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Joanne O’Riordan: Chances are she’s got game but not fame

The lack of identifiable characters in women’s sport proves a major drawback

Hannah Tyrrell, Ireland coach Tom Tierney, team captain Niamh Briggs and Lindsay Peat at the Ireland squad announcement for the Women’s Rugby World Cup at UCD. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

As the Women’s Rugby World Cup rolls into town, it’s an apt time to look at how various tournaments across the world have been marketed and portrayed to an audience.

Women’s sports fan base is generally small enough, so the aim of these tournaments is to try and gain attention, appeal to a wider market and portray to a younger generation that you can do this too.

The Women’s ICC Cricket World Cup was held in the UK, where they are absolutely cricket-mad. Living in Yorkshire, I got to see how a country gets gripped by The Ashes or whatever tournament is being shown on Sky Sports. As I regularly say when I see a Sky Sports advertisement, the Sky Sports effect is well underway.

The Sky Sports effect is to exaggerate how great a particular league/sport/team is, add in some dramatic slow-mos and put some serious music in the background. What you get in return is the attention of people who can be incredibly fickle and a blind cult who believe whatever Sky show is the best.

Just take a look at how football fans think the Premier League is the best league in the world. That is the Sky Sports effect. That’s how the Murdoch Money Machine can persuade people that, as Homer Simpson says, it’s true because the TV said it.

The Women’s Cricket World Cup, however, did not even cause a mini current in trends. Of course, the Sky machine was not out in force. It had other things to deal with like the launch of its new channels and the fact it dedicated a whole channel to golf – despite the lack of the rights to next month’s USPGA championship.

So, Murdoch was distracted. So was the English public. While admittedly cricket is not my forte, a friend of mine said she had no clue what was on but the fact England won it made the front pages. At last, some publicity.

The issue for Ireland at the moment is to not fall down a bottomless, market-less hole. The Sky Sports effect failed for cricket, but how can we successfully market the Women’s Rugby World Cup?

For me, where women’s sports fall down is the lack of characters. Either this is down to the gender norms forever embedded into our society or how an athlete is marketed. Are you blonde and cute, with an athletic yet feminine body? Chances are, you’ll do fine for a cover and an interview.

For rugby, it’s a little trickier. The women who play rugby are in incredible shape, and I’ve no doubt they are incredibly tough, strong and physical. But they don’t fit the usual image of how a female athlete is portrayed worldwide. The small, skinny, cute, blonde girl is out. Perhaps it’s time to seek out another marketing technique.

Public personas

In any men’s sport, we see the creation of characters within a sport. Jurgen Klopp is the self-proclaimed ‘Normal One’, while Jose Mourinho is ‘The Special One’.

Everyone has a personality, and surely these exist in women’s sports. Every tournament we hear of the nastiest, sexist, best hard-luck story, comeback kid -type stories. When a fan buys a ticket, or tunes into a broadcast, they do more than just watch. They form a relationship, get attached to and develop a following for individual athletes. Likability and personalities matter.

We must certainly avoid the marketing techniques adopted by the Women’s NBA. The league started marketing players as the “old lady” of the league. That did not sound very attractive. How about the “big sister”? That was not sexy either. The “Playgirl”? The “girl next door”? It never figured out how to sell an image. In reality, the league tried too little, too late.

Many women must start thinking about their marketability. Cover-girl like photo shoots propel individual athletes forward, but damage the creditability of their sport.

Women need to start thinking about presenting themselves wisely. Female athletes must understand they have some control over how their personas and image are presented to the public. If female athletes want more popularity, they need to shape their public personas and control the rhetoric associated with these personas.

This is a huge year for women’s sports, and while it is a growing industry, it’s impossible to make much progress without proper marketing. We need to publicise women as sport, as athletes. This, in turn, may increase the popularity of the league, because there is nothing better than transforming athletes into celebrities.

Sport is now entertainment. It’s a huge billion-dollar entertainment industry whether we like it or not. Chances are she’s got game, but she doesn’t get fame. It’s time we give her the recognition.