Beyond Katie: sport's invisible women
The boxer Katie Taylor has become a national treasure, but women’s sports are struggling in Ireland. They can’t create a fan base or win sponsorship without better coverage – and can’t get on TV without fans and money
IN THE RUN-UP to the London Olympics, Ireland’s female athletes are excelling. Katie Taylor has become a national treasure, joining Roy Keane, Stephen Roche and Sonia O’Sullivan among the great Irish sports stars, and young women rush for her autograph wherever she goes. The swimmers Melanie Nocher and Sycerika McMahon also qualified for the games this week and were widely praised in newspapers and on TV. Yet it is rare to see sportswomen represented so well in the media.
“Katie Taylor was a footballer before she was a boxer, and she’s only getting the coverage and the recognition now,” says Sue Ronan, manager of the Irish women’s soccer team. “A male boxer would have got that from the outset. He wouldn’t have had to win four [World Championships] to get it.”
Women’s team sports remain largely invisible in the national press and struggle to build a following comparable to that of men’s games. And team sports struggle as a result. Fewer than a third of females who are playing team sports when they are 15 are still playing five years later, according to the 2008 Sporting Lives report by the Irish Sports Council and the ESRI. The figure for males is 75 per cent.
Nor do large numbers of players guarantee media interest. About 140,000 women play Gaelic football, including those playing in leagues overseas, and about 55,000 play camogie, yet they receive significant coverage only around All-Ireland finals.
David Ó Síocháin is an account director for Pembroke Communications, which represents a number of track and field athletes, paralympians and the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association. The latter organisation has stimulated increased coverage since it started working with Pembroke more than half a decade ago.
“It can be difficult for female team sports to get consistent coverage in national media,” says Ó Síocháin. “They are competing for space with the big three: GAA, soccer and rugby. These are the sports that sell papers and get people logging on to sports websites.
“Resources are another barrier for both media and sports associations. Media do not have the resources to cover all sports on a regular basis, and many sports associations have not dedicated the necessary resources to effectively promote their sports.”
Women’s football, he says, has developed a media service that provides national and local outlets with match reports, previews, fixtures, photos, interview opportunities and set-piece media events. “This sounds like a lot, but it is the minimum that is required to ensure regular coverage,” Ó Síocháin says.
“It can be a bit chicken and egg in that many female sports associations cannot dedicate the resources to provide such a media service, but increased coverage attracts sponsorship money, which in turn will benefit the profile of the sport.”
The teams maintain that, to build a fan base, they need coverage. The Irish women’s international soccer team know they need to present a quality product in order to increase coverage.
“We do have loads of leagues around the country in women’s football, but we didn’t have a particular product like a national league,” says Sue Ronan, whose Irish women’s soccer team plays Switzerland in a friendly today. So last August, the FAI formed the Women’s National League, with seven teams.
“This is the first year that we have had a league, and a big sponsor came on board in the form of Bus Éireann, who obviously have national recognition,” says Ronan. “So you create a profile with a product. People become more aware of women’s football, aware of the national squad, and aware of the national product because it’s there.”