BROADENING HORIZONS FOR WOMEN IN SPORTS

Published in The Economic Times & The Times of India.


They’re powerful and outspoken. They’re outstepping outdated boundaries. They’re breaking physical and emotional stereotypes. They’re the new superheroes, winning big audience, big brand collaborations and sponsorships, and starting a big revolution in sports.


Women are stepping onto the podium now. The space has long been dominated by men – with male athletes, male-oriented brand associations, male trainers, male commentators and a gender-biased audience. But women-inclusive and women-exclusive sports are on the rise. Female athletes are gaining spotlight, turning into global influencers, and creating new economies with women-oriented sports brands.


Thanks to social media, there has been a dramatic shift in the entire visual representation, philosophy and emotion surrounding women and athletics, strength, aesthetics, sweat, passion, power and health. Women are creating new waves in the media with a total mind-body upgrade, and the world is responding more positively to this change, day by day. Sexist biases in professional sports are still rampant in countries like India, but we’ve at least woken up to a stronger female force in the world, and are taking baby steps towards better platforms and better lifestyles for women. We’ve started important dialogues about the representation of our women in international sports, objectification of women, backward regulations, poor training for female athletes, dress codes and other long-ignored topics. High-profile instances of sexism and bias in treatment and pay are coming to the limelight.


This isn’t just important for athletes but it brings to the fore – the quality and lifestyle of the average Indian woman. It’s time we asked ourselves questions such as why the quality of our nutrition, fitness and emotional strength has not been focused on the best of health, the best of stamina and the best of energy? Women still put themselves last, and that’s a loss of talent and presence in the world.


It is heartening to see the seasons changing. The public is influenced massively by what’s showcased in the media, and it’s great to see big media houses like BBC stepping up for women in sports. BBC Worldwide recently launched their ‘Change the Game’ initiative, which provides live coverage and unprecedented airtime for live sporting events featuring women, and they even have an unrivalled line-up of talented female commentators. This goes with big brand associations, highlighted documentaries, podcasts, rich digital content and other spin-offs. Stories of sportswomen who have battled the constraints of culture, gender, family, society and economy are being celebrated.


England’s ‘Telegraph’ has launched a new media platform for female athletes, with never-before-seen investments and coverage. They’re also supporting women in the country to pursue sports as a profession with finance and resources.


A similar trend has started in the USA, with WNBA emerging as the most viewed show with serious TRP spikes last year. CBS Sports has forged new deals to strike while the iron is hot.


Many of us will be thrilled to hear that in India, BCCI is rolling the dice for Women’s IPL in a couple of years time. And this will win our female cricketers their well-deserved screen-time and public recognition. But we’re still in dire need of better investors and bidders.


Brands, of course, are quick to jump on this bandwagon of opportunity and take up the mantle of ladies in sports. Adidas has launched an initiative to “break down barriers faced by women and girls in sport,” kicking off with a documentary narrated by Pharrell Williams. Visa recently signed a 7-year deal with the Union of European Football Associations and Gatorade with global sponsorship for female football.


Nike’s campaign advocating female athleticism is well known. And their ambassador, Serena Williams, stars in their ad, with her famous lines: “If we show emotion, we’re called dramatic. If we want to play against men, we’re nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity? Delusional. When we stand for something we’re unhinged. If we openly question an umpire’s decision, we’re hysterical. Irrational. When we’re too good there’s something wrong with us (referring to the trauma African Olympic Gold Medalist Caster Semenya was subjected to, with her naturally high testosterone being termed ‘HYPERANDROGENSIM’ - the same label now being forced upon our very own superstar Dutee Chand).”


What we really need to note, however, is how women have been outperforming men even in the extremes of endurance sports! Sarah Thomas took the swimming scenes by storm in 2017 and Lael Wilcox shocked the world in the Trans AM Bike Race across the US, both breaking records set by male counterparts through history! Such episodes are becoming more common across the world, and experts are debating if some sports need to dissolve the male and female ‘category’ on certain platforms.


In India, we need more big league associations for female sports. Media is powerful, and we need them to join hands with girl power. Schools and universities need to get more serious about female sports and provide world-class training and entryway into national and international arenas. Our society needs to accept the dissolution of old physical and emotional stereotypes of women. And we need tremendous government and corporate aid for our female athletes and wellness warriors.


Women athletes are taking center-stage, both commercially and culturally. They are becoming a new economic avenue for brands to reach the new generation audience. Female strength and physicality has a new look, a new feel, which is more empowering. Women’s health and well-being, women empowerment and aesthetics are all being revolutionized. Brands are championing female-friendly practices, and this is shifting public consumer trends in a big way.


This is one transition we need to welcome with open arms!

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