Hardly a fair basis for decision making.

Would you believe it if we told you that there was once a time when women’s football was actually more popular than men’s?  There’s a legendary game of the Dick Kerr Ladies from Boxing Day 1920 that attracted 53,000 spectators, surpassing the numbers attending the men’s FA Cup Final of that year.  If you haven’t heard of it, we’d highly recommend you look it up to find out more. Sadly soon after this historic game the FA banned women’s teams from playing at members grounds, effectively putting progress of the women’s game on hold for 50 years.  

After many years of faltering, there has been so much notable progress in elite women’s sport over the past ten years, think back to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 as just one example. Pre-lockdown, women’s sport was facing another significant boost in popularity with the opening up of broadcast deals due to the huge rise in digital broadcasting platforms. Then the pandemic hit.

Pandemic Woes

2020 saw what was dubbed the ‘invisible summer’ of women’s sport, with little to no return of competitive female sports to our screens last summer, once again progress at the elite level has stalled.  But it won’t be just the elite level that suffers.  There are very real fears that this will lead to even greater inactivity among girls in the future.  

There are growing concerns around stability in women’s sports that don’t have the luxury of the same resources and infrastructure as their men’s counterparts.  With little to no coverage of elite women’s sports, understandably teams may lose sponsorship deals and as such lack vital funding for the continuation and progression of the sport.  Generations of female athletes may be lost from sport due to pursuing other, more stable, careers if commercial investment is scaled back or withdrawn. The responsibility may be left to governing bodies to prop up women’s sport. 

However, investment in women’s sport post-pandemic could be spied as an important opportunity to be a part of the recovery narrative, as well as a good investment.  The cost of entry is relatively low, which could represent a more viable financial opportunity for sponsors in the wake of the pandemic.  The interest in women’s sport hasn’t gone away, it’s just dormant right now and needs re-awakening. As event managers and consultants, we all need to be part of the narrative that helps reignite the passion and support for women’s sport to raise interest levels and place women’s sport back on track. 

What About Society?

With a bleak view across the long term impact of the pandemic on women and girls both in society and across sport, we can no longer ignore what has been hiding in plain sight. With the stillness of current time, the sports industry and government policy makers have their opportunity to listen and better understand where, how and why this exists and how we can make a sustainable change. If we don’t we stand to lose a generation of sport. 

What has emerged in the fight against the impacts of the pandemic is a unified front and collaboration across hard hit industries, such as events, to ensure their survival and to raise the profile. 

What can be done?

Our priorities must be on girl’s participation and women in sport, we’ve highlighted some examples of where we would like to see a pick up of pace in policies developed and initiatives implemented:

  • More level platforms that give women in sport a voice (we need more than just a seat at the table)
  • More women in leadership roles across the sport
  • More effective marketing for womens sports resulting in higher profile sponsorship & partnership deals 
  • Equal pay & prize money 
  • Better understanding of maternity cover and child care, with flexibility in place for working from home and a better understanding of the impacts of homeschooling female athletes

Waves of Change

Examples of these where organisations are creating waves of change and demonstrate the benefits and opportunities include:

  • Trek Segafredo Cycling World Tour Team have just recently implemented equal pay for their women’s world tour riders
  • The Professional Triathletes Organisation have recently announced a paid maternity leave policy for female elite triathletes
  • UK Sport have implemented a leadership programme with the aim to more than double female coach representation In the Olympic and Paralympic High Performance community by Paris 2024
  • Deloitte insights reports on the growing opportunity for womens sports revenues

Social Impact

To embody this in sport, critical changes must also be grounded in society.  In relation to the impact that Covid-19 has had on women and girls across the world, Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the UN states that Covid-19 is deepening existing inequalities and creating devastating social and economic consequences specifically for women and girls. 

He urges that recovery efforts made by governments should place women and girls front and centre to help secure the already limited progress made on gender equality and women’s rights. Social welfare must be targeted towards women, more women placed in leadership roles with the demonstration of equal representation and decision-making power.

Participation Levels of Women and Girls in Sport

According to research by the Youth Sports Trust, girls are disproportionately impacted by an “inactivity crisis among young people”, and a gender gap which is already evident by the age of seven which then widens through adolescence. 

Their research has also found that during lockdown more than a third of children are doing less activity than before and that one in ten children is getting no physical activity at all. With some of the key enablers of physical activity in girls, such as visible role models and the ability to play team sports, currently absent, it’s no wonder they’ve seen a big drop off in levels of activity amongst girls. There’s a real risk that the gender gap in sports will increase further so it’s vital we find ways to stop any progressing from slipping backwards.

Organisations are already calling for measures to be put in place for womens and girls sport, so that momentum gained pre-pandemic can return. Here are a few interesting resources and initiatives we’ve found:

  • The Youth Sports Trust has free resources and digital support for PE
  • Sport England has opened three sources of funding focusing on a safe return to play and narrowing the inequalities gap in sport and physical activity
  • Women in Sport has undertaken a number of research studies and gained insights into the impact of Covid on Women and Girls and is continuing to promote campaigns via lockdown #timetogether
  • UN Women’ is the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. This research article provides key recommendations to the sports eco-system on how to ensure that gains are not lost across women and girls sport and opportunities to build back better

How can we as event industry help?

We may not fully know what the longer term impacts may be, but we can begin to act now to eradicate any major long term damage and we simply cannot wait until we witness the impact of another crisis to reveal what has always been hidden in plain sight. 

How can we as an industry respond both as sport and events, here are a few suggestions below. 

  • Events and marketing initiatives to target women and girls physical activity participation
  • Via event databases’ reach out to women and find out how they have been impacted and what would support a return to participate in events. I.e. develop new event concepts that reach a broader participation base to include  women of all abilities
  • Identify via latest research and reports how women and girls have stayed active during the pandemic and consider how event initiatives can help create sustained change
  • Provide participation opportunities for women and girls with poorer socio-economic status
  • Partner with specific charities and initiatives focused towards women and girls in sport and physical activity participation
  • Use more gender inclusive marketing collateral for events
  • Work with governing bodies to understand the impact of the pandemic on women and girls and how organisations can support the recovery process at an industry level

Events in themselves can prove as great enablers of physical activity and are important platforms to promote sports participation. It’s imperative that as part of the post pandemic recovery we take every opportunity to support women and girls in the sporting ecosystem.

Footnotes – references & recommended resources:

  1. 7 Ways How Sports is a Tool for Social Change

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