OOn Tuesday, the FA announced that ticket sales for the England women’s friendly against USA in October had started. Within an hour, the site had crashed due to the demand. Gabby Logan predicted it when she said goodbye to the Lionesses’ victory at the European Championships last Sunday. “Do you think it’s all over?” she told viewers. “It’s only just begun.”
In the week following England’s historic victory over Germany in the final, there was understandable excitement about the future of women’s football in the UK. Even the Queen, not known for her football pundits, has added her voice to the crowd. “You all set an example that will be an inspiration to girls and women today and for generations to come,” she said in her congratulatory message to Leah Williamson’s page.
Her words deliberately echoed the slogan for the 2012 Olympics – “inspire a generation,” a phrase that has become ingrained in our response to sporting success. We unthinkingly accept his implied message that success on the world stage will lead to a greater following and uptake of the sport. Both the government and the administration have structured their financing according to this principle.
And yet the 10th anniversary of the London Olympics has challenged that previous wisdom. Last month, the National Audit Office reported that the proportion of adults attending at least once a week has declined in the three years following the Games, despite initiatives to improve local facilities, train leaders and encourage people to try new sports is. Other statistics released by the government show that participation has fallen below pre-2012 levels, while childhood obesity has risen sharply.
From 2004, when Tony Blair first pitched London’s bid to host the event, several governments promised they would leave behind a fitter and healthier nation. Last year, a House of Lords report found that was not the case. “The Olympic heritage has not brought us the promised more active population,” wrote Lord Willis, chairman of the Committee for a National Plan for Sport and Recreation. Others have expressed concern that this month’s Commonwealth Games will have similarly little impact beyond the medal tally. “Legacy cannot be delivered by the sheen of the games alone,” said Andy Reed, Founder of the Sports Think Tank. “It requires a long-term commitment to system change, not fleeting ‘inspiration’.”
dr Manchester Metropolitan University’s Chris Mackintosh, a sport policy researcher who advised the Lords committee, says Reed’s claim is supported by the evidence. “One red herring is that there is an influential force on social media and television has a demonstration effect,” says Mackintosh; He points to a review of sporting mega-events by Professor Mike Weed of Canterbury Christ Church University, which “found no evidence that any of them deliver it”. Trickle-down advantages can be overestimated in sports as well as in business.
And while British sport has reached dizzying heights over the past two decades, it has repeatedly not failed to land. Take England’s victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, which drew 15 million spectators at breakfast, still a British record for a rugby union match. The “Jonny Effect” – named after Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal in overtime – attracted an additional 5,500 children to the sport the following year. But England’s victory was unexpected and the RFU, the national governing body, was overwhelmed by the sudden influx; Newcomers fell away as the facilities and coaching staff proved inadequate. At the height of Jonny fever in 2003, there was a peak of 255,000 people playing rugby regularly; a decade later the number had dropped to 190,000, and last year it was 133,600.
Two years later, England’s cricket board demonstrated their own (well-trained) ability to tear defeat from the jaws of victory. England’s long-awaited Ashes win in 2005 gave their Test side their first win against Australia in 18 years. A gripping five-match competition and nerve-wracking finishes ensured record-breaking viewership for the sport on Channel 4. With a few exceptions, however, England’s games were the last to be freely broadcast on terrestrial television. The ECB’s decision to sell broadcasting rights to Sky has been widely blamed for the dramatic decline in interest in the nation’s ‘summer sports’, with attendance plummeting by a third over the next decade.
The good news for women’s football is that the sports that buck the trend are overwhelmingly female. Since the British women’s ice hockey team won bronze in London in 2012 and gold in 2016, the number of juniors has doubled, from 35,000 to 73,000, with the majority of this increase coming from girls. Girls and women have increasingly engaged with cricket – as spectators and players – since the England team won a home world title at Lord’s in 2017.
Meanwhile, netball has experienced a bumper four years since Helen Housby scored her last-second goal against Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. England’s gold medal win – their first win in a major tournament, watched by nearly two million viewers on the BBC – attracted 135,000 new players. The sport was sold out arenas with its national and international matches. It attracted new sponsors and expanded its volunteer base. This year’s Commonwealth Games team couldn’t match the win of their predecessors against Australia but are aiming for bronze today.
Fran Connolly, managing director of England Netball, was the sport’s development director at the time. She says the secret of their success is that they’ve been planning for the moment for a decade. “Traditional sports didn’t work for women and girls,” she says, “so we asked them what they wanted.” For over 10 years, the sport’s governing body has developed programs tailored to all kinds of potential players, from bee netball, from elementary school girl helping to learn throwing and catching to walking netball for women of all ages and fitness levels.
The strategy – which included Back to Netball sessions for women who hadn’t played since school – was intended to prepare the sport for the interest they expected from Liverpool hosting the 2019 World Cup. In the end, it had already proven itself a year earlier. “We had a variety of opportunities for any girl or woman interested in the sport, and we deployed a workforce across the country…everywhere,” says Connolly. “Once the spotlight was on our sport, we were able to point them to a nearby offering that worked for them.”
It helped that England Netball was run by a gender-segregated board that recognized and understood the issues keeping women out of the sport. Stephanie Hilborne, who runs the Women in Sport charity, believes England netball offers a model for other sports looking to build on high-profile success. “There’s no point in getting girls to play if there aren’t local opportunities for them,” says Hilborne. “It’s a positive sentiment for the nation, but it won’t change the system. We need to address how society limits opportunities, and that is about inequality of access – whether it’s economic inequality, which affects both girls and boys, or gender inequality.”
Andy Murray has called it “insane” that the number of recreational athletes has declined during a period in which he has won two Wimbledon titles, two Olympic gold medals and a US Open, and his brother Jamie has openly criticized the LTA for that she didn’t use Andy’s successes. “How on earth are you going to build a sport,” he asked in 2019, “if you can’t when you’ve got one of the biggest stars in tennis in the last 10 years?”
The seductive nature of elite success can blind us to the greater work required to ensure the sustainability of a sport: Mackintosh describes it as “like repainting a car and not looking under the hood”. He says the sport needs to think about legacy more carefully and much earlier to ensure individual moments of glory aren’t wasted in years to come.
“Yes, winning things is exciting and makes us feel great,” says Hilborne. “But what it needs to do is encourage people to make us more urgent for change.” Ten years after the London Olympics, that’s a lesson to learn.