OPINION: Why there’s still hope for women’s sport

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As sport slowly gets back on its feet post COVID-19, women must be given a fair chance or history will repeat itself.

By Rachel Froggatt, Secretary General, International Working Group (IWG) on Women & Sport, and

Chief Executive, Women in Sport Aotearoa New Zealand

This story was originally published on Locker Room at Newsroom.co.nz on 15 May 2020, and is republished with permission.

Image: Jennie Wyllie, Chief Executive of Netball New Zealand


I can tell you exactly where I was on Saturday March 14, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the New Zealand borders would close to combat COVID-19.

Standing amongst 17,000 others on a hill in New Plymouth, on the rural west coast of New Zealand, I remember precisely how I felt in that moment. Aside from questioning the wisdom of being at a public concert like WOMAD, which we’d attended after following public health advice, I also contemplated the future of women’s sport.

Since Women in Sport Aotearoa Nouvelle-Zélande was established in late 2016, we’ve seen and supported a building momentum around women’s sport in New Zealand, in the race to catch up with progress being made by the rest of the world. In October 2018, we became host agency for the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport Secretariat & Conference 2018 – 2022, continuing a legacy of work around the globe since 1994.

Before COVID-19, professional sporting organisations around the world were finally recognising the commercial opportunity presented by their elite women’s teams and were investing for the long-term. New Zealand itself had won the bids to bring two major global women’s events, the Cricket World Cup and Rugby World Cup, here in 2021.

At a community level, governments around the world were recognising and dealing with the barriers women and girls were facing. In New Zealand, the government strategy launched in October 2018 resulted in a $10 million investment over three years. Responding to hard data, Sport New Zealand targeted system changes and supported initiatives designed to break through the significant barriers being faced by women and girls seeking equity of opportunity to participate, compete and build careers at all levels of sport.

As I stood on that hill in New Plymouth, I understood that we were facing an unprecedented health crisis globally. But I also knew that with lockdown looming, we were also staring down the barrel of an equally unprecedented financial crisis, the scale of which I could only compare to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

And history shows that women’s sport takes the brunt of financial impacts on sport, simply due to the fact it still often lives on the “L” side of the “P&L” for most sporting organisations.

As weeks have gone by, safely isolated, the boards of Women in Sport Aotearoa New Zealand and the IWG Global Executive have continued to advocate for gender equity during COVID-19 recovery. The IWG issued a global ‘Call to Action’ to the Brighton plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration signatories, asking them to step up for women and girls. During this time, hope has begun to emerge for women’s sport.

We’ve watched sport, from professional to community, come to a standstill. We have seen sporting organisations make cuts. We’ve had friends make incredibly tough leadership decisions. We’ve had friends lose jobs. We’ve seen sporting organisations fail. And yet, from every corner of the country and around the world, voices can be heard, advocating for the protection and growth of women’s sport and arguing that the pandemic presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-set the dial.

Last week in New Zealand, the Epidemic Response Committee – set-up in March to consider and report to the House on matters relating to the Government’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic – heard an impassioned speech from Netball New Zealand chief executive, Jennie Wyllie (pictured), asking that the COVID-19 response for sport be about ending decades of funding inequities between men’s and women’s sport. She particularly singled out gambling revenues.

Cameron George, chief executive of the Warriors Rugby League franchise, then followed. Despite explaining that the newly-established Warriors Women remain a cost centre, he reiterated the organisation’s commitment to finding a solution, since the team needed continued investment to deliver growth.

The New Zealand Players Association stepped up and clearly outlined the financial impact on our female athletes, some of whom balance paid sport with paid work and may have to make some hard choices. They advocated for protection through more investment into women’s sport.

These comments all came in the wake of a short-term relief package of $25 million, announced by Sport New Zealand. When we asked them if a gender lens would be applied to the distribution of the funds, ensuring that support was provided in an equitable fashion, they confirmed this was already in their planning.

This follows on from their announcement that all funded partners are still required to meet the 40 percent gender quota targets on their boards by the end of 2021, or risk their funding.

Each Friday for the past six weeks, we’ve broadcast our Leadership from Lockdown series interviewing leaders live and enabling our community to ask questions and seek advice. Without fail, sports leaders including the likes of Kereyn Smith, CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee; Sarai Bareman, chief football officer at FIFA; and Katie Sadleir, general manager of women’s rugby at World Rugby, have vowed to do everything they can to protect women’s sport.

We’ve found it very encouraging that, while we are hearing stories of real financial hardship and while we are facing real challenges of survival, we have leaders stepping up. They are determined to ensure that our women do not go by the wayside in this crisis, as they have so many times before.

We have also found it very encouraging that our sporting media, going though unprecedented challenges themselves, have still provided support for women’s sport and advocated for support. In New Zealand, the Sports Minister has announced a $265 million recovery package for sport and recreation over four years, and has been very explicit about his expectation that women’s sport is treated equitably.

Perhaps women’s sport does not yet contribute to the bottom line of many sports organisations. But it has the potential to, with the right investment. In the wake of COVID-19, the social value of sport is equal, if not more important, than its economic value.

Fifty-one percent of our population is female and they have a fundamental human right to access sport. In fact, sport will play a critical role in helping to rebuild our communities and returning our society to normality. Therefore, sport must be fully accessible.

We think the fact that we have leaders calling for action, advocating for innovation and creativity, and pointing out the opportunity we have been given to make sport more inclusive, should give all of us working in sport hope – not just Women in Sport Aotearoa New Zealand or the IWG Global Executive.

And we think it should give everyone, regardless of where they sit in the leadership structure of their organisation, permission to step up in the same way. We should all be asking questions and challenging decision-making when it impacts women’s sport, because the hard reality is that we will all be living with these decisions for a decade.

Last week, the Women in Sport Aotearoa New Zealand co-chair, Professor Sarah Leberman – writing in partnership with Dr Nicole LaVoi from the University of Minnesota and Associate Professor Sally Shaw from the University of Otago – said it was time to level the playing field for women and girls.

“Emerging from a pandemic should not be a return to the status quo, and this includes access to participation and competition in sports and physical activity. When sport resumes, we must regain momentum to truly advance gender equity for all girls and women. To do anything else wastes an unprecedented opportunity.”

Let’s not waste this opportunity.


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