Legacy and the Lionesses: how can we make England’s victory count?

Until 2012, I had never been to watch athletics before. I, like many others, got carried away on the wave of the Olympics and the positive atmosphere that permeated London. As a family we went to see many races, bit the bullet and bought tickets for the most memorable Closing Ceremony, and as the games closed, and thousands of us left the Olympic Stadium to get onto the Jubilee Line, there was a sense that this positive feeling would be sustained and that life would never be the same again.

But the world soon returned to normal, and that positive, hopeful feeling faded. Until last Sunday, when the England women’s football team beat Germany to take home the European Championship trophy. I like many, had the same feeling that I had in 2012.

Like the Olympics, the result wasn’t just a victory for the Lionesses. Even before the final whistle, the tournament had waved in a new era for British sport, getting us talking about women’s football and championing women as players, coaches, match officials, commentators and fans like never before.

It’s impossible not to feel inspired. In the UK, the women’s game is still startlingly young: the FA lifted the ban on women’s teams in the 1970s and it wasn’t until 2018 that a fully professional league – the Women’s Super League – was launched. In the final minutes of play, former England player-turned-commentator Rachel Brown-Finnis commemorated the cohort of female footballers who paved the way for this year’s Lionesses, many of which had to work alongside their sporting career and pay for their own kit.

At MBS, we’ve spent much of this past week discussing the match and swapping stories of tearful celebrations on Sunday night. Especially for the women in our office, seeing a team of best-in-class female athletes play to a packed-out Wembley, and feeling the support of the nation behind them, was truly joyous.

But what now? As Gabby Logan put it in a particularly spine-tingling end to the BBC coverage, the journey and the challenge is far from over – it’s only just begun. As a country, and as business leaders, we must make sure that the impact of the Lionesses’ victory is felt far beyond the football pitch.

So, after a week of reflection, I have two challenges for leaders in our consumer sectors.

First, to be brave enough to make the first move on the issues that matter. In a moment of hard-hitting post-match punditry, Alex Scott recalled the organisers “begging” clubs to host matches for this tournament back in 2018, and brands to get involved as sponsorship partners. “So many said no,” she said. “I hope you’re all looking at yourselves right now because you weren’t brave enough to see the vision. […] If you’re not involved, you’ve missed the boat, you’ve missed the train. Because look at this… it has finally left the station and it is gathering speed.”

When it comes to diversity, inclusion, the climate emergency, social justice, mental health and other era-defining issues, you can choose to step up or to wait around for others to lead the way. I’m reminded of my conversation earlier this year with Caroline Casey, founder of the Valuable 500, who spoke so compellingly on the power of business: “what business includes, society includes; what business values, society values.” Without brave leaders, who are willing to take a chance, we’d never make progress.

“What business includes, society includes; what business values, society values.” –  Caroline Casey, Founder of the Valuable 500

Among so many inspiring anecdotes this past week, it was great to read a LinkedIn post from Karen Bosher, MD of Premium, Urban Pubs and Venture Brands at Greene King, reflecting on the response to showing the women’s matches for the last five years. “People said we were mad [and] that no one would come to pubs to watch Women’s Football,” she wrote, “but we carried on because that is what you do when you want to create a change.”

Greene King has been showing women’s football for five years.

My second challenge is to invest in your role models.

It has been so uplifting over the past month to see the thousands of little girls, clad head-to-toe in England kit, attending football games. Now, for the first time, aspiring young footballers won’t have to actively seek out female role models. The Lionesses have proved that women belong on the pitch – and not even a week later we are feeling an impact, with reports of girls’ grassroots clubs “inundated” with requests to join.

“The Lionesses have proved that women belong on the pitch – and not even a week later we are feeling an impact, with reports of girls’ grassroots clubs “inundated” with requests to join.”

Role models also actively push for progress. On Wednesday, the team published an open letter to prime ministerial candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. “We want to create real change in this country and we are asking you […] to help us achieve that change,” it read, demanding the right of every girl in the UK to play football at school and greater investment in women PE teachers and coaches. Currently just 63% of girls can play football in school, with only 44% of secondary schools offering equal access.

In our consumer sector, the representation of women, ethnic minority leaders and diverse groups is not moving fast enough. If this tournament has taught us anything, it’s that real change can happen when we champion inspiring people. Without role models at the very top of an organisation, who can inspire others, bring about change, and redefine what a successful leader looks like, we cannot expect to make meaningful progress.

If there was one visible impact of the 2012 Olympics, it was the bike lanes that cropped up all over London. Overnight, cycling became extremely popular – and the legacy of the Olympics can be felt in the UK’s love for cycling today. I hope that we look back on the women’s Euros as a watershed moment for British sport. As for me, I’ll be buying a season ticket to Meadow Park, local to us in Borehamwood and home of Arsenal Women. Well done to the Lionesses – no other team could get me to hang up my Manchester United scarf!