Op-Ed: Female athletes should be central to driving diversity in sport

12 Apr 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

After launching the 2021 edition of its Unlocked programme, Women's Sport Trust Co-Founder and CEO, Tammy Parlour (pictured below), looks at how the experiences of elite sportswomen can be key in driving future growth in women's sport.

It’s been a challenging year for many, and women’s sport has been hit hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s back to square one. Now more than ever it’s important to focus and understand how we can really unlock the value and potential of women’s sport.

One recent encouraging sign has been the increased power of female athletes. There’s no simple fix to diversity in sport, it’s systemic. So, it’s helpful to have those at its heart, the athletes, engaged and involved.

Sportswomen are not only outstanding role models – they can create significant change. 

They show a unique resilience that comes from having to overcome so many barriers just to play the sport they love. Articulate, intelligent and with an emotional understanding of what women’s sport truly means, we have seen many times how they can engage people and change opinion.

Their stories about what they have overcome, how important sport is to them and inspiring the next generation are emotive and relatable beyond sport. And for an industry that needs to significantly improve female representation, they are an exciting talent pool.

Last week we launched Unlocked 2021 – our unique cross-sport programme to supercharge female athletes. Unlocked arose as a response to the growing market for women’s sport and a recognition that the platforms female athletes would be given would increase. A Women’s Sport Trust survey in 2018, with 154 elite women, revealed they felt unprepared to take advantage of emerging commercial and media opportunities and that there were too many closed doors in the industry. Unlocked was a response to this.

In this year’s cohort we have 35 athletes from 27 different sports. They are at different stages of their careers, come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying interests. Some, have a clear understanding on how they want to influence the sporting landscape, be it campaigning around an issue or taking up a leadership position.Others aren’t yet clear, so we provide the space to think and to understand how to use their platform. 

Unlocked has been a labour of love in many ways – it has many practical elements, providing the athletes with workshops around key areas such as managing their social media profile, attracting sponsorship and understanding the sporting landscape. But it is the connections that we have created and the community aspect that has really blown us away. It is so simple, but by allowing this group of women to have the chance to share their experiences, talk through the issues they are facing and feel out their opinions it gives them the energy and focus to go back to their own sport and see what needs their attention.

But what does this mean for the industry as a whole?

It’s really about engagement with sportswomen. For sporting organisations, it is about identifying areas where they could be brought into the conversation to hear their opinion. As athletes begin to think about transitioning, we need to look beyond coaching as a pathway for them in sport. We should be showcasing to them the different roles they could take. From a sponsorship perspective, working with female athletes needs to go beyond a badging exercise, tap into their authenticity and desire for change to see how together you could make the industry stronger. In media, we need to hear from a broader range of perspectives giving sportswomen their place in the commentary box or on the hallowed back pages.

Women’s sport won’t reach its potential if it is invisible. By helping athletes to speak up and be front and centre of conversations we are shaping opinion. And given the right support, todays sportswomen can become the leaders of the future and change the face of the industry for good.