This has been a brilliant year for female influence on British sport, so it’s a good time to celebrate – Sue Mott introduces our first annual power list
Women’s power and influence over sport has been pretty minimal until, say, now. In previous centuries they gave birth to famous sportsmen and Queen Elizabeth I may have somehow nudged Sir Francis Drake into bowls. Other than that, their position was somewhat sidelined.
Women could play sport, amass trophies, even be admitted to the hallowed Long Room at Lords by 1999, but it is now, in the 21st century – with a female Sports Minister looking like she means business, women running football clubs, and the Lionesses generating a fascinated following – that we can truly sense the tide turning.
A number of factors have converged to make this particular moment in British sporting history significant and it’s hard to know which came first. It could be the England women’s rugby, cricket and football teams largely professionalising with a resulting outpouring of success. Or the visible increase in commercial backing arriving from previously sceptical businesses now run or influenced by undaunted women. Or higher-profile media coverage no longer so dependent on a babe not wearing much. Or the turbo-charged push from social media. Pick the starting point out of that lot.
Undoubtedly, businesses small and large have identified the commitment and accessibility of women’s sport as an uplifting commodity in which to invest. When David Beckham tweeted to the Lionesses as they won their way through to this year’s World Cup semi-final: “Girls what a performance. We are so proud of what you have achieved and the passion you have shown …” he spoke for a nation enthralled.
And it’s cheaper. Investing in women’s sport has been estimated as 30 times less expensive than backing the more high-profile men’s division. Whatever Helen Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management, paid to sponsor the Women’s Boat Race it returned dividends in attention and feel-good factor far exceeding its price.
But the boom goes way beyond the accountants’ spreadsheets. The performance power of multi-tasking women is being increasingly valued in boardrooms. Their consumer power is increasingly recognised. It is not just women’s sport that is proffering opportunities, but male domains too. All bar the men’s locker room. And even there, Eva Carneiro, the Chelsea First Team doctor, is probably allowed in with her sponge.
Essentially, the rise of women’s influence in sport is about confidence. All areas of sporting life from players, administrators, lawyers, agents to politicians, campaigners, designers, sportswriters and broadcasters, once the uncompromising fiefdom of masculinity, have boldly opened up to “going woman” … some voluntarily, some not so much.
5 Most Influential Women in Sport list is a sign of the emancipation. As is the mutual support that exists between them and like-minded men happy to foster the advancement. So, Barbara Slater, head of BBC sport, and responsible for seminal decisions this year to broadcast the Women’s Boat Race and the Women’s World Cup, vindicated Morrissey’s commercial investment and persuaded Clare Balding to give up commentary on the Grand National and be part of history on the Thames instead.
There are still barriers, certainly on the international stage. The chances of a woman becoming President of Fifa, Uefa, the IAAF or the IOC are currently nil. Some might say this partly accounts for the past and present mayhem at those bodies. But British institutions are warming to the female theme. There is less acceptance of women taking up merely decorative positions. They are forging alliances, doing key deals and, in Jess Ennis-Hill’s case, looking after one-year-old Reggie with her husband while preparing for the heptathlon at the World Championships.
She’s a mum. She’s got abs. No wonder it feels like a new dawn.
1 Barbara Slater
BBC Director of Sport
Slater is responsible for 20,000 hours of global sports coverage across radio, TV and online each year. She orchestrated the BBC’s entire coverage of London 2012 – and has been instrumental in getting women’s sport more attention, including this summer’s Lionesses.
2 Tracey Crouch
Minister for Sport
At last, a Sports Minister who lives and breathes sport. Crouch is a big supporter of women’s sport and women in sport. Her decision to rip up and start again on the sports participation strategy is admirable. The MP, who is also a qualified FA coach and an ex-footballer herself, managed a girl’s team in her constituency, Chatham and Aylesford, where she was elected in 2010. Crouch is only the third woman to be Sports Minister. Last week, she launched a consultation to develop a new strategy for sport. How effective she is in the role is not clear yet, but there are high hopes that someone with her drive and insight can do great things at grass-roots and elite levels.
3 Clare Balding
The jockey, who turned sports broadcaster and became a household name, now uses her fame to bring a campaigning edge to her broadcasting. She has reported on five Olympics, two Paralympics and three Winter Olympic Games. This year, she turned down presenting the Grand National in favour of the Boat Race, because the women’s event was being televised for the first time. Balding has said in Parliament that women having freedom to play sport leads directly to women having political freedom; her BT Sport chat show is famous for its representation of female athletes alongside their male counterparts on the sofa.
4 Steph Houghton
Captain of England and Manchester City FC
Houghton led England to third place at the Women’s World Cup last month – the best performance in their history – and became a national hero in the process. She first came to national attention in 2012 when she scored three goals in four games for Great Britain at the London Olympics. She has 58 caps to her name, plays for an integrated men’s and women’s football club, MCWFC, and is a treasured example for young girls .
5 Jessica Ennis-Hill
Athlete and Olympic Heptathlon Champion
Ennis-Hill is the current Olympic champion and British record-holder in the heptathlon and has qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, less than a year after giving birth to her son Reggie. She’s a highly visible, likeable and inspiring role model – and she took a principled stand when her local football club, Sheffield United, was considering re-hiring convicted rapist Ched Evans on his release from prison. Her first political statement, it was hugely brave and proved a turning point in the controversy.