The 20x20 campaign, brilliantly conceived by Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton to evangelise the coverage of women’s sport across all media, reached a conclusion in October 2020 with an online wrap. Among the speakers at the event was the jockey Rachael Blackmore, an articulate ambassador for the campaign during a boom-time in her career. In her contribution that day she said something about the power of language that cut to the heart of what 20x20 had been about: unthinking, unconscious, unvarnished equality.
“A lot can be learned from the racing industry,” she said, “in that if I ride a big winner the headline in the paper isn’t ‘lady jockey rides a big winner’, it’s just ‘Rachael Blackmore rides a big winner’. The achievement isn’t the female side of it – it’s just an achievement.”
In Blackmore’s case, she had overcome institutionalised prejudice to reach the top of a male-dominated sport. Along the way Blackmore needed people to believe in her, just like any other emerging jockey, but, ultimately, nobody booked her for their horse on the principle of positive discrimination.
Blackmore was competing in an open market. Over time, she demonstrated her ability to deliver outcomes. For owners and trainers, that is all that ever matters.
In the context of women’s sport, and where it sits in the public’s consciousness, there are parallels to be drawn with Blackmore’s experience. The expressed purpose of 20x20 was to increase media coverage of women’s sports and, in doing so, highlight the glaring deficiencies that had existed, unchallenged, for generations.
But there was very little mileage in just pleading for change on the grounds that women’s sports had been scandalously underplayed for so long. The media is desperate for positive outcomes too; to those ends, it is increasingly sensitive to the behaviours of its audience. More than ever, the audience gets what the data analytics says it wants. In that feverish process, diversity, of all kinds, is squeezed. That is the never-ending challenge.
The 20x20 campaign was really smart, targeted and energetic. It was a bold start to a necessary conversation, and in a short time it posed a lot of pertinent questions. By the end, though, they couldn’t hide their disappointment at some of the outcomes. According to their research, the audience for women’s sport on television had grown from 7 per cent to 18 per cent, but, overall, there had been a 40 per cent decrease in the amount of TV coverage during the two years of their campaign.
In print, women’s sport commanded just 3% of the output, and online the figure was only 4%, both of which, staggeringly, represented an increase. Three years later, it feels like coverage has grown a little, but no follow-up research has been done.
What has not changed is the ferocity of the marketplace. Every sport is scrapping for a share of public interest and sentiment. In that arena public service broadcasters, who rely on the license fee, can be leant upon to cover some sports from the fringes, but that exposure alone does not guarantee a significant audience. In some way the story, or the spectacle, must be compelling. Nobody ever agonised over positive discrimination with a remote control in their hands: their attention spans, and their embedded preferences, lead them by the nose.
[ Rachael Blackmore: ‘Racing is a relentless sport, you’re constantly moving forward’ ]
Clearly, however, in the right climate, change is possible. Recently published research by Women’s Sport Trust in the UK painted a fascinating picture of how habits can be re-formed. Their figures showed that interest in the Women’s Super League has exploded, with 16 million unique viewers during 2022. The number of viewing hours had increased fourfold from just under nine million in the 2020/21 season, to more than 34 million hours a year later – which, crucially, was the first season of the domestic broadcast deal with BBC and Sky Sports.
Other sports such as cricket and rugby performed well too, but there was a really interesting underlying trend in the football numbers. According to the research, 8.4 million people watched live WSL matches but didn’t watch the men’s Premier League. The Women’s Euros, which England won, generated record audiences for women’s soccer in the UK, but it was established that 1.8 million of them didn’t watch the men’s World Cup a few months later.
At a tangent to the men’s game, the women’s game had developed a strong, discrete audience, and an independent presence in the marketplace. It wasn’t the distaff version of something else: just like with Blackmore, gender wasn’t the story. With the collaboration of powerful broadcast partners, the WSL had staked out its ground in an open, hostile market. It understood that it needed to develop a distinctive product and identity.
In Ireland, women’s sport is still harassed by fundamental challenges. Basic resources remain a huge issue. There are serious infrastructural deficiencies. In the last three or four years, the national women’s squads in rugby and soccer both needed to take militant stances in order to force change in their own federations. It is only five years since the Irish hockey squad reached the World Cup final while doing their own fundraising along the way, and paying a €550 annual levy to cover expenses.
In many other respects, though, the last decade or more has been the golden age of Irish women’s sport: from Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington to Blackmore and Leona Maguire and Sanita Puspure, and a host of others; to the rugby team that won the Grand Slam and beat New Zealand a year later, to the football team that reached the World Cup finals for the first time, and the cricket team that did the same. Record attendances have been set for All-Ireland finals in Ladies football and camogie.
[ World Cup countdown: An inside look at Vera Pauw’s Ireland training ]
[ Rhasidat Adeleke continues her record-breaking form in South Carolina ]
All of those stories were covered, in detail, on a case-by-case basis, and then the media caravan moved on. Have you seen much about the Irish women’s hockey team recently? After the Tokyo Olympics, that story went cold.
This is the brutal reality of the marketplace. Outside of the big beast sports, the continuity of coverage that every sport craves is incredibly hard won. Audiences dictate. And, remind me again, how do you win an audience without the coverage?
The 20x20 campaign made a valuable start. To continue the agitation, it needs a bolshie successor.