Women’s sport is in a ‘very precarious place’ and risks going back to ‘square one’ without renewed financial support, leading female figures warn.
Sportsmail has spoken to several players, coaches, administrators and campaigners who have been instrumental in the rise of women’s team sports in this country.
And they fear the coronavirus crisis will bring budget cuts from governing bodies, clubs and sponsors which could lead to teams folding, women losing their livelihoods and fewer girls taking up sport.
Women’s sport is in a ‘very precarious place’ according to leading female sporting figures
‘It’s a very high-risk moment,’ says Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of the Women in Sport charity. ‘After so much progress, women’s sport could find itself back at square one as finances plummet. When the books need to be balanced, women’s teams risk being the first for the chopping block.’
Women’s sport in England has enjoyed huge growth in recent years – in terms of crowds, coverage, partnerships and participation – and much of the interest has been sparked by the success of national teams.
In 2017, England won the Women’s Cricket World Cup at a sold-out Lord’s. The following year Tracey Neville’s netball team claimed a last-gasp gold at the Commonwealth Games. And last summer, 11.7million people tuned in to the BBC to watch the Lionesses’ World Cup semi-final with the USA.
But there are worries women’s sport is being left behind in lockdown – a concern that is shared by the Government.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston tells Sportsmail: ‘As we engage with the sports sector to help them plan for the future, we’re alive to the pressures faced by women’s sports and are fully committed to helping them recover so we don’t lose any of the great momentum that has built up.’
Here, we investigate the impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on three major women’s sports and their commercial market.
The government share concerns that women’s sport is being left behind during lockdown
Global players’ union, FIFPro, warned last month of an ‘existential threat’ to women’s football.
The FA, who have had to postpone hosting the Women’s Euros from next summer to 2022, are expected to protect their funding for it despite having to make annual savings of £75m.
But while the Premier League powers on with Project Restart, the FA Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship are set to terminate their seasons because the costs to continue – particularly in terms of testing – are seen as too great.
That means the title of the WSL – which enjoyed record crowds this term – could be decided on points-per-game, with Chelsea leapfrogging Manchester City, having been one point behind and played one fewer match.
There is also now a fear that men’s clubs could cast aside their women’s equivalents to save money, just like AFC Fylde have already done with their ladies’ third-tier side, whose season was rendered null and void.
The Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship are set to terminate their seasons
‘The clubs are still so heavily reliant on the men’s teams so if coronavirus impacts the men, investment will be an issue,’ admits England legend Karen Carney, who retired after playing in last summer’s World Cup and is now a respected pundit.
‘I just hope it won’t be catastrophic. We always said, ‘Don’t build this on sand, we have to build it on concrete’. We have to hope and pray that it is on concrete and that it can withstand this and hopefully people still come back to it and like it.’
Hope Powell, the ex-England boss who now manages Brighton in the WSL, believes women’s football will keep its ‘loyal and dedicated’ fan base but says it is a ‘realistic possibility’ more smaller clubs will fold. ‘If there is no income it becomes very difficult,’ she tells us.
Dr Dan Plumley, sport finance expert at Sheffield Hallam, agrees. ‘It’s not outside the realms of possibility for a few clubs to go bust,’ he says. ‘It could be quite a stark picture the longer this pandemic goes on.
‘Many female players will be struggling financially as the wages are not high. You are talking about mortgage payments being missed and bills not being paid.’
Misha Sher, global vice-president at MediaCom Sport & Entertainment, told sports industry website SportsPro: ‘We may lose a generation of female athletes who just end up pursuing other careers because there is no security in the sport.’
Global players’ union, FIFPro, warned last month of an ‘existential threat’ to women’s football
The last major sporting showpiece before lockdown was the Women’s T20 World Cup final on March 2, when Australia beat India in front of a record 86,174 at the MCG.
ECB women’s cricket director Clare Connor describes that as a ‘massive moment’ and admits that lost momentum for the women’s game is the ‘saddest part’ of the crisis.
‘We could suffer great losses this summer regardless of the financial losses,’ she says. ‘We could face that loss of participation from women’s and girls who had just had their appetite whetted.’
At an elite level, there is also a worry some women could walk away. The ECB had planned a £20m investment in the women’s game to help fund 40 new full-time professional contracts, which were due to come in at the start of this month.
But the awarding of those deals has been put on hold and, combined with the postponement of the Hundred until 2021, some female cricketers may now receive no income this summer.
The last major showpiece before lockdown was the Women’s T20 World Cup final on March 2
On Tuesday, Connor offered some hope by announcing a regional retainer for 24 domestic players to start on June 1.
That may help Lancashire spinner Alex Hartley, who lost her England central contract last year, and warned earlier this month: ‘I’m jobless, I’ve got no income, no car, I’ve got a mortgage. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to get a job. You might see me stacking toilet roll in Tesco by the end of the summer if no cricket is played.’
Anya Shrubsole, who was player of the match in England’s World Cup final win over India and still has a central contract, says she has a ‘huge amount of sympathy’ for Hartley and others left in limbo.
‘We are all very aware that we are in a fortunate position to have our England contracts,’ the bowler tells Sportsmail. ‘I can’t imagine how tricky it is for those girls. They are the ones that are being hit hardest by this because they were relying on that income.’
As for international games, there are plans in place for England’s women to play South Africa in September, although the ECB’s priority is to put on men’s matches to fulfil broadcast contracts.
Women in Sport chief Hilborne adds: ‘That’s a really worrying sign. Even though there’s complex financial drivers for it, it just doesn’t give any of the right messages. You don’t want a message to go out that the men’s game has bumped the women’s game because it’s more important.’
The ECB’s has said its priority is to put on men’s matches in order to fulfil broadcast contracts
Following the success of last summer’s home World Cup in Liverpool, when England finished third, there were record crowds at the start of the domestic Superleague season in February.
But only three rounds of the domestic league were possible before lockdown and there are no plans currently in place for its return.
Fran Connolly, England Netball CEO, says: ‘The coronavirus outbreak is likely to put England Netball and Vitality Netball Superleague teams under financial pressure over the coming months. We are working through a range of contingency plans from a financial and competition perspective to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sport.
‘As part of this we are working closely with VNSL clubs on a range of scenarios and options for reigniting the VNSL when it is appropriate to do so.’
Ex-England coach Neville recently rubbished the idea of the Superleague going behind closed doors. But Sally Horrox, former England Netball director and VNSL chair, tells us: ‘For the physical and mental health of the players, to enable them to continue to earn a living, I would definitely explore it.’
Former coach Tracey Neville rubbished the idea of the Superleague going behind closed doors
Netball is one of the sports that Sport England has helped at a grassroots level with its £35m community emergency fund.
Research shows more than 160,000 adult women took up netball or started playing it more regularly after last year’s World Cup. But there is a worry that without visibility, women’s sports like netball will struggle to sustain interest.
‘Every sport shouldn’t take for granted the fact that people will walk straight back in,’ warns Lisa O’Keefe, director of insight at Sport England, who helped launch the This Girl Can campaign.
‘We have got to try and do what we can to make sure we don’t lose that momentum. It is important visibility is not lost.’
Hilborne adds: ‘We are going to have had a big period of these sports being completely invisible, so girls that might have been inspired during this time won’t have been. There is a risk they fill that gap with something else.’
Sport England data has found that 38 per cent of men are exercising five or more days in a week during lockdown compared to 28 per cent of women. O’Keefe explains: ‘We narrowed that gap over the last few years but since lockdown that gap has been growing every week.’
Only three rounds of the domestic league took place before lockdown with no return planned
In the last two years, women’s sport had started to attract more outside investment. Barclays became the first title sponsor of the WSL in a three-year deal worth more than £15million and Vitality agreed a three-year tie-up with England Netball worth around £3million.
But Horrox, who is now managing partner of sport strategy and sponsorship consultancy firm Y Sport, warns: ‘The foundations are still fragile. The broadcast deals aren’t significant, the sponsorship deals are only just being done.
‘We have to try and protect the funding for it. There will be cuts but you don’t want it to be cut first and cut deep because the infrastructures aren’t strong or mature enough.’
Horrox is currently in talks with household brands about supporting women’s sport going forward.
‘The feedback we have had is that they have to be very, very careful with their budgets and they have to show greater impact,’ she says. ‘There will be some that will retreat back but it shouldn’t be a red flag to women’s sport, which is more affordable. The entry point still is relatively modest compared to the men’s game, and you could argue that the return on investment is greater.’
Barclays became the first title sponsor of the WSL in a three-year deal worth more than £15m
Tammy Parlour, co-founder of the Women’s Sport Trust charity, agrees with the benefits that women’s sport brings to brands – but also knows old habits die hard.
‘Under pressure, decision-making can often revert to old ways of thinking,’ Parlour adds. ‘There’s a very real threat to women’s sport and because of this threat we’ve got to act.
‘We’ve got to ensure that women’s sport isn’t missed from plans, that budget is allocated, that sponsors and broadcasters are restating their confidence in female competitions and the women’s sport market.
‘Our short term is in a very precarious place but in the long term, if you think about what women’s sport can offer commercially, there are a lot of potential opportunities.’
Tammy Parlour, co-founder of the Women’s Sport Trust charity says funding must be protected