The momentum gained from the growth in women’s sport is at risk of being lost if it is not prioritised in discussions on how sport returns when lockdown measures are relaxed.
Such a warning comes amid concerns that women’s sport is being pushed down the agenda with devastating consequences.
Heather Knight, the England cricket captain, recently voiced concern at women’s sport becoming an afterthought and called for women to be “given the same sort of chance to get back playing as the men are”. Yet the impact of coronavirus is already starting to become evident, with AFC Fylde confirming last week that they were disbanding their women’s side because of the pandemic.
Alison McGovern, the shadow sports minister, responded by telling Telegraph Sport that the Football Association and the Government must “work together to make sure that women’s football isn’t the collateral damage of the current situation”.
Her thoughts were echoed by Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of the charity Women in Sport, who said: “Some big decisions need to be taken if we’re going to sustain the momentum that we’d kicked off in 2019, otherwise it will actually be put back.
“If there has to be a graduated return, this is an interesting way for the nation to come back. The men’s would be back on soon after, but if women’s sport came on even with a bit of a window, it would give a bit of a stimulus.
“I think this could be an opportunity to give huge visibility to the women’s game, because there’s such a huge number of sports fans out there waiting for sport to come back, and would underline commercial credibility that ought to have been attached to the women’s game all along.”
Hilborne added that any decision must factor in injury risks involved in restarting leagues too suddenly, but that if women’s sport were to be prioritised by returning first it would be a “big, bold move” from governing bodies to ensure it did not regress.
The eventual return of sport has drawn differing opinions. Dominic Raab, the First Secretary of State, suggested that professional sport could return before amateur sport due to the level of testing available. Dr Brian McCloskey, public health adviser to the World Health Organisation, said a “bottom up, not the top down” approach was more viable, with the emphasis on grass-roots and smaller events.
Women’s sport, with its more manageable crowd sizes and venues, would arguably present fewer practical complications.
FifPro, the global union for professional football, has already warned the coronavirus pandemic places the women’s game at risk of an “existential crisis”, adding to the argument for women’s sport to take greater priority in discussions over a safe return.
Julie Elliott, MP and a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: “We have already seen one women’s football team disband. For the future of the sport, we must stop this happening again. FifPro has already warned us of the existential risk to the sport that Covid-19 poses, so we must do everything we can to ensure the sport continues, and this means proper resources and financial support.
“If that does mean women’s football returning first, in safe and managed conditions that abide by scientific guidance, then that is an option that should be considered.”
Moya Dodd, the former Fifa executive committee member, believes the cancellation of women’s rugby league and Australian rules football in her native Australia, which is ahead of the United Kingdom in easing lockdown measures, should also sound alarm bells.
“There are substantial equity arguments for women to return first,” Dodd said. “At the same time, most of the sporting bodies seem to be focused on what will bring in the largest dollars at the earliest possible moment in order to stabilise their profits and losses for the year.
“As an example of that, in Australian rules football it quickly became clear that the women’s season was being abandoned entirely while they were working towards getting the men’s season to return. Then rugby league is a small competition with only a handful of clubs: two of those clubs said that they thought they wouldn’t be able to field women’s teams this year because of coronavirus, and that more or less put an end to the league, because you can’t just play with a couple of clubs.
“So both of those clubs seem to have waved goodbye very quickly to the prospect of completing or even holding the women’s league seasons while they’re working feverishly towards the earliest possible return of the men’s seasons. I think in 2020, that’s unacceptable.”