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
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.