Joanne O’Riordan: It’s time for women’s sports to sink or swim

The 20x20 initiative is a great start but it’s up to us to make it work in the long-term

 Evanne Ní Chuilinn, Heather Thornton, Jessica Harrington (horse trainer), Sarah Keane (President Olympic Federation of Ireland), Sarah Colgan, Casey Stoney (Manchester United women’s coach), Rena Buckley (18 times All-Ireland winner), Mary O’Connor, Graham Shaw (Ireland women’s hockey coach) and Ger Gilroy are pictured at the launch of 20x20, a new campaign presented by the Federation of Irish Sport. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Evanne Ní Chuilinn, Heather Thornton, Jessica Harrington (horse trainer), Sarah Keane (President Olympic Federation of Ireland), Sarah Colgan, Casey Stoney (Manchester United women’s coach), Rena Buckley (18 times All-Ireland winner), Mary O’Connor, Graham Shaw (Ireland women’s hockey coach) and Ger Gilroy are pictured at the launch of 20x20, a new campaign presented by the Federation of Irish Sport. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

There probably wasn’t a better venue on a Monday morning than the glitzy Google headquarters for the launch of the new 20x20 initiative which aims to increase attendance, media coverage and participation by 20 per cent by 2020. And bizarrely, for the first time in women’s sport, you could find yourself nodding in agreement thinking “yeah, that’s achievable”.

With the rise of Irish hockey and how the nation came together to learn about penalty corners, how over 50,000 landed into Croke Park for the women’s All-Ireland football finals, how we all gathered to watch underage and senior athletics stars rise through the medal rankings, 2018 turned out to be a year where women in sport sort of became a cool hipster buzzword.

How that arose is how answer a question at my talks concerning disability and activism. Yes, we have all acknowledged these people, in this case that women in sport exist, but it is what we do afterwards that will make the real difference.

Casey Stoney, in my view one of the brightest people in the modern game (both genders), made an incredibly good point regarding the product needing to be good and sellable. Cora Staunton made the same point before the women’s football finals. In my view, the women’s finals were probably the best games you’d watch in a football context all year. And the sad thing is while over 50,000 came to watch those, that was the standard all year throughout. The product was there, it just wasn’t sold very well.

Lack of information

Another huge bugbear is how impossible it is to get information on an upcoming game. Talking to a friend who works with local radio, we agreed that one of the main issues in sport is visibility. This year myself and my mother agreed to try and attend every Cork women’s football game and it became our thing. But the most impossible thing was trying to find a pitch on Google Maps, the bizarre obsession with Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon (which was almost a four hour drive from us) and also the lack of information available about the game.

Obviously, I know funding and resources are a huge factor in this, but is it too much to ask that games are in accessible venues while also supplying the information? It isn’t the three secrets of Fatima or nuclear codes that fans are looking for, it’s time and venue. A lot of the fans are families with young kids who effectively just want a day out to watch good football.

This year’s All-Ireland women’s football at Croke Park. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho
This year’s All-Ireland women’s football at Croke Park. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

Again, I am aware that a lot of my gripes are down to lack of resources or funding, but some of these things are absolutely fundamental to running an organisation, let alone a sporting one. Maybe there should be one database for, let’s say, camogie and women’s football where all the intercounty games are available. Clubs could get basic media training: that way clubs who can stream a game or upload highlights can and the ones that can upload a match report or preview can do that. That way, all the current fans and new fans all have a huge resource, rather than hopping from place to place trying to look for any form of information.

For me, the whole notion of 20x20 is a good idea and is absolutely achievable given the current highs in women in sport . . . but let’s not forget there are still some fundamental issues. Ireland’s women’s hockey team still have no home, camogie is still sort of stuck in a time warp according to recent interviews. The true measure of success for 20x20 will be at the grassroots level. Yes, it’s important to count how many can turn up on All-Ireland final day or the week of a tournament, but it’s how many people are attending a league game, how many are attending club games and most importantly how willing are the clubs and women’s teams to sell their product which will make a difference.

Ambitious

The best thing is that we as fans are also responsible for this. While the media, by and large, can lead coverage as well as adhere to it, their job is to cover what fans want. While we all have accepted nobody cares what type of a car Raheem Sterling or Paul Pogba drives, but, instead of acknowledging those articles exist, seek out more women’s coverage. Recent studies show that women’s sport makes up around 2 per cent of national print coverage and in an era dominated by click bait and views, we, the fans, can dictate where our clicks and views go.

Moral of the story – I do love the 20x20 initiative. It’s hugely ambitious and why not? The thing is anything can be achievable, but we do need co-operation on all sides. We do need to become more vocal in our support and we need to accept we have a responsibility in driving coverage. But how 20x20 will be judged is not only in its obvious results in 2020, but how those results are attained.

It is nice to turn up just for the final but turn up to the other games. Interest means more sponsors and investors. Investors lead to higher standards. The stepping stones are there. Now it’s time for women’s sport to either sink or swim.

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