Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
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The Independent Online

The England women's historic debut at Wembley will be played in front of a record crowd today, and for at least one spectator in the Royal Box it represents a hugely significant step forward, not merely for women's football but for the whole of women's sport.

"I'll be there at Wembley with 54,999 other people watching an England women's team play Germany," said Clare Balding, who for once will not be required in the commentary box, "and I will actually recognise the players. I'll know their stories. It's one of the massive changes in sport in very recent years and why I think now there is a real, tangible, exciting sea change in the way we perceive women's sport.

"This match is a huge moment. It's one of many coming up fast for women's sport, like the Boat Race in April, when the women will race on the same day as the men, and then the Women's Football World Cup in the summer – almost certainly being shown on terrestrial TV – when England have a massive chance of making the semi-finals and a not-ridiculous chance of going all the way."

It now seems quaintly hilarious that an FA committee decided in 1921 that: "The game is unsuitable for females", egged on, no doubt, by the terror within double-breasted suits that 53,000 spectators had just turned up to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies at Goodison Park.

A ban was imposed that lasted 50 years, but the lingering excuse that no one wants to watch women's football has been demonstrably trashed by the clamour for Wembley tickets today. Only engineering works on the Underground deterred the FA, it says, from putting thousands more on sale.

"I've felt that, especially since London 2012, the demand for a huge variety of women's sport is there from the public. They're interested, they're engaged and I have the feeling that in my lifetime – not even that – in the next 10 years – we are going to see a massively changed cultural landscape when it comes to sport.

"At school I remember saying to my careers teacher that I wanted to be an eventer. She thought I'd said 'inventor'. When I corrected her and told her my ambition was to go to the Olympics she just silently passed on to the next girl, while everyone else in the class laughed.

"I would like to think nowadays if any girl said they wanted to be an equestrian, an athlete, a swimmer, a footballer or a cricketer, that would be taken seriously as a career option and they would be properly supported and advised."

That women's football, cricket and rugby are becoming career options for girls has been exemplified this year with the partial professionalisation of all three major team sports. The first million-pound footballer is still a few years away, but £100,000 is not so improbable between the club-level and international game, even if some other players are still supplementing their income with checkout shifts at Aldi.

Women cricketers, the winners of back-to-back Ashes series last year, are now driving in their sponsored Kias, and broadcasters including the BBC, BT Sport, Sky, and ITV are enjoying the novelty of fighting – well, jostling at least – for women's sports rights. When full-time players with financial backing get exposure, ex-ect serious advancement.

"I hope it never ever happens again that the BBC Sports Personality list fails to contain a woman – not unless every sportswoman in Britain is injured for a year ... and I think that's a bit unlikely," said Balding. "That, to me, in 2011, was rock bottom. It was hugely embarrassing for the BBC, and the ramifications are still being felt, but on the positive side it woke everyone up.

"Things have changed really quite dramatically since then. Now you have Richard Scudamore saying on behalf of the Premier League: 'Nobody is more committed than us to the expansion of the women's game', which is a powerful statement for someone with such influence, and major clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are among those significantly investing in the women's game.

"In fact, I find it really surprising that Manchester United do not have a women's team yet. I'd say it's a big enough city to support two clubs. Manchester City, who won their first trophy this season, must feel they've got one over on their rivals."

Football has had an especially turbulent time with its attitudes towards women but another shift was signalled on Thursday night with the announcement by Sheffield United that the convicted rapist, Ched Evens, would not be training at the club after all. It follows many high profile withdrawals of support, including the request from local heroine and Olympic champion, Jessica Ennis-Hill, that her name be removed from a stand at Sheffield's ground should Evans be reinstated.

"I wholeheartedly salute Jess Ennis because it is a very difficult thing to say 'I'm sorry but no. Absolutely not. I will not be associated with that'," said Balding.

"It's her home town. It's a stand in her name. It's a really, really brave thing to do, but good for her, because her morals were important to her. She knew she was going to get a lot of abuse, which she did, but she had a lot of support too.

"I hope we'd all do that. I hope it gives others strength to stand up and challenge things that they believe to be wrong. I don't want to keep going on about women's sport. I love and watch men's sport too. But right now it feels like something that is hugely important to do. I think we're making a difference."

Clare Balding will present the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards on 10 December at 7.30pm on BT Sport 1. To see the list of nominees and to cast your vote visit: btsport.com/actionwoman

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