Sustainable success needed after historic year for Irish sportswomen

After success at the elite level, more numbers in governance and grassroots are essential

It has been an enormous year for women’s sport in Ireland. The success achieved by Irish female sports stars has been unprecedented and it is the incredible quality of these performances that is driving the recognition and excitement for women’s sport with the Irish public.

This success, both with the results on the field and the growing appreciation for women’s sport off it, should not come as a surprise to anyone. The collective effort by all stakeholders to promote women in sport over the last five years in this country is coming to fruition and this year is very much a proof point.

Following a very tough year in 2020 with major competitions being postponed and chaos in the scheduling it was feared that the momentum and progress that had been evident when it comes to the promotion of women’s sport had stalled.

The last 12 months have proven that this is not the case, we have seen a major bounce back, and more. We have seen Irish female sports stars command headlines and airtime because of the phenomenal feats that they have achieved in their sports and the Irish public get behind them on every occasion.

Recent years have shown an improvement when it comes to the gender gap and sports participation

Rachael Blackmore winning the Aintree Grand National and taking the champion jockey prize at Cheltenham, Kellie Harrington and Ellen Keane winning gold medals in the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games respectively, Leona Maguire playing a crucial role in Europe securing the Solheim Cup on her debut appearance in the competition, the Meath women's football team overcoming Cork and then Dublin to secure All-Ireland glory, the Ireland women's soccer team in the hunt for World Cup qualification. The list goes on.

It has been an outstanding year for female sport in Ireland and the results of the annual Teneo Sports & Sponsorship Index (TSSI), a 1,000 person nationally representative survey, demonstrate this.

Kellie Harrington (16 per cent ), Katie Taylor (16 per cent) and Rachael Blackmore (9 per cent) dominated when it came to both the 'Most Admired Sports Star' of 2021 taking the top three spots and they featured heavily in the 'Greatest Irish Sporting Achievement' of 2021 taking first (Harrington), third (Blackmore) and fifth (Taylor) positions. This is the first time we have seen female sports stars dominate so heavily in these categories. The Ireland women's soccer team also made the top five for the first time in 'Team of the Year' with 12 per cent of the vote.

These female sports stars, along with many others, created numerous opportunities in 2021 for Irish people to tune in either on TV or online to watch them compete. Our research has shown that 46 per cent of the population tuned into a female sporting event at some point in 2021. This is an encouraging figure as it is up from 37 per cent in 2020. Over half (51 per cent) of the male participants in this research said they had watched women’s sport on TV or online this year while 42 per cent of females said the same.

Even with the phenomenal feats of Irish sportswomen in 2021 and the media coverage that went with each, 60 per cent of people still do not believe that women’s sport receives sufficient media coverage in Ireland. This is particularly the case when it comes to females only (72 per cent) and even more so in the 18-24 year old age group (75 per cent).

These role models play a crucial part in attracting and encouraging young girls to play sport and this has become a focus and collective effort for national governing bodies (NGBs), schools, clubs as well as major brands and businesses. Recent years have shown an improvement when it comes to the gender gap and sports participation. However, it is going to take a continued collective effort to achieve gender parity on an ongoing and sustained basis.

The survey showed 75 per cent of people believe that increasing participants in women’s sport across the board is important and this number rises to 81 per cent when we look at those aged 55 and older. It is true to say that the role models listed here are playing a major part in attracting young girls to participate in sport and the Irish people know and understand that this is important if we want to see 2021’s sporting success emulated and sustained along with major physical and mental health benefits for the general population.

Investment remains key

The last number of years has seen serious momentum develop around women in sport, from the promotion of it, to encouraging participation to its governance. There has been some significant investment made, specifically from Sport Ireland who announced a €4 million investment in its Women in Sport Programme over 2021 and 2022 last summer. However, those surveyed said they either strongly agree (24 per cent) or agree (44 per cent) that the Government should increase its funding for women’s sport, demonstrating the support that exists for this area from the Irish public.

When it comes to investment in women’s sport from businesses we have seen this continue to grow in 2021, most notably with Sky now on the front of the Ireland women’s soccer jersey, while the men continue to go without a sponsor.

Diversity and inclusion continues to be a major area for all organisations but I believe that investment in women’s sport from businesses for the most part is now happening because it makes commercial sense as opposed to a box ticking exercise. The TSSI again demonstrates the support out there from Irish people who say they strongly agree (23 per cent) or agree (42 per cent) that brands and businesses should increase their investment in women’s sport.

It has been a momentous year for women in sport in Ireland, a year when records and boundaries have been broken in what seems to be a meaningful manner

Next year and beyond will see more investment in women’s sport from sponsors and commercial partners thanks to the current success levels. Part of this investment will be in ambassador contracts and will again push more female athletes into the spotlight.

Where to now?

This year has not been all rosy for women's sport in Ireland. The Ireland women's rugby team not qualifying for the upcoming Rugby World Cup was a disappointment. While this result, and the recent difficult circumstances between players and the IRFU, can be deemed negative, ultimately the women's rugby game in Ireland should benefit from this in the long run on every front.

Another area of focus for improvements for women in sport must now be leadership and governance. Recent statistics released by Sport Ireland have shown that females make up an average of 32 per cent of boards across funded NGBs. This is up from 24 per cent in 2019 and so while progress is being made it needs to be expedited and it is encouraging to see the efforts being made by sporting bodies, with great support from Sport Ireland in this endeavour.

It has been a momentous year for women in sport in Ireland, a year when records and boundaries have been broken in what seems to be a meaningful manner. We must now focus on sustaining this success and using it as a platform to enhance women’s roles at a governance and leadership level as well as building on female participation numbers across every sport at all ages.

– Kelli O’Keeffe is the managing director of Teneo

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