Scotland’s opener against England in the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup attracted a record audience, with 6.1 million viewers tuning in across the UK. It was the first time any Scotland squad had qualified for a football World Cup since 1998.
It was a pivotal moment for women’s football. Yet if you Google ‘Scottish footballers’ you will scroll past page after page without seeing a woman’s name. I gave up at page 10. Try searching for ‘Scottish football team’ and you’ll find school football appear higher in the rankings than women’s football.
Young women and girls need strong role models. The likes of Erin Cuthbert, Megan Rapinoe and Nikita Parris are top-flight footballers, leading the belief in young women that they can do anything. We need to encourage young women and girls to join their local club, to play at school and to spread the positivity and excitement we all enjoyed during the Women’s World Cup.
One way is to provide wider coverage of women’s football – and women’s sport in general – on television and across the wider media. And by wider coverage I don’t mean late night or early morning showings to fill in the less popular programming gaps. I’m talking about coverage of women’s teams at weekends and prime time during the week, not on expensive pay-to-view channels or live streams.
Roughly 40% of athletes in the UK are female, yet only about 7% of media coverage is focused on women’s sports. Those figures are significant and highlight the need for change in the UK sports climate.
“The women’s game enlivens the fans and spreads fun and happiness”
This isn’t a vanity project but a social responsibility for all. Pay equality has been much discussed in both the US and the UK. And in the fight for equal pay, perhaps there’s also a discussion to be had about the outrageous salaries of the top-flight male footballers and how the money should be more evenly spread to support grassroots and lower leagues.
We need our broadcasters to step up and recognise the value and popularity of women’s sport, and we need our advertisers and brand marketers to use their buying power to encourage them to do just that.
There is something about the women’s game that captures the heart. Conduct on the pitch is top notch; there’s very little rolling around on the ground, diving dramatics and abusing the referees so routinely seen in the men’s game.
The women’s game enlivens the fans and spreads fun and happiness, whether you are on the winning or losing side. It’s safe to take children to a game, it doesn’t cost as much, and young women and girls can, and will, be inspired.
The women’s game has also had a profound impact on crossing the political divide in Parliament. Sport is so often a leveller, and never more so than in the UK Women’s Parliamentary Football Club set up and run by the inimitable Jo Tanner.
It has brought together MPs from across the political parties and given us a forum away from politics to get to know each other, get fit, form new friendships and even lobby for women’s sport. We’ve got MPs, MPs’ staff, journalists and other women who work in and around the Parliamentary estate.
In our first match last year the former Labour MP Anna Turley, who is much missed in the Chamber and on the pitch, said: “I was told at school that football wasn’t for girls. Yesterday I pulled on a jersey for the first time in over 20 years and had the time of my life.” That is the power of women’s sport and football, and there’s so much more we can do.