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How transformational was the Women’s World Cup for Scotland?

By Andrew Jenkin, University of Strathclyde

This year’s Women’s football World Cup broke all number of records, reaffirming the appetite for the women’s game around the world.

In many respects, the tournament felt like a watershed moment, creating a host of new household names and raising awareness of the financial inequality between elite female and male players.

In Scotland, the record-breaking summer kicked off with the SWNT’s World Cup warm up game against Jamaica at Hampden Park. A crowd of 18,555 watched Scotland play out an entertaining 3-2 victory over Jamaica. To put this in perspective, the largest attendance for a home match prior to this was 4,098 for the World Cup qualifier against Switzerland.

When the World Cup got underway, Scotland’s opening fixture versus England was the UK's most watched women's game ever, drawing a peak of 6.1 million viewers on BBC television. This record was then trumped by the 11.7 million who watched England’s semi-final fixture against the USA.

The increase in viewer figures coincides with BBC Sport’s #changethegame season, showcasing female athletes and delivering live coverage of Women’s FA Cup Final (May 4), FIFA Women’s World Cup (June 7 - July 7), Netball World Cup (July 12-21), Wimbledon (July 1-14) and Women’s Ashes (July 2-31).

Whilst of course more live coverage of tournaments is an important and positive step, how much of this translates into day-to-day coverage of women’s sports within mainstream media sports news? Despite all the optimism about the future of the women’s game following the World Cup, one of the key questions that remains is whether women's football is able to capitalise on the increased interest and it bring back to the domestic game?

A clear lack of support for Scotland’s domestic game can be seen within mainstream media. On this blog back in May, I showed how much - actually how little - coverage women’s sport routinely receives in the Scottish press (sports pages of the Daily Record, Scotsman and Herald), television (BBC Scotland and STV News) and on social media (Twitter accounts for the Daily Record, Herald, Scotsman, BBC Scotland and STV).

Between February and April 2019, women’s sports were the subject of just 6.7% stories in these mainstream sports news outlets. On social media this was even worse, dropping to just 2.4%.

However, previous studies have shown that during mega-events (such as the World Cup and the Olympics), coverage of women’s sports increase as notions of nationalism override those of gender. Therefore, I repeated the study, analysing content from the same news providers from the 28th May (the date of Scotland’s win over Jamaica) to the 24th June (two days after Scotland’s exit from the World Cup) to assess changes in the amount of coverage devoted to women’s sport (and specifically football).


Chart with orange and blue bars showing breakdown of Scottish media sports news coverage

Looking at the proportion of coverage devoted to all men’s and women’s sport, I found coverage of women’s sport rose from 6.7% to 21.2% - a more than three-fold increase, although still only just over a fifth of all coverage.

Of all the media platforms monitored during the period, newspapers devoted the least coverage to women’s sports, and women’s football specifically. Television did best, with a third of the stories across the BBC and STV sports news focusing on women’s sport in this period. Even more encouraging, 47.5% of airtime was dedicated to women’s sports news during these broadcasts (compared to just 6.1% in my first study) – representing a huge change in focus.

Looking specifically at football, the chart below compares the shift in the amount of men’s and women’s football coverage between the two periods.

Blue bars showing difference between men's and women's football coverage

The data reveals that despite it being the domestic league off-season, men’s football still received 58.7% of all sports news coverage (just a 7% reduction from the Routine period).

The final chart compares coverage of the SWNT with that of the SMNT.

Bar chart with blue and orange bars comparing coverage of SNWT and SNMT

The results show the SWNT generated 3% more media coverage during the event period than the SMNT did (although the women played two games more and they were at a World Cup!).

86.3% of all stories about women’s football were about the SWNT. The picture for men’s football is startlingly different, with only 26.5% of all stories about men’s football focusing on the SMNT, demonstrating an enduring interest in men’s club football in Scotland which women’s clubs have yet to achieve.

The Future?

Upon the SWNT’s qualification for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Nicola Sturgeon suggested the tournament could be “potentially transformational” for women’s sports in Scotland. While it is unclear specifically what that change might represent, increased media coverage of women’s sport ought to be an aspiration: previous studies have repeatedly highlighted the relationship between media coverage and participation. Williams, for example, claims the lack of media attention afforded to women’s football contributes to the marginalisation of the sport and is limiting the spread of the game. Coakley suggests when women’s sport is marginalised, fewer women choose to participate in sport. Rintala and Birell state underrepresentation leads to young people not being awarded the necessary role models for future sport enjoyment, empowerment and the benefits derived from participation.

Therefore, for the WWC to truly have an impact upon women’s football (and indeed sport) in Scotland, it needs sustained media coverage. I will repeat the study one further time to better understand how much coverage women’s football receives day-to-day outside of a major tournament to better understand the potential impact of Scotland’s participation upon domestic reporting.

Watch this space.

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