A step change for women's sport

There is a wider understanding that the different-paced games hold different but  equal attractions

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In the space of a few days last week, the nation acquired some new heroes and role models. The England women’s football team pluckily lost in extra time to Japan in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday, and Heather Watson pluckily lost to Serena Williams at Wimbledon on Friday in what was probably the tournament’s best match this year. We know from recent history that yesterday’s plucky losers can be tomorrow’s giantkilling winners: last week was a great one for British women’s sport.

Watson’s story is a wonderful one: the British girl who visited Wimbledon at the age of seven or eight and bought a poster of Venus and Serena Williams – on her wall for years – and then found herself playing her childhood pin-up and nearly beating her.

Hers is the kind of story that, we hope, will inspire and motivate a new generation of young women to take part in sport and to compete on equal terms with men. The Independent on Sunday has tried to lead the way with more coverage of women’s sport, but we realise that there is a long way to go.

According to the Women in Sport campaign, just 7 per cent of all sports coverage last year was devoted to women’s sport. In light of this imbalance, it is surprising that the “participation gap”, the difference between the numbers of men and women taking part in sport, is only 1.7 million: there are 6.9 million women aged 16 or over who are engaged in sport once a week against 8.6 million men.

However, it feels as if we may be on the threshold of a big cultural shift in attitudes towards sport that could narrow those gaps. Some markers of formal equality have already been achieved. Equal prize money in tennis and many other sports is a battle that is being won. But it needs popular attitudes to change. The reason media organisations often give for devoting less coverage to women’s sports is that there is less demand for it. This is obviously a two-way process, even if it is more one way than the other.

The success of the England women’s football team has been a big factor in starting to shift that traffic. The strength and endurance of women may not match that of men, but most of the interest in watching football is in the skill, intelligence and teamwork of the players, and many fans have found the women’s game as compelling as the men’s.

Let us hope that the level of interest in last week’s semi-final, even though it was after midnight, UK time, will prompt the rest of the British football establishment to sense the change in the climate. As Michael Calvin comments in our sports section today, it is disgraceful that Manchester United, our best supported football club, do not have a women’s team.

The debate about the merits of men’s and women’s tennis has gone on, at a higher level, for longer. There is less straightforward sexism than there was, and a wider understanding that the different-paced games hold their different but equal attractions. And the Watson-Williams game last week underlined the ability of the women’s game to deliver the narrative, drama and patriotic engagement of the men’s.

Those are the stories of competition at the highest level that engage audiences. That is why Sky Sports will show live coverage of every ball of the new-format Women’s Ashes for the first time this year. Let us hope that the Women’s Cricket Super League will attract the same level of coverage next year.

We should also welcome the appointment after the election of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Sport. As a female MP who plays football and is a football coach, she brings real knowledge and commitment to the job. 

A lot of progress has been made in recent years, with two notable blows for equality last week, but there is still a lot of cultural change to go.