It’s just not cricket: levelling the playing field in sport

Last Saturday, in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, the national men’s cricket team played host to Oman in a one-day international. For the home fans, an assured win saw their team crowned ICC World Cricket League Division Two champions, but the match also chalked up another – quiet, but important – achievement: Australian umpire Claire Polosak became the first woman to officiate in a men’s one-day international.

And why not. As Claire herself says, there’s no reason why females can’t umpire in cricket. It’s about breaking down barriers”.

Meanwhile, yesterday afternoon – for the second year in a row – over 40,000 fans turned up at Wembley Stadium to witness Manchester City beat West Ham in the Women’s FA Cup Final. Staying with football, we are just over a month away from the Women’s World Cup. Again, expecting a bigger audience than ever and major brands are keen to tap in. So said the FA’s head of marketing, Georgina Lewis, last week: “As far as incoming calls in terms of wanting to work with us this summer, honestly it’s probably higher than it was last year for the men’s World Cup” and indeed consumer brands including Lucozade, Budweiser and Boots have all recently secured deals.

Wembley Stadium, host to over 40,000 fans for yesterday’s Women’s FA Cup Final

The rising prominence of sporting women has been changing for some time and feels like it has momentum behind it. But what is going on behind the scenes in the business of sport? How is gender equality faring here?

In the UK, one of the most significant interventions was a code of conduct spearheaded by an organisation called Women in Sport. The code committed any sporting bodies that seek lucrative funding from either the government or National Lottery proceeds that they must reach a 30% gender diversity target on Boards – and it generated positive results quickly.

Indeed, in 2017 Women in Sport declared it was time to look ‘Beyond 30%’, as UK National Governing Bodies (NGBs) had – on average – reached the target for two years in a row. However, the mission was not complete. While a good number of NGBs had reached or exceeded the target, a small but significant minority stubbornly continued to resist progress.

Furthermore, Women in Sport’s CEO Ruth Holdaway identified a couple of ‘persistent problems’ that were limiting further progress. First, one of the positive ways in which NGBs had improved gender diversity on their Boards was to bring in talent from outside sport – something which had probably reached the limit of its ability to drive progress without disrupting the balance of Boards in another way. Secondly, and linked to this point, while the threat of funding consequences had shone a light on Board positions, it had not yet resulted in a strong and sustainable pipeline of female leadership talent in the industry.

As women’s sports leagues and teams look to further establish themselves, attract fans and generate more commercial momentum at an elite level, there is also an understandable desire to promote and increase participation of women at a leadership level, gender diversity in sports can present a chance to engage fully with all aspects of a sport and play an integral part in the development of sporting communities.

Wider societal issues around diversity and equality are also playing into women’s sports investment decisions, while certain sports are further in this journey, there are still undervalued assets in the talent pool. Much like in other consumer-facing sectors, there’s a lack of attention being paid to the creation of a sustainable pipeline of female leadership talent within sport.

In its latest Beyond 30% report, Women in Sport looked deeper into gender and workplace culture; there they found there is still an atmosphere of discrimination and negative workplace culture, which is limiting the pipeline of more diverse future talent. This needs to change in order to create an environment in which both women and men thrive and to nurture the pipeline of talented female leaders for the future.

Much like in other sectors, including as highlighted in our own Women in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure 2020 report, organisations first need to acknowledge the issue, get to grips with the data so that they know what they are dealing with and elevate it to the top level of the company’s agenda.

Some of Women in Sport’s research has even highlighted a decline in the number of women in top jobs; however, a brightspot amongst the statistics is the number of female CEOs across the NGBs. At 23%, there is clearly a way to go, but nonetheless this presents a much more encouraging picture than in many other benchmarks. In our Hospitality, Travel & Leisure research, for example the number was just 11% while across the FTSE 350 as a whole, it’s around 4%.

The rapidly-increasing rate of interest in women’s sports is one of the most exciting trends in the sports industry right now. For rights holders, brands and the media, this represents a chance to develop a new commercial proposition and engage fans in a different way. Tennis and golf have led the way in the professionalization and commercialization of women’s sports, but more recently it has been football achieving significant milestones.

The trend isn’t unique to Britain. In Norway and New Zealand, women’s national team footballers now earn the same as their male counterparts, while Rugby Australia announced it will pay its men’s and women’s sevens teams equally for the first time.

In Australia, the government has committed to helping more women gain leadership positions in sport, through a new scholarship program. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Australia announced funding of $220,000 for the Change Our Game Scholarship Program, providing a new pathway to senior roles for women in sport. The scholarships are targeted at women already working in sport and recreation organisations, who have fewer opportunities to set up and lead due to gender disparity.

More than 300 women from across 43 sports will also be directly involved in the country’s 2019 Women Leaders in Sport program. Since 2002, the program has provided leadership development for over 24,000 women in sport.

Over in the States, a select group of women have made tremendous progress in not only breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling but shattering it altogether. Atop that list is Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. As the first woman to lead a major professional sports union in North America. There’s also racing executive Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and vice chairwoman of NASCAR. Kennedy manages 13 of America’s largest racetracks while also playing a key role in steering the multibillion-dollar racing conglomerate NASCAR as a member of its board of directors.

Stacey Cartwright, the former Deputy Chair and Chief Executive of Harvey Nichols, who is now an independent Non-Executive Director at The FA

There are certainly encouraging movements happening for female leadership in the sport industry. However, like in a lot of sectors, there is room for improvement. One obvious and more immediate route is to take female leaders from complementary sectors (FMCG, retail, hospitality, media etc) who can transition and add value in sports. There are numerous successful examples of this such as Stacey Cartwright at the FA and Caitlin Hughes at Juventus. Such sectors have greater female leadership talent pools and should be an attractive hunting ground for sporting entities who are keen to sophisticate. | | @TheMBSGroup