A 2017 survey of 25,000 girls and boys in England and Northern Ireland found that both boys and girls understood the importance of an active lifestyle but that girls still struggled to meet daily requirements. Painful periods, issues with confidence, lack of encouragement and the pressures of academic work all contribute to a lack of physical activity in young girls (Women in Sport, 2017). These are just some of the many issues that surround women trying to make it in the world of sports. In order for women in sport to take centre stage, a cultural shift in thinking, television coverage and media influences is necessary. So too is abandoning a patriarchal universe that puts men at the top of everything and women as inferior to them.
A LACK OF PROFESSIONAL LEAGUES & TEAMS
At the local club level, London, Ontario, houses two of Canada’s top youth soccer clubs: London Youth Whitecaps and London TFC. Both clubs are supposed to help feed provincial & national teams in addition to professional clubs like Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. There’s only one problem…Toronto FC doesn’t even have a women’s team, while Vancouver Whitecaps’ Women’s team is one of 100+ clubs who play in the second tier of women’s soccer in North America. There are a host of amazing soccer clubs around the country at the youth level, but if players haven’t reached national team status by the time they turn 18 , their options become limited to college/university teams before they fade into careers that they will actually get paid to do.
Every four years the FIFA Women’s World Cup rolls around and for a few months, women’s soccer receives an increased amount of attention. Markovits (2006) speculated that women were able to establish themselves in soccer because of a lack of a strong soccer culture in the U.S. as opposed to football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, which you cannot even name without male athletes such as Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson coming to mind. The same is likely true of Canada, where the Women’s team with Olympic medals and national heroes has had significantly more success than the Men’s. In Canada, the emphasis is almost greater on the Women’s team because that’s simply all we’ve got, not necessarily because the average Canada finds the women’s game more exciting. You also don’t need a statistician to tell you that Christine Sincalir, Canada’s most decorated soccer player ever, probably makes millions of dollars less than the Men’s captain Atiba Hutchinson. She’s also been afforded way less opportunities at the club level, having to settle for clubs like Portland Thorns FC, who let’s be honest, you’ve probably never heard of. This is in contrast to Hutchinson who has had the opportunity to win four league titles in Denmark with FC Copenhagen and captain Turkish giants Besiktas in the UEFA Champions League. This is of no fault to Atiba Hutchinson, who is one of Canada’s greatest role models in soccer, but highlights the stupidity of the impact gender can have in the career of an athlete.
Despite a greater attention to women’s soccer in Canada and the U.S. than many other sports would have it, the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States has only 9 teams. The men’s equivalent (Major League Soccer) has 23 teams and looks prepared to grow year after year. There are currently no Canadian teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, while the Vancouver Whitecaps are the only Canadian club of the 108 teams in the league below it. Something’s not right about that. If local clubs like London TFC and London Whitecaps Youth are going to even attempt to develop future Canadians stars, those players are going to need a league to play in.
Despite the improvements made in the past decade towards reaching gender equality, there is still a noticeable problem in how sports are presented in the media and beyond. It’s no secret that sports are either presented as ‘masculine’ (e.g., american football and ice hockey) or ‘feminine’ (eg., gymnastics and figure skating). This is a worldwide issue that is as a result of patriarchy’s desperate need to force people into boxes as either “masculine” and “male” or “feminine” and “female”. Regardless of gender identity, expression, etc., even in 2018 it is widely discouraged to branch out from that box. If a woman dares to participate in a more ‘masculine’ sport, their sexuality is instantly questioned (Scheadler, 2018) and the reverse could just as easily be said about males participating in sports that threaten their masculinity. This emphasizes how patriarchy in this case doesn’t just screw women, but men too.
Sports such as american football and ice hockey are widely popular in North America on the men’s side but are practically irrelevant on the women’s side. Most who engage in sports watching regardless of gender, could name dozens of male athletes in any given sport, but would likely struggle to name even one or two in the female equivalent to that sport. That demonstrates the patriarchal shift that is needed if women’s sports are ever going to be treated with the same level of respect that men’s sports are. People need to begin the conversation about women’s sports year round, not just when the Olympics come around.
Although there has been a greater shift in women’s sports audiences in recent years, many still argue that women’s sports are just simply “less exciting” than men’s sports (Scheadler, 2018). A study by Scheadler (2018) on college students in the U.S. set out to discover whether increased coverage of women’s sports would increase positive opinions about women’s sport. The resounding results of the study were that the increased exposure the students had to women’s sports did nothing to increase favourable attitudes or interest.
A now-famous study conducted by Bissell and Duke (2007) on beach volleyball games at the 2004 Olympics found that nearly half of the camera angles were focused on the players’ bodies and not anything to do with the games at all. This implies that even at the Olympics, an event that is supposed to inspire young children around the world to participate in sport, that women’s bodies are still deemed more important than their actual ability to perform in their sport. No wonder body image is such a significant issue for young girls around the world.
Around the world, it is incredibly easy to watch any men’s sport. Hockey, basketball, soccer, baseball, golf, etc., are all readily available year round on numerous sports channels. But many might not even be aware that women’s leagues even exist, simply because they are not given the same television coverage. As a youth soccer coach and advocate for young girls in sport, it disheartens me that I cannot watch nor inspire the girls that I coach to watch FA Women’s Super League matches and that their role models have to come largely in the form of the Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s of this world. This is simply because women’s soccer matches are hard to come by on TV and the internet; and this isn’t just a problem in Canada.
A study of undergraduates in the U.S. found that males identified more strongly as sport fans than females, possessed greater sports knowledge, and reported greater sports interest and desire to acquire information about professional teams (Dietz-Uhler et al., 2001). Why? Because there isn’t a single well-known women’s sports league anywhere in the world and even international tournaments like the Women’s World Cup are vastly outshone by their male counterparts.
Such differences translate into large sex differences in sports consumption. In the U.S., males spend almost twice as much time watching televised sports than females (Dietz-Uhler et al., 2001; Gantz & Wenner, 1991; Guttman, 1986), discussing sports (Dietz-Uhler et al., 2001), and seeking out sport-related information (Gantz & Wenner, 1991; Ruihley & Billings, 2013); There have been attempts to popularize women’s professional sports like soccer and softball, but neither have done anything in turning a profit or attracting audiences similar in magnitude to men’s professional leagues.
THE ISSUES START YOUNG
A range of evidence suggests that sports and physical activities have positive influences on academic aspirations and achievement for girls around the world (Bailey, Wellard & Dismore, 2005). More recent studies have found improvements for many children in academic performance when time for physical activity is increased in their school day (Bailey et al., 2005). Among the other significant benefits to participation include a greater sense of empowerment, positive body image, and a vast range of physical health benefits (Bailey et al., 2005).
So why is it that secondary school aged boys (11-16) are happier with the amount of physical activity they participate in than girls? (Women in Sport, 2017). Why is it that only 8% of girls aged 5 to 17 meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guide’s recommended 60 minutes of physical activity time per day? (Canadian Jumpstart Foundation, 2018). Body image, lack of encouragement and the pressures of academics have all been previously cited as reasons for a lack of physical activity in young girls around the world (Women in Sport, 2017). But very little research has gone into how to actually curve those factors and get more girls to participate in sport earlier on.
By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys (Women’s Sport Foundation, 2014). It’s clear that sports have to be fun at an early age if participants are going to continue, but research into how to actually make sports fun for girls is still needed in order to invalidate the above statistics in the future. The Canadian Jumpstart Foundation has started off in the right track with coaching modules such as Keeping Girls in Sport, but it’s going to take an entire societal shift in order for change to actually take place. As a result, large corporations such as FIFA and Canada Soccer have to take more responsibility and start finding out ways in which sports for women can become more marketable, and important to society in the same vain that men’s sports are valued.
There are a number of issues surrounding women in sport, only a few of which have been covered in this article. In order for change to actually occur and women’s sports to be valued in the same regard that their male counterparts are, a shift away from patriarchy and perceptions of women’s bodies as objects needs to occur. Furthermore, an increase in professional leagues and teams would help to increase the number of girls participating and the coverage these sports get on mass-media consumption platforms such as television and the internet. Further research needs to look at how this cultural shift away from patriarchy can take center stage as well as how to educate men in charge of mass-corporations like FIFA to be more aware that the women’s game is equally important to their success as an organization as the men’s. In order for women in sport to take centre stage, a cultural shift in thinking, television coverage and media influences is necessary. So too is abandoning a patriarchal universe that puts men at the top of everything and women as inferior.
Bailey, R., Wellard, I., & H. Dismore. (2005). “Girls’ Participation in Physical Activities and Sports: Benefits, Patterns, Influences and Ways Forward.” World Health Organization, Centre for Physical Education and Sport Research, 2005.
Bissell, K. L., & Duke, A. M. (2007). Bump, set, and spike: An analysis of commentary and camera angles of Women’s Beach Volleyball during the 2004 Summer Olympics. Journal of Promotion Management, 13, 35–53.
Dietz-Uhler, B., Harrick, E. A., End, C., & Jacquemotte, L. (2001). Sex differences in sports fan behavior and reasons for being a sports fan behavior and reasons for being a sport fan. Journal of Sport Behavior, 23, 219 –231.
Gantz, W., Wang, Z., Paul, B., & Potter, R. F. (2006). Sports versus all comers: Comparing TV sports fans with fans of other programming genres. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50, 95–118.
Gantz, W., & Wenner, L. A. (1991). Men, women, and sports: Audience experiences and effects. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 35, 233–243.
Keeping Girls in Sport : Coaching Resource. Jumpstart Charity Canadian Tire, jumpstart.canadiantire.ca/content/microsites/jumpstart/en/keeping-girls-in-sport.html.
Key Findings from Girls Active Survey. Women in Sport, Youth Sport Trust, 7 Nov. 2017.
Markovits, A. (2006, June 5). Soccer remains foreign concept to most Americans. Boston Globe.
Major League Soccer. https://www.mlssoccer.com/
National Women’s Soccer League. www.nwslsoccer.com/
Scheadler, T., & Wagstaff, A. (2018). “Exposure to Women’s Sports: Changing Attitudes Toward Female Athletes.” The Sport Journal, 5 June 2018.
Women’s Premier Soccer League. ww.wpslsoccer.com/