Let’s talk about broadcasting. Specifically, how it can be used as a tool to grow the game.
Bear with me as I delve into *winces* football, but only for a few lines and I promise it is for good reason!
Each match from the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup was live streamed by the BBC, with full build up, analysis and commentary available. Record-breaking numbers tuned in to cheer on the Lionesses in the semi-final against Norway. According to the FA, participation figures for young girls in football saw a significant boost in the months following the broadcasting of the tournament.
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How does this relate to grassroots rugby I hear you cry?
Increasing the visibility of female role models in rugby is arguably one of the best things we can do to grow our game. The phrase “can’t see it, can’t be it” has never rung so true.
By widely publicising high profile female athletes in rugby, you are automatically giving young girls the power to envision themselves performing in those roles. Suddenly, something that was once an unachievable dream becomes an achievable reality. The promotion of elite level women’s rugby provides young players with something to strive towards, they can attend training sessions with the knowledge that a progression pathway is available to them, should they want it.
With increased exposure, as seen with women’s football, comes increased participation at grass roots level. Girls are more likely to attend a training session at a local club if they know that there is a place there for them. We must ensure that young girls understand it is more than acceptable for women to play rugby, but also that the game is taken seriously by the sporting world.
As more young girls become comfortable playing the sport and hype for the game naturally increases, the talent pool will grow. With a wider range of players to choose from, each bringing a diverse set of skills to the table; the talent level within the game develops further.
Unsurprisingly, the overall quality of the game is then brought up to a whole new level. If we look at where the women’s game was say 10/15 years ago compared to where it is now; you can already see these changes. You only have to look at the competitive selection process for each squad in the Six Nations tournament this year to understand the quality of players coming through to elite level has changed drastically.
Of course, like everything there is a wide spectrum of additional factors to consider when asking the questions surrounding improvement of the sport. However, increased media promotion of the game is a great place to start.
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Recent discussion has focused on the missed opportunity by the BBC and other outlets to live stream the Women’s Six Nations fixtures. Whilst it is great that the BBC have committed to broadcasting the final match on prime-time TV, the potential opportunities associated with broadcasting each fixture have largely been missed.
For those that argue the sport’s audience is non-existent, so therefore there is no benefit to broadcasters showing matches. I urge you to listen to the strong outcry from the rugby community in response to the missed opportunities.
After learning that the BBC were showing an old episode of Flog It! as opposed to England’s match against Italy, a petition was formed. This petition quickly snowballed, gathering a high amount of attention across social media. The situation even earnt itself a meme:
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This year, the Women’s Six Nations tournament was, for the first time, separated from the Men’s. Broadcasters have missed a prime opportunity to promote the game on its own merit and help women’s rugby define itself as a stand-alone tournament.
If broadcasters had taken the opportunity to live stream each match on prime-time TV, they would automatically open the door for more women’s rugby content to be shown in the future. The knock-on effect could have been massive. But instead, the BBC decided to air an episode of Flog It! which had already aired six times previously.
By streaming matches live on TV, broadcasters are helping to expose the game to different audiences, which ultimately works towards moving the sport away from its perceived amateur status.
Basically, we want to get to a stage where young women are seeing these role models day in, day out, and know that as an 18-year-old they have professional rugby as a career choice. To make this viable, we need to relentlessly increase the visibility of these elite female athletes to pave the way for the next generation.
If they cannot see it, they cannot dream of being it.
Broadcasters and individuals working in the media have a responsibility to frame women’s sport as a serious subject. Currently, with lack of broadcasting and investment, the game is largely being treated as an amateur sport.
Showing games on TV makes the sport more accessible to the younger generation. Whilst at the same time, pushing the sport out to a wider audience; an audience who perhaps before now might not have considered themselves a fan of women’s rugby.
A prime example of this *personal story alert* is whilst I was watching the England Italy game at home last weekend, my grandad joined me. He was captivated from start to finish. He began saying things like, “That Owen Farrell wants to take a leaf out of her book for kicking” and “She is a complete machine, look at the speed on her” about some of the insanely talented players on the pitch.
Before that match, he would not have described himself as a women’s rugby fan. But after watching it with intent, he asked when the team were next playing; I think he may be converted.
In that moment it dawned on me, women’s rugby as a sport is already operating at a high skill level, it is already an entertaining event to watch, it just needs the opportunity to thrive.
To grow the sport further, we must reach into new audiences, we must push the women’s game as far and wide as is humanly possible. However, this can only happen with the support of broadcasters.
I sat down with @ugomonye to talk about @EnglandRugby‘s new diversity and inclusion advisory group. Have a read of my thoughts on this, and what it means for women’s rugby, below. Let me know what you think! 👀
@sueanstiss @GiselleM18 @Waterloonumber8 https://t.co/ixqsqbwyi2
— Stella (@stella_mills_) April 20, 2021
I also want to use this space to touch on a common barrier in women’s sport – confidence.
It is no secret that young girls often suffer with confidence issues and today’s social media climate has a huge influence on this. They are constantly exposed to unattainable body standards on apps like Instagram, thus, automatically begin comparing themselves to others in a negative way.
The beauty of rugby as a sport lies in its inclusivity. At the risk of riding yet another cliché, there really is room for everyone on the pitch. The sport does not discriminate on size, there is a place for everybody.
As captain of my local team and a former coach to young girls I have seen first-hand how the sport can transform a young girl’s confidence.
Just yesterday at training one of my teammates remarked: “I don’t know what it is about these rugby shorts, but I just feel so powerful in them”.
It is important that girls are given the opportunity to have relatable role models. By broadcasting matches on TV, you allow the younger generation to see the likes of Shaunagh Brown, who has exceptionally strong and large legs, tearing up meters on the pitch. They her play and start to learn that their body is something to be proud of, and no matter what size or shape they are their body can help them do the same thing.
The diversity of body types in rugby is insane. You really do see every single sized individual on the pitch and the best part about the sport is that all types are welcomed and celebrated.
Because of the inclusive nature of the sport, often young players will learn to appreciate their body for what it can do for them, over what society says it should look like. And that for me, is essential in today’s day and age.
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For girls to get into women’s rugby, they need someone to look up to, to know that this isn’t just a man’s game anymore. It is possible to successfully translate support for a national female team into active interest at club level in football, so why are we not doing the same with rugby?
For the sport to move away from its perceived amateur status, women need to be given the opportunity to shine. Give these women the prime-time slot on national TV, and then promote the hell out of it and I promise you will not regret it.
My final question to the BBC is this; what exactly do you have to lose?