Changing Perceptions in Women's Sport

On Monday 26th September there was a picture on the front page of the Guardian showing Manchester City Women celebrating the moment they became WSL Champions. On the front page. Now that is a step in the right direction. Less than a week later, the football club completed the double by winning the Continental Tyres Cup. There wasn't even time to put the champagne back on ice.

Female sporting role models surround us and it is brilliant. But, with all of these successes, it is important to take a step back and assess the impact this is having on women’s sport and, more pertinently, on young girls around the country. It would be difficult to argue that the aforementioned role models aren’t encouraging women to be active. But do they engage those that simply aren’t huge sports fans? Yes, Manchester City Women were on the front page of The Guardian and quite rightly the story focussed on their on-pitch successes. However, would you flick to the back pages to read the full story if you didn’t like football? Would you even notice it on the front page? Maybe not.

Inspiring young girls around the country to play sport can’t only be about the success of elite athletes. Moreover, changing perceptions of women in sport won’t be achieved solely in the back pages of the paper. It is, in fact, this prerequisite for somebody to like sport in order to play it, that might actually be putting people off. Instead, the value of sport and the impact it can have must be communicated in a much broader way which is relatable to all (sports fan or not). Not everybody should require an ambition to be the next Steph Houghton in order for them to feel empowered to kick a football. Young girls should instead want to go and play because the results are more far-reaching, they transcend sport itself. And because their everyday role models (enter mum and dad) are encouraging them to do it. Even mums and dads that don’t have a deeply ingrained passion for sport themselves.

A recent post on the Facebook account of ‘Parenting Girls – Raising Good Women’ argued that parents don't simply pay for their kids to play sports; they pay for the opportunities that sports provides to develop attributes that will serve them well throughout their lives. Respect, teamwork, winning and losing. The fundamental life skills that make up a well-rounded person. A recent ParkLives film by Synergy client Coca-Cola takes this one step further showing that sport can quite simply bring children, parents and communities together.

And the simplicity of this is what makes it the perfect area for brands to explore. It’s far too easy for us to simply tell the story of a female that has defied the odds to reach the pinnacle of her sport. Of course these stories can be incredibly powerful, but they aren’t always relatable. Instead we should be telling the stories of how football, and sport generally, has impacted the day-to-day lives of normal young girls. How it can build their confidence and enrich their social lives. How it has given them the tools to succeed academically. But most importantly, how their parents supported them through this process and encouraged them to play. Because this is a parent’s responsibility.

Which might just be the key.

Parents have a responsibility to encourage their children to be active. They also have a responsibility to change the perceptions of women’s sport with their own children – it should start at home. So let’s encourage them to do it. At the very least, we might make mums and dads think more about the power of sport. At best, we might empower parents to take their daughter to the park to play football, regardless of their ability or previous interest in the sport.

So what is the endgame? Somebody with no interest in sport is impacted by a sporting story. It’s something we tried to achieve when working with SSE on their ‘Dads and Daughters’ series. A football story that is about way more than just football. It’s about family bonding. It’s about overcoming challenges in life. It’s about togetherness, inclusion, equality and being a part of something that can change your life for the better. And it so happens that it couldn’t have happened without two things: dedicated parents and the power of football.

Therefore, the challenge is clear: we must talk to all parents about sport, not just those that are sports fans. And we must engage them with the power sport can have on the everyday lives of their children – regardless of whether or not their daughter might one day be pictured celebrating on the front page of The Guardian.