OPINION | Let post-pandemic recovery be an opportunity for women's sport

Serena Williams is one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world. Photo: AP
Serena Williams is one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world. Photo: AP
Serena Williams is one of the highest-paid female

Post-pandemic economic recovery provides a perfect opportunity to reconsider women's sport as an area for growth, says Marelise van der Merwe.

Covid-19 hit sport, hard.

The impact goes without saying: the limitation of training and travel bans on athletes themselves; longer-term concerns as rights holders had to face the financial implications of reductions in revenue streams related to broadcast rights and sponsorship payments.

No sport-related industry was untouched, as the unavailability of live sport also left broadcasters scrambling. Many turned to showing legacy and classic matches in a bid to keep fans engaged.

Data gathered by Safe Betting Sites indicates showed that the number of sports industry-related acquisitions, compared to a similar period last year, represented a drop of nearly 30%.

But as the scramble for survival ensues, the most brutal battle will be fought by female athletes, who were already facing comparably poorer funding opportunities, broadcasting support, and lower pay.

Sports sociologist Ali Bowes noted earlier this year that for a brief, six-week period in 2019, women's sport had enjoyed a "buzz" in British media that saw it receive near-equal coverage to men's sport.

This was short-lived.

On average, the proportion of coverage for women's sport is closer to around 4% in both print and broadcast. As Covid-19 struck, that's where it stubbornly remains.

On average, the proportion of coverage for women's sport is closer to around 4% in both print and broadcast. And as Covid-19 struck, that's where it stubbornly remains.

Meanwhile, some 99% of sponsorship goes to men's sport. Of the 100 highest-paid athletes, two are female – and not near the top.

The pattern is linked to a broader pattern of economic exclusion, which has unfortunately been worsened by Covid-19.

Meanwhile, some 99% of sponsorship goes to men's sport. Of the 100 highest-paid athletes, two are female – and not near the top.

According to research by the United Nations, economic crises hit women harder, and the pandemic is no exception. Economists predict women's paid labour and women-run businesses will suffer deeper impact. And as a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic duties falls on women, they struggle harder personally, too.

Under Covid-19, the burden of domestic duties on women has skyrocketed, but even before the pandemic, women did, on average, three times more unpaid care work than their male counterparts – performing 4.1 hours of domestic duties compared to men's 1.7 hours.

This imbalance has not left athletes untouched. For professional athletes, decades' worth of research by diverse bodies identified the division of labour as a barrier to entry in sports. And yet little appears to have changed up to today. This year, Women in Sport found that 32% of women could not make exercise a priority during the Covid-19 pandemic, while Sport England said 42% of women reported lower activity levels. That's not even isolating the impact on pro athletes.

But the pandemic provides us with a fine opportunity for change.

At the height of the outbreak, the United Nations held a conference titled Covid-19, Women, Girls and Sport: Build Back Better. Afterwards, the organisation identified five key focus areas to support women's sport post-pandemic.

The first was targeting women's leadership in sport. Women have – in sport as in many other fields – been under-represented in leadership positions. "Consequently, there are fewer women than men involved in the process of assessing the current impact of Covid-19 in sport and planning ways out of the crisis, which may leave women and girls behind," the UN argued.

The second was addressing gender-based violence, which spiked during lockdowns in countries across the world, impacting sportswomen's freedom of movement, wellbeing and access to facilities. Targeting GBV also means looking at abuses within the industry. Consider, for example, the harrowing account of athlete Mary Cain, who says she was psychologically abused into crippling weight loss. Researchers have further uncovered terrifying testimonies from vulnerable female athletes of sexual and other abuses by their coaches. Now is a great time to tie interventions for female athletes to broader efforts to address GBV.  

The third is to address the impact of economic uncertainty on gender equality in sport. The UN warns of the danger of men's sport being prioritised as revenues dry up. "With slashed revenues across the entire ecosystem of sport, clubs, teams and other organisations may fall back to prioritise investments in 'traditional' sports – meaning men’s sports.

"Arguments about this being more profitable in terms of audience, media coverage and sponsorships may rule the decision-making, leading women athletes to face even more precarious contracts and conditions of training and, in some cases, to the extinction of women´s teams and leagues all together," the UN argued. Of course, poor profitability often will follow poor investment – but that's an argument for another day. In the meantime, let's start by saying as we focus on economic inclusion post-pandemic, let's not leave our athletes behind.  

The fourth is to address media representation, with not only more coverage of women's sport, but also more sports editors and reporters. At present, some 90% of sports editors and 88% of reporters are men, according to the Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card.

And fifth, the UN recommends encouraging girls' participation in sports from grassroots level, which will promote more equitable representation long-term.

As we move into a new era of sports performance and broadcasting, a high level of innovation will be required for everyone's economic survival. It's a perfect opportunity to look again at areas that are ripe for growth; and to consider, again, where we've been going wrong.   

Marelise van der Merwe is a journalist and Fin24's production editor. Views expressed are her own. 

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