Paralympics-Tom Degun: What women’s sport in Britain can learn from the United States

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

By: Tom Degun

A week-long stay in Manchester recently saw me spend the majority of my time holed away in the cosy media centre at the BT Paralympic World Cup.

But one wet and windy morning, which to me appears to me to be the norm for Mancunians, saw me venture out of my hideaway to the rather plush and splendid surroundings at the Hilton Hotel in the city centre for what turned out to be an enlightening talk on the subject of “The Business of Women’s Sport”.

The event, organised by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was a discussion with leading female figures from the world of sport and rather a high calibre panel had been assembled to talk on the undoubtedly emotive topic.

Chaired by BBC’s Tanya Arnold, the panel was made up of 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, WSFF chief executive Sue Tibballs, Football Association Head of the National Game Kelly Simmons and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team Mary Brock.

American Brock was actually in town for the high profile basketball match at the MEN Arena on Sunday which saw her Atlanta team storm to a 82-51 win over Great Britain’s women’s basketball team.

Unlike the rest of the panel, Brock was an outsider looking in at women’s sport in Britain and therefore was able to offer some key insights and advice on what she thought the women’s sport on these Isles could learn from America.

“I’m not saying that women’s sport is the same at the same level as men’s sport in America because it certainly is not,” Brock stated, “but maybe we have started to buck the trend slightly with some of the things we are doing in America that I don’t see here.

“I know it is not easy in the current economic climate but the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA have built their success through investing heavily in grass-roots activity – increasing participation, developing talent and heightening the game at an elite level. We do align ourselves with the men’s NBA, which is one of the best leagues in the world, but we also have our own identity and that is key.

“But perhaps one of the most important things is to have role models and ambassadors for the game working endlessly to promote it through communities and the education sector. They are the ones who are going to inspire talented young girls in school to take up what is traditionally considered as sport for men. One girl we have in the WNBA who fits that role model status is Maya Moore. She was selected as first pick in the 2011 WNBA draft by the Minnesota Lynx and is a household name in the USA. But the key is to create more like her – girls seen as true sporting superstars and not just as they pinups for men.”

These thoughts were backed by Tibballs who also believes Britain must learn from the American system.

“Although we’ve made some progress, women’s sport in the UK could learn a lot from looking at how it is delivered in the States,” she admitted. “The NBA have given a large amount of investment and support to the WNBA over the last 15 years and are now being rewarded with a commercially successful league, where the players are household names.

“British women’s sport is still not being taken very seriously and this needs to change. Governing bodies in the UK need to consider whether they are doing all they can to ensure that their sport is delivered in a media friendly way and whether they are doing enough to create role models out of the talented sportswomen we know they have.

“The money generated can then be pumped back into the sport at a grass-roots level, as the WNBA do in the USA.”

Simmons did not argue but she felt that more coverage of the sport through media channels might be the best platform for women’s sport to grow.

“We have seen in women’s football that coverage on major networks is a huge boost,” she said.¬†“We are delighted at the coverage of the new Women’s Super League WSL will be on ESPN, but the fact the BBC will be covering the Women’s World Cup during the summer is huge for us.

“Over one million tuned in when it was last on the BBC which shows how popular it is if it gets the proper exposure. We know that seeing our best players regularly on TV is a great way of inspiring girls to play and we are already seeing that the WSL is a competitive league which is already attracting more fans, viewers and sponsors. England winning the World Cup would be another huge boost for women’s sport and women’s football and then it comes back to making sure that there are role models from that team to inspire young girls.”

However, for me, the most interesting point came from Baroness Tanni who stated that for real change in sport to happen, the pyramid structure needs to change so that old, white, upper-class males are not dictating sport to the rest.

Baroness Tanni is in rarefied territory as a female crossbench peer in the male dominated House of Lords and perhaps more so than the rest of the panel, she was able to reveal first-hand experiences from the very top of the food-chain.

“Women are still massively under-represented at the top of Sports Governing Bodies (NGBs),” she said.

“The lack of women on Boards and in senior decision making positions hinders their ability to give the appropriate support and investment to women’s sport.¬†This has improved, but not at the rate we want and need it too.

“There is a willingness to change from many NGBs, but they need to take more action to highlight the business case for women’s sport and ensure adequate investment in it.

“There is a huge untapped market, just waiting for businesses and brands to capitalise on it.”

And if Baroness Tanni was allowed to make one major change?

“A female Sport Minister would be nice,” she said. “I think that would really start to change the dynamics of women’s involvement in sport in this country if that happened.”

The discussion was not quite the doom and gloom I imagined it might be as these well-positioned women agree that there is a clear way to continue to move women’s sport forwards.

The realistic point though, was that this will take time as the reality is that despite the good stride forwards, true equality still appears some way off for women in sport.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames

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