Blog post from Kirsten Sibbit, Senior Consultant at The Sports Consultancy. (views and opinions are her own)
One of my favourite moments of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang so far was watching the BBC coverage of Isabel Atkins bronze medal winning run in the Freestyle Skiing Slopestyle. What I loved about it was the enthusiasm and excitement of the two male commentators as Atkins completed her run and landed her awesome final jump. There was no mention of the fact that she was a woman, or a “girl”, or that the men could do better tricks with more rotations. They were genuinely celebrating her achievement and the quality of her run both for its own merits and compared to her medal rivals.
Sport is an area in which gender parity is often talked about but somehow easily dismissed; women’s sport isn’t commercial enough, or high enough quality, or competitive enough. At the summer Olympics, we are forced to debate each year whether its ok for women to play beach volleyball in bikinis while their male counterparts wear shorts and vests. However, the Winter Olympics has really struck me as being different; an event that really enables men and women to compete on equal footing
The superlatives used by commentators to describe Chloe Kim, American gold medal winner in the women’s snowboard halfpipe, were no different to those used to describe Shaun White, Kim’s equivalent in the men’s version of the same event. On the flipside, figure skating, an event of grace, poise and quadruple toe loops, also treats men and women the same (even though we are yet to see the female in a pairs routine tossing her male partner spinning into the air to land on a single skate millimetres thick). There is no suggestion that a man wearing tights with stirrups is not “manly”, because that’s not the point, and the wow factor of both male and female skaters is equivalent.
The gender divide seems less present in the Winter Olympics than it does in the summer. The men’s 100m final is the blue riband event making its winner a household name. I don’t think the same can be said of the women’s 100m. However, nobody in PyeongChang seems to be suggesting that the men’s curling gold medal is of greater value than the female. This may just be down to our British perspective, with very few male medal prospects to get excited about and none in the “premier” alpine skiing events. I suspect there is more to it.
Why is it different?
I wonder if the difference at the Winter Olympics comes down to the particular disciplines and the risk involved in learning to be great at them and performing them under pressure. Men and women take the same risks and put themselves in danger of significant injury to the same degree in search of a medal. Everyone is competing at the very edge of their ability, pushing to achieve their goals. The difference with the Winter Olympics is that the margin between success and breaking your neck is very fine. When that’s the case, it’s hard not to give women the same respect for what they are doing. The women throwing themselves head first down an icy track on a glorified tea tray in the skeleton are no less gutsy than the males doing the same.
The answer could be that it’s just different for us in the UK as our female athletes have more chance of success and it’s the coverage that is adding the gender balance. I am really proud of the BBC’s coverage. Partly driven by the fact that GB’s best medal prospects are female, and those who have competed or achieved success in the past are also female, no one has to tell you that our female competitors are being taken seriously. They just are. Clare Balding is, in my view, doing a fantastic job as the sole anchor of the coverage and frequently we are seeing a studio of female pundits adding value to our viewing experience.
Or it could just be that a female in baggy ski pants, an oversized jacket and a helmet is just a damn good snowboarder.
Surely though, this must be the way that things are going? The IOC itself is doing much to ensure that there is greater gender parity. This Olympics has the greatest proportion of female athletes ever, 43%, and at the next Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, there will be a 50-50 gender balance across all disciplines.
What can be gained from better gender balance?
It feels to me that there is a lot to be gained as a host city, a rights holder or a broadcaster from giving men’s and women’s sport the same platform. So why do we do it at the Olympics but we don’t during the rest of the year?
Many sports still keep their genders very distinct with a world cup for men hosted somewhere different to its world cup for women. Rugby Union has tended, in the past, to use women’s matches as curtain raisers; not real competition but fine to watch if you arrive early. But with the BBC now showing the Women’s Six Nations free-to-air, will this ultimately raise the value of the Women’s Rugby World Cup?
The BBC is certainly doing itself no harm reputationally with its Olympics coverage particularly considering its current gender pay gap issues. Leading with such a strong female presence doesn’t feel like a coincidence, although I really don’t want to be cynical about it… It will be interesting to see what its viewership figures are.
From a rights holder and a host city perspective, there should be value in mixed gender versions of major events. By combining women’s competitions with the (usually) more commercially viable male versions, and running them with an integrated timetable and shared venues, cities would get a more valuable property attracting greater visitation, public engagement and broadcast and media coverage. Cities could utilise synergies such as venues reducing organisational costs to better leverage having greater numbers of participating athletes, more tickets to sell and a longer event presence on the ground.
For rights holders, could a way to grow women’s sport be to have women and men competing on the same stage at the same time, even if not for the same prize? What value could there be in golf, for example, for the top women to play alongside the top men, sharing training tips, information and the spotlight? And what additional benefit for the WPGA as the rights holder potentially growing its audience. Could it also bring a new audience to the men’s game benefitting the PGA as well? We may see some change following this year’s European Golf Championships at Gleneagles, a new event featuring men and women competing for their countries side by side and forming part of Glasgow’s European Championships 2018.
Who is leading the way?
Tennis has been operating in this way for many years. Men’s and women’s tennis grand slams are played together, at the same venue, at the same time. So a ticket for centre court at Wimbledon (unless on the finals days) will usually involve watching both genders. Since 2015, all four grand slams have paid equal prize money to men and women. Not all tournaments are played together, particular when you get lower down the pecking order to ATP500s, but a significant number are and offer equal pay. Now the ITF is considering combining the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup.
This has translated into a significant increase in the commercial value of the women’s game. In 2017, the WTA sold its season ending tournament, the WTA Finals, to Shenzen for a 10 year term. This came with a doubling of prize money to $14 million, up from US$4.9 million in 2012. The value of the tournament to the WTA has been steadily increasing based on the perceived value for the host city. Singapore raised the bar in 2013, and Shenzen saw enough value in the sport to commit to a ten year contract.
We will also see concurrent competitions at the Rugby League World Cup in England in 2021 with the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments all in one timetable.
I’m pretty excited to see where else this approach might be able to provide multiple benefit for sports participants, consumers, owners, broadcasters and hosts, not to mention the benefits to girls and women everywhere if new female heroes can be created on television or in the world’s best stadiums alongside men.
Fully equal competition?
On a slightly different note. there are a small number of sports where equal, rather than concurrent, competition can actually occur. Equestrian is the only Olympic sport where males and females compete against each other on the same terms for the same medals. Women can also compete in motor racing although this varies across disciplines. Only two females have ever actually started a Formula 1 race and Danica Patrick is the only female to have won an IndyCar race.
Maybe things are changing though. Swiss-born Simona de Silvestro is the first full-time female racer in the V8 Supercars championship in Australia. While this is unlikely to affect women’s presence in other sports, I look forward to seeing how she gets on over the course of the Championship.