Ireland's hockey team success underlines strides made in recent years to boost women's sports, but pay and sponsorship have not kept pace with increased enthusiasm
It was the first time an Irish field sport team had reached a World Cup final and if the capacity at London's Lee Valley stadium was limited to 10,000, there was an impressively large audience back home watching the exploits of the Irish women's hockey team.
Some 41% of the available television audience last Sunday afternoon tuned into RTÉ's coverage with more watching on BT Sport. As RTÉ's press office boasted, the peak viewership of 439,000 was the highest figure to watch a sporting event since Katie Taylor's heroics in the London Olympics of 2012 - once the marquee GAA, soccer and rugby matches are taken out of the equation.
For Niamh Briggs, one of the best known of Ireland's current generation of rugby internationals, the interest generated by the hockey team demonstrated how far women's sport has come in Ireland. "You used to hear people in the past saying that people wouldn't watch women playing sport in really big numbers, but the figures from Sunday show that's not the case at all. Success helps, of course, but there is huge interest in women's sport now, and it's growing all the time."
The Waterford native should know. When she started playing rugby in the mid-2000s, the idea of a women's code bemused many, including some of those obsessed with the oval ball game. But following Six Nations championships wins in 2013 and 2015 and Ireland's hosting of the Women's Rugby World Cup last year, the likes of Briggs and former teammate Fiona Steed are names that are familiar to sports lovers countrywide.
"It's normalised now and people don't give you the looks they used to when you said you played rugby. The more people see it and read about it, the more accepted it is.
"And I can see that now with the young girls that I'd meet. Some of the 18-year-olds coming through now have skills that I just didn't have at that age and I'm not sure, if I was that age now, I'd be able to get into the team."
Stephanie Roche also watched the exploits of the hockey team with great interest. "I know nothing about hockey, but it was great for women's sport and for Irish sport," she says. The Ireland international footballer, who is seeking a new club after the end of her contract with Sunderland Ladies, believes "enormous strides" have been taken in recent years when it comes to both participation in and acceptance of women's sport.
"The matches are on TV, the newspapers are writing about them and the attendances are going up. We had a record crowd against Holland a few months back. There are a lot of young girls coming - and boys, too. It's good that children of both genders can see that football is a sport for all."
The Dubliner enjoyed global acclaim in 2014 when a wonder goal she scored for then club Peamount United was nominated for the prestigious Puskas Award - a prize that honours the best goal scored in the world. She lost out to a goal scored by James Rodríguez in the World Cup but the recognition immediately put her on the radar of sponsors.
"When I was in primary school, the football heroes I looked up to were all men," she says. "I didn't really know anything about women's football until I was 15 or 16 and came to admire Olivia O'Toole and Emma Byrne, who played for Ireland then. But schoolgirls today can see Irish female footballers with a high profile and that might encourage them to keep up with sport for longer."
Getting girls to continue playing sport in their teenage years is key according to Marie Murphy, professor of exercise and health at Ulster University, Coleraine. She points to research that shows that seven and eight-year-old boys are almost twice as likely as girls to play sport and the drop-off rates for females intensifies in the early years of secondary school.
"There are many reasons for it," she says, "including cultural ones where boys are seen to be sporty and girls not, and perceived body issues too, but there's no doubt that the more exposure that women's sports get, the greater the acceptance, especially if those athletes or teams are successful."
Murphy says many of Ireland's most prominent female sports figures show young girls that "being feminine and into sport are not incompatible" and notes that when she was growing up in the 70s and 80s, such role models were few and far between. "It's all about getting away from this idea of not being the sporty type. Boys are far less likely to feel that."
She says much can be learnt from the UK's This Girl Can campaign that aims to increase female participation in sport. "They found out that a barrier to girls taking part is fear - fear of being judged by others and fear of not being good enough. And the campaign tackles that fear though ads and social media that shows women of all ages and shapes and sizes taking part in sport not traditionally associated with females. Changing perception is the key."
Emily Glen believes perceptions have shifted dramatically in less than a decade. An avid cyclist and ultra-runner, she is the co-founder of the sportswomen-focused Fairgame podcast. "There has been huge progress, even in the past five years or so," she says, "and we've even seen this week about the pressure that's been put on the Government to allocate greater funds. And it's not just teams, but athletes like Ciara Mageean and Natalya Coyle.
"And there's so much more media coverage on women's sports than before - and, in some cases, such as the hockey World Cup, it's front page news, too. And that's certainly being helped by the increased role of women in the media. And it's now normal to notice when women's sport isn't covered, or if panels [on TV and radio] don't feature women. Look at the women's strike in the football and the controversies in rugby last year - there was a lot of discussion on social media as a result."
She believes greater participation among girls and women in sport, not least in athletics and swimming, mirrors that of societal change in general where significant gender equality progress has been made.
It's a view echoed by Marie Murphy, who points out that the countries where there is the smallest gap in sports participation between men and women - Sweden, Finland and Denmark - are also the nations that have a lengthy and much-lauded track record when it comes to bridging the gender gap in pay, employment and opportunities.
And, yet, despite all the steps forward, elite women athletes lag far behind the men when it comes to pay and sponsorship opportunities. Niamh Briggs believes that the players that come after her will enjoy a reasonable income but says - "in all honesty" - that she can't see it matching what the men get. "The men's game has had more than a hundred years on us," she says, "but if you were to show some of the female players from a few generations ago what the women's game would be like in 2018, they would be very happy with how much it has come on, so who knows what the future has in store?"
John Trainor, founder of sponsorship agency, Onside, says brand spend on women's sport has traditionally been small, but says the landscape is changing rapidly.
"In the first six months of this year, 20pc of the overall spend was on women's sport," he says. "And that's far higher than it was for the corresponding six months last year."
Trainor says there have been several innovative sponsorships in recent years that have elevated not just the brands in question but the sports they have partnered with. "Liberty Insurance sponsoring camogie was a real game-changer," he says. "It happened at the same time as they sponsored hurling and the message was one of equality, these games are equally important to us. And it's helped raise camogie's profile."
Today, highlights of camogie matches are an essential part of RTÉ's long-running The Sunday Game. "And," Trainor adds, "Lidl's sponsorship of ladies' Gaelic football has been huge, too - an example of not just throwing money at something but working hard to get the fit right."
Ladies' Gaelic football has often been cited as the fastest growing team sport in Ireland, and the 46,000-plus attendance at the Dublin-Mayo final last year was not just a record for the code, but the largest crowd for any female-exclusive sports event in Europe in 2017. But even those who are passionate about raising the profile of women's sport, such as Elaine Buckley from RTÉ's sport department, are not getting carried away.
"That was a great attendance," she says, "but it's not reflected in the earlier rounds. There were just a couple of hundred people at the semi-finals. And what sort of crowd will be out for the remainder of the championship?"
She was overjoyed by Ireland's silver medal in the Hockey World Cup - having attended early fixtures before working professionally on the later games during RTÉ's coverage - but notes that "no more than 80 people" were in UCD for their pre-tournament warm-up matches. "It was wonderful to see so many people on Dame Street [during the official homecoming reception on Monday] and to know that so many watched the final on TV, but will that support be carried over the next time Ireland plays. How many people will go to the next international match?"
Buckley believes says a cultural shift when it comes to boosting participation and attendances is needed. "What about the women who take part in sport now? If they went out and supported elite athletes in their own sports that would be a great start. The mindset has to change and it can change."
First Published by John Meagher in the Irish Independent on Monday 13th August 2018.