There has never been a better time for women in sport, and we all should be sitting up and taking notice.
I was highly irritated when I first saw the apparently tone-deaf ad selling a pink football for female GAA players emerge in January 2016. Lady Ball was marketed as a “a soft touch for a woman’s grip” and designed for “a lady’s game”. As someone who played Gaelic football (albeit badly) for years as a kid, I was fuming, and I wasn’t the only one.
An internet fury frenzy ensued over the advertising campaign and then Lidl came clean and admitted responsibility for the fake product. The supermarket chain had created the tongue-in-cheek campaign to win publicity for their sponsorship of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. At the time, LGFA President Marie Hickey said: “This is a very significant announcement for our sport and one that will see a huge investment in the game from a major brand.” Still, I didn’t buy it. I felt that the partnership wouldn’t amount to anything. I was wrong.
Nearly half a million people watched the All Ireland Ladies Football Finals on TG4 last year. A record-breaking crowd of 50,141 attended the finals in Croke Park, up from the 31,083 spectators who were at the final in 2015, the year before Lidl took over the retail sponsorship. Of course, it is not just thanks to Lidl that women’s sports have become more of a focus.
Incredible sportspeople have also managed to change how women’s sports are viewed in Ireland. Katie Taylor, the current female lightweight undisputed world champion in professional boxing, put women’s boxing on the map during her amateur career, winning five consecutive gold medals at the Women's World Championships, gold six times at the European Championships, and gold five times at the European Union Championships. Katie completed her lifelong dream of winning an Olympic gold medal in 2012 when she beat Sofya Ochigava 10-8 in the women's lightweight final. Last summer, the country suddenly became very interested in hockey when the Irish women’s hockey team won silver at the World Cup even though they were the only amateur team competing.
The biggest TV viewing audience of the year so far in Britain was England’s defeat to the USA in the Women's World Cup semi-finals, with a peak audience of 11.7 million tuning into BBC. For the first time ever, Irish viewers were able to watch every single game in the Women’s World Cup with shared coverage on RTÉ and TG4. It is a stark contrast to 15 years ago, when the most powerful person in soccer, Sepp Blatter, then FIFA president, said the future of women's football could depend on tighter shorts.
When we hear the term "sporting legend" now, no longer do we assume it is describing a man. But while much progress has been made in terms of attitudes to women’s sports, more needs to be done. The 20 by 20 campaign aims to create a cultural shift in our perception of girls and womens’ sports. It aims to increase media coverage of women in sport by 20 per cent by the end of 2020, it is targeting 20 per cent more female participation whether at player, coach, referee or administration level by the end of 2020 and 20 per cent increase in attendance at women’s games and events by the end of 2020.
My hope for future generations of women is that they will never be told they have to cancel their match because the men’s team want to train at that time. That they will get equal payment and sponsorship to the men playing the same sport. That they will hear old quotes from the likes of Sepp Blatter and feel like they were said in a world completely different to the one they have grown up in. That they will run out on the pitch match after match to the roar of a cheering crowd. There is nothing like the feeling of being on a team, and all girls and boys should experience it.
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