Staff Writer

July 6, 2024 (Updated )

In recent years, women’s sport has had more coverage than ever, thanks to landmark broadcasting deals, improved attitudes, and the sheer hard work of those working in the sector. But, scratch the surface and we still need to ask whether the coverage is reaching enough people, how the industry can capitalise on all this momentum, and, importantly, what comes next.

It was only when sports journalist Nancy Gillen went to university that she realised how unique her childhood experience of football was. Nancy grew up just outside North London, where, thanks to the historic rivalry of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs, football was a big part of the community.

For Nancy, who is keen to stress she is a Gunners supporter, women’s football was particularly prominent throughout her childhood, partly because Arsenal women trained nearby. The women’s game in England was yet to professionalise, so most players worked additional part-time jobs, including community outreach at local schools like Nancy’s.

“I had all this exposure to women’s football, which I don’t think many people had. When you look at people’s experiences of sport, their main exposure is men’s football,” says Nancy, who, alongside her journalism, has judged BBC Sports Personality, launched the Cherry on Top women’s sports newsletter, and written a book all about sporting suffragette Alice Milliat.

When she attended university in 2014, Nancy played football with other women who loved and were good at it. To her surprise, though, they didn’t watch women’s football or support a team. That’s when Nancy realised her “experience at primary school was actually pretty unique.” These women didn’t watch women’s football because they hadn’t been exposed to it.

Sports journalist Nancy Gillen as a child wearing an England football kit - red top and white shorts - with her hands in the air.
A sports fan from the start: Young Nancy in her England kit

The Barclays Women’s Super League, the highest English domestic league of women’s football, wasn’t established until 2011. And though some games were televised in the league’s early days, coverage was more limited.

The BBC and Sky Sports have shared the WSL’s domestic broadcast rights since 2021 and will for at least another season. Barclays also recently confirmed that it will double its sponsorship rights of the WSL and Women’s Championship, worth around £9 million.

The changes are encouraging — in football and beyond. The 2023/24 Netball Super League also welcomed landmark broadcasting deals. Likewise, record viewing figures for the Women’s Six Nations means the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 are all vying for the television rights for 2025’s Women’s Rugby World Cup.

The content is reaching more people, too. Figures from The Women’s Sport Trust (WST), a UK charity focused on improving the visibility and reach of women’s sports, show the average viewing time of any televised women’s sports increased from eight hours and 44 minutes per person in 2022 to 10 hours and seven minutes in 2023, according to the WST’s visibility report, published earlier this year.

Last year, 46.7 million people watched one minute or more of women’s sports on linear TV; up from 28.2 million in 2014, when Nancy was at university.

It’s a pace of change Tammy Parlour MBE, WST co-founder and CEO, finds interesting. “These changes we are seeing are actually within a decade,”  She says. “A decade isn’t very long.”

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Journo Resources

Tammy Parlour MBE (L) and Nancy reporting from Wembley (R)

This pace of progression can mean it is easy to forget the recency of some things. There wasn’t a women’s Olympic marathon until 1984, and the FA’s ban on women’s football, which lasted more than 50 years, ended in 1971.

The momentum should be celebrated, but as Tammy says: “It is not as simple as men’s sport. There’s not something there we are servicing. This is about building. For me, that is more exciting. It is a real opportunity.”

Is Journalism Committed To Women’s Sports Coverage?

However, the fact women’s sport isn’t viewed as a service can lead to a lack of investment from the media. At this stage in the game, Nancy says it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: “Outlets are looking for the interest to justify having more women’s sports reporters when we know there is so much potential there. If you go first, then it can grow, and you get your investment back, probably pretty quick.”

Tammy agrees but acknowledges it is a big ask for organisations to make a long-term investment when they have other seemingly safer short-term options.

The Telegraph is one outlet which has notably made a long-term investment, with the launch of its women’s sports section five years ago.

Milly McEvoy, women’s sport lead at Sportsbeat, remembers it being a big moment. To a certain extent, she says: “They [Telegraph Women’s Sport] are allowed to and able to cover women’s sport full-time without having to look at anything else. I guess that is why they are further ahead because they’ve made that commitment.”

As the WST’s data shows, if you’re accounting for women’s sport and mixed sport, The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph are noticeably ahead.

A chart from the Women's Sport Trust's published in early 2024 and documenting percentage of women's sport coverage in print publications in 2023.
Chart: Women’s Sport Trust

Milly says we should also look beyond those statistics and celebrate the nature of The Telegraph’s content, like its investigations. “It is doing things that are creating new stories, as well as features and coverage of the sport itself,” she says.

Indeed, Telegraph Women’s Sport‘s 2019 campaign ‘Girls, Inspired’ lobbied for better sporting provisions for schoolgirls, resulting in the government pledging a new national strategy, and its maternity rights investigation in 2020 saw UK Sport publish its first-ever maternity guidelines.

Telegraph Women’s Sport has invested in specialist women’s sport journalists and standalone channels, a spokesperson told Jourono Resources. It hopes its journalism gives other publications “confidence that the appetite for women’s sport coverage is there”. For wider change across the industry, it says more media outlets must make dedicated women’s sport coverage a true priority.

“Over the years many women’s sports stories have been lost, forgotten, or undervalued,” they add. “The repercussions of this exclusion have been felt by all women, and by young girls in PE halls across the country. Telegraph Women’s Sport aims to play a role in redressing the balance.”

Telegraph Women's Sport: A Track Record Of Coverage

• ​​In its first year Telegraph Women’s Sport gave 29 per cent more coverage to women’s sport than any other news brand.

• The Women’s Sport Trust praised The Telegraph’s “near parity” of key sports coverage, with 45 per cent of lead sports articles over the summer of 2019 featuring women’s sport.

• There were more than 3.5 million page views of its coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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Journo Resources

Young Milly at a Liverpool game (L) Present-day Milly at the cricket (R) 

‘There Needs To Be Emphasis On Tactical Insights’

Hannah Thompson-Radford is a senior lecturer in sports communication, journalism, and media at Swansea University and a freelance women’s sports reporter, content creator, and commentator.

Sometimes, Hannah says she feels conflicted about whether some women’s sports stories don’t focus enough on performance, but rather centre their struggle and sacrifice.

Alongside human interest stories, she says: “I feel like there needs to be more emphasis on tactical insights, performance analysis, and more criticism of women’s sport generally.”

However, Hannah also recognises that human interest content can highlight “important research issues and gender gaps within the space.” Indeed, a 2022 audit of sports science and sports medicine research published by the National Library of Medicine found only 23 per cent of participants were women.

For Milly, sport’s emotion and sacrifice are what drew her towards a career in the industry. “What sets women’s sport apart is the stories that come out of it and the people,” she says, reminding us that areas of women’s sport are still professionalising.

“I think that’s where you get that cut through with these people who haven’t been in academies since they were six years old and haven’t been media trained within an inch of their life. It’s actually quite refreshing for everyone to hear their stories, and not just for people who are women’s sports fanatics.”

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Journo Resources

Hannah commentating on a cricket match (L) Hannah at the T20 Women’s Cricket World Cup held in Australia in 2020 (R)

‘You Need To Take Out Gendered Language”

Throughout sports coverage, there can still be a tendency to say ‘sport’ and ‘women’s sport’ rather than ‘men’s sport’ and ‘women’s sport’. And while you might assume removing all gender markers signals equality, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Milly uses the example of the Rugby World Cup, which formerly used the same tournament name across genders. In 2023, World Rugby updated the naming convention to include ‘Women’s’ and ‘Men’s’.

“I do think that is a good move, particularly because when you go on Google, and you’re searching the 2021 World Cup, it would be coming out with the men’s one,” says Milly. However, she highlights the importance of adding the equivalent markers to men’s sports.

Hannah agrees and says the omission when discussing men’s sports “just marks [women’s sport] as other, which a lot of research discusses.”

But she also acknowledges that there are nuances and that we need to consider spaces beyond just ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’, which is why it is important to consider language across coverage.

Milly says: “I was listening to the radio coverage of The Ashes this summer, and Katherine Brunt, the women’s bowler, who has since gone into commentary, keeps calling the women’s players ‘batsmen’.”

While it is something that doesn’t necessarily make a difference for Katherine, Milly says others wouldn’t like to be called a batsman and would prefer the term “batter”. “In opening up the game, you need to take out some of that gendered language,” she adds.

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“In opening up the game, you need to take out some of that gendered language."
Milly McEvoy, women's sports lead at Sportsbeat

No Growth In TV News Mentions

According to the WST’s report, women’s sports received 8 per cent of TV news mentions in 2023 — the same as in 2022.  While editorial platforms have word and page counts, Milly says realistically, there is still more space for women’s sports. However, a sports package on the 6pm or 10pm news is very short.

She says: “Editorial decisions have to be made about what is going to interest the biggest number of people, and I think, at the moment, that is still going to be Premier League football and men’s international sport.”

While there is no research into the reasons behind this lack of growth, Tammy questions whether departments of broadcasters — “which are massive industries in themselves” — are talking to each other.

WST and think tank research suggests organisations “need to be better at cross-promoting, and actually aligning all the different departments within an organisation.”

Indeed, the report investigated prominence (the percentage of women’s sports in the top 10 stories on the sports homepage each day) alongside content quantity.

A chart from the Women's Sport Trust's visibility report published earlier this year documenting the digital website prominence of women's sports in 2023.
Chart: Women’s Sport Trust

The lack of progress here supports the idea that organisations must be better at cross-promoting. While Telegraph Women’s Sport publishes great content, Tammy says: “If you look at the prominence, it has hardly moved at all. They are doing incredible journalism, but not necessarily pointing to it.”

‘As Soon As Something Is A KPI, People Are Accountable To It’

Tammy highlights the need for leadership, communication, and accountability across organisations and says monitoring and data collection are key. “As soon as something is a KPI and it is monitored, and people have to be accountable to it, or for it, then things start to happen,” she says.

For Milly, it’s vital the media doesn’t compare men’s and women’s sports. “That argument of ‘faster, better, stronger’… I find it redundant. It is the product on the pitch itself, rather than in comparison to anything else.”

Hannah wants to further research and distinguish between visibility and representation as concepts, exploring the different types of stories across coverage of women’s sports. “Sometimes we can be a bit distorted when we think we are in a much better place [because] there’s still so much work to be done,” she says.

This summer will be a full-circle moment for Nancy and Milly. Inspired by the stories of London 2012 as children, both will be involved with 2024 Olympic coverage.

Reflecting on her childhood, Nancy says: “I could only watch the men’s [football] on TV and not the women’s. That frustration was starting to build up for me. I wanted to right that wrong and just give more exposure to female football players.”

She’s already done that; now it’s time for the rest of us to step up.

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

After joining the Journo Resources team at the end of 2021 as a trainee, Hannah was promoted to staff writer in 2023. She focuses on writing original features at Journo Resources, as well as managing our TikTok and Twitter/X accounts.

Currently based in Norwich, Hannah also recently completed her NCTJ Diploma with News Associates on their remote, part-time course.

You’ll usually find Hannah trying to beat her parkrun PB, hunting down the nearest baked goods, or sweeping the shelves for any new designer dupes.

Hannah is also a freelance writer and journalist, available for commissions on a variety of lifestyle topics including but not limited to health and fitness, fashion, mental health, sport and education. She has written and created content for BBC Sport, BBC Sounds, StylistThe TelegraphHappiful MagazineSouth West LondonerThe IndiependentMancunian Matters, and Runner’s World.

Featured Image: Quino Al via Unsplash