Women's sport sold down the river only a month after Olympic high

What should be a blockbusting qualifying fixture for England's women footballers will be played at a time and place that guarantee it will be ignored.

The London Olympics catapulted women’s football into the spotlight. More than 70,000 fans watched the GB women’s team beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley, eclipsing a 92-year old attendance record for a women’s game in the UK.

This huge turnout suggested the British public had finally cottoned on to the fact that women can play football and that it's worth watching. It was impossible for the media to ignore, even with plenty of competition from other Olympic events. Many hailed the Games as a new dawn for women's football.

But now, just over a month since the end of the Olympics, that dream appears to be over.

Today, the England women’s football team plays its final qualifying game on the road to the 2013 European championships. If this was the men’s team, it would be a blockbusting fixture at prime time on the hallowed turf at Wembley.

But this is the women’s team we’re talking about. The match takes place at the 11,000-seater Banks stadium, home to League One Walsall. And guess what? Kick off’s at 5pm, when everyone is still at work. Even if you live in Walsall, chances are you won’t be able to make it.

The game will be shown live on BBC2, which is progress. But according to research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation women's sport receives less than five per cent of sports media coverage, despite the fact that other research they’ve done shows 61 per cent of fans want to see more women’s sport in the media.

When I complained during the Olympics about the lack of coverage of women’s sport outside of the Games, and said there was never anything in the press to tell me when England’s women’s matches were on, people dismissed my comments and said that with the internet there’s no excuse for not being able to find out. They also said if no one makes the effort to go to women’s games the media won’t cover them.

So I promised myself that when the Games were over I’d look up the first England women’s match and go to it with my daughter. When I found out where and when it was I had to laugh. If I hadn’t, I’d have cried.

Football matches at impossible times mean fewer people will be able to go. When no one turns up, the male-dominated sports desks of our national newspapers will say: “Look, no one’s interested, why should we write about that?”

Media coverage equals role models, and this is particularly important as when they leave school girls are only half as likely to play sport as boys.

A keen footballer as a child and teenager, I understand the sexism girls and women come up against. I played in my primary school 11-a-side team and the girls’ 5-a-side team. The girls’ team made something of a local name for itself thanks to an inspirational and forward thinking teacher (Mr Matthews, if you’re reading this, thank you) who made it his mission to turn us into footballers. We dominated the local primary school league for years, winning the Trevor Brooking Cup on many occasions. I still have a photo of me shaking hands with the former England player as he presented me, as team captain that year, with the shield.

But all that changed when I started secondary school. None of the local schools had girls’ football teams. For a couple of seasons I played for a team on a local estate but the encouragement and the role models just weren’t there. Add the influence of society’s expectations of what teenage girls should be and do, and eventually I gave it up.

The lack of encouragement I faced as a young teenager in the late 80s should be a thing of the past. It’s not just about the media. Sports bodies need to do much more to promote women’s sport and more investment is essential to convince girls that sport is as much for them as it is for their male peers.

But the media can take a lead and stand up for women’s sport and sports fans. It can push UEFA to take a more ambitious approach to timetabling women’s games so more people can go and watch. It’s not too late to harness the enthusiasm and excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics. I really hope the Walsall fixture is a hangover from a bygone age, something already set up that they couldn’t rearrange, but I’m not convinced. Unless we start to see women’s football at high-profile venues around the country and prime time kick offs soon, an opportunity will have been lost and another generation let down.

The Team GB women's football team. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images
Show Hide image

Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war