Nancy Gillen

When sport ground to a halt last month, it soon became clear that it would not return the same.

With large crowds and international travel likely to be curbed for the foreseeable future, sporting events will not be held in their usual format any time soon. Ideas such as drive-in matches and a “Fight Island” have been suggested to get around restrictive measures, while other competitions have been cancelled or made void.

Aside from the difficulties of putting on an event, clubs and governing bodies are also grappling with the financial impact of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the suspension of sport has resulted in a significant loss of revenue for many organisations.

Sporting heavyweights such as the International Cycling Union (UCI), World Athletics, the International Tennis Federation and World Sailing have spoken of their financial woes since the pandemic begun. Indeed, it is expected that many International Federations will be struggling.

The impact of the pandemic on sport is already being widely discussed. But what of women’s sport, something which is already widely under-funded and under-represented? It is likely to be hit even harder by the current situation.

This was confirmed by The Women's Sport Alliance (WSA). The organisation was set up pre-pandemic to support elite sportswomen, and is now helping athletes get through the current crisis.

"In this current time, sports women across the world are facing challenging times," said WSA spokeswoman Jordan Guard. 

"The WSA is an exclusive membership club specifically designed to protect, support and enhance elite individuals in women’s sports.

"As well as acknowledging the issues, we are ensuring that female athletes in all sports are getting the support that they need to get through this difficult time.

"Female athletes are taking the biggest hit in the sports industry and we are seeing trends in the issues being faced by individual female athletes across the world."

One such issue is the financial impact of the pandemic on sportswomen, worsened by a lack of global industry standards in the majority of sports. Even female footballers, who play one of the most popular and profitable sports in the world, are now at risk of losing their livelihood.

Indeed, FIFPro, the worldwide representative organisation for around 65,000 professional footballers, recently warned that the current economic standstill threatens the growth of professional women’s football into a strong and viable industry.

Their paper, entitled "Covid-19: Implications for Professional Women’s Football", claims that "the fragility of the women’s football ecosystem is exposed by the current situation." 

FIFPro have warned of an
FIFPro have warned of an "existential threat" to women's football because of the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images

This is something that will be amplified across women's sport, with Guard explaining exactly why the pandemic is more likely to have a disproportionate financial impact on female athletes. 

"In women’s sports there is a lack of written contracts, of which few are long-term or professional. For the sportswomen who are now out of contract with clubs or sponsors this summer, there is added uncertainty," she said.

"The pre-pandemic position of women’s sports proved difficult to secure sponsors for female athletes and it is feared by athletes that post-pandemic, it will be even more difficult. Without sufficient sponsors, some athletes will be left financially unable to compete. 

"This is no different to the sports clubs or organisations. 

"There were many financial struggles for women’s sports clubs and organisations pre-pandemic and female athletes now fear the worst, knowing that sponsors could pull the plug or not reinvest in women’s sport, post-pandemic. 

"Female athletes could be left club-less, job-less and not knowing who they are without sport."

In a set of recommendations following their paper, FIFPro asked for special financial measures for female players and a continued commitment to pre-pandemic investments.

To some extent this has happened. FIFA has pledged not to cut its promised $1billion (£808million/€923million) investment in women’s football between 2019 and 2022, while clubs such as Arsenal have not asked their women’s team to follow the men’s squad in taking a pay cut.

Away from football, the Black Ferns were not included in some of the cost cutting measures introduced to players by New Zealand Rugby.

This has not been the case for all sides, however, with Spanish teams Barcelona and Atlético Madrid enacting 70 per cent pay cuts on both the men and women’s squads. Over at Colombian club Independiente Santa Fe, female players reacted in outrage after having their professional contracts suspended, while their male counterparts received partial payment.

The Black Ferns were exempt from some of the cost cutting measures introduced by New Zealand Rugby during the pandemic ©Getty Images
The Black Ferns were exempt from some of the cost cutting measures introduced by New Zealand Rugby during the pandemic ©Getty Images

Along with the financial worries of the pandemic, there are also concerns about the rescheduling of the sporting calendar.

The Cyclists' Alliance (TCA) is an organisation that represents professional cyclists on the UCI Women’s World Tour. They recently criticised UCI for prioritising the men’s race calendar after the governing body announced new dates for the Tour de France.

"We, as representatives of the women’s peloton, elected by our peers to represent them at TCA, are also concerned about the impact upon women’s professional cycling," they said in an open letter.

"We are even more concerned that we do not have adequate representation from the women’s side in the ongoing discussions concerning this pandemic and the challenges it brings.

"We note the recent statement issued by the UCI (on April 15) did not include the details of the approach for the women's race calendar, nor did it detail who was being consulted in order to make these decisions.

"As a result, we are writing to you today, to request you engage with us as riders, through the TCA - so that together we can formulate strategies to sustain and improve women's cycling."

Such pressure was successful in the end, with UCI announcing that it would now evaluate the effects of the pandemic on women’s cycling, although not in collaboration with TCA. Other representatives of female riders will be involved instead.

Nonetheless, women’s events are being treated as an afterthought as the global sporting calendar is jigged around. Similar frustrations arose during the delay to reschedule the 2021 UEFA Women’s European Championships.

There has been concern about the lack of clarity regarding the UCI women's race calendar ©Getty Images
There has been concern about the lack of clarity regarding the UCI women's race calendar ©Getty Images

With the men’s tournament moved from 2020 to 2021, it seemed likely the women’s event would also be pushed back a year. This became trickier, however, as other competitions were rescheduled for the summer of 2022.

Eventually the Women’s Euros were moved to July 6 to 31 2022, resulting in a four-day overlap with the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. With both events in England, organisers have promised to make the weekend in question a celebration of women’s sport. This could backfire, however, and reduce the attention given to the Euros.

The current suspension of sport also threatens to quash the momentum gained by the success of recent women’s events.

Only a few weeks before the world started to shut down, Australia played host to the International Cricket Council (ICC) Women's T20 World Cup.

The final was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground packed with 86,174 spectators, with Australia obliterating India to take the title in front of a boisterous home crowd. It was symbolic of a rapid rise in interest in women’s sport across the world.  

This could fall away now, however, without regular events to keep the momentum going. Even after the pandemic, women’s sport may struggle to make ground again if female athletes continue to be disproportionately impacted by the current situation.

It is not all doom and gloom though. In tennis, the pandemic has produced an unprecedented collaboration between the Association of Tennis Professionals and Women’s Tennis Association. The ATP was formed in 1972 followed by the WTA one year later, inspired by the pioneering work of American star Billie Jean King and eight other players.

The Women's T20 World Cup final was held in front of 86,174 spectators at Melbourne Cricket Ground ©Getty Images
The Women's T20 World Cup final was held in front of 86,174 spectators at Melbourne Cricket Ground ©Getty Images

With both organisations working together well during the crisis, 20-times Grand Slam winner Roger Federer suggested on Twitter that the two should merge.

King voiced her agreement with the Swiss player.

"I agree, and have been saying so since the early 1970s," she said.

“One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B.

"I’m glad we are on the same page. Let’s make it happen."

There would be many obstacles to overcome before such a merger could happen, but such a pooling of resources could be overwhelmingly positive for women’s tennis, especially in the campaign for equal prize money.

In some situations, then, the pandemic has created opportunities for women’s sport which were not previously available. The bad currently outweighs the good, however, with female sport stars currently at risk of being overlooked during the crisis.

Over recent years, a lot of work and investment has been put into the promotion of women's sport, with a tangible outcome. There is now a real threat that this could all be undone. 

The WSA are among a number of organisations, including FIFPro and TCA, who are working to ensure this does not happen. 

"Even though this pandemic has halted the momentum of women’s sports, it seems to have given us a great opportunity to reflect and highlight areas of improvement," Guard said. 

"The women’s sports industry needs to use this time to create stronger foundations and invest in its sustainability. At The WSA, we are doing everything we can to ensure that the women’s sports industry is in a better place than it was pre-pandemic."