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From Lionesses to Missed Chances: Why Elite Success Doesn’t Always Change the Grassroots | Sport

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OThe FA announced on Tuesday that tickets are now on sale for England’s friendly against the USA in October. Within an hour, his website was down due to demand. Gabby Logan predicted this when she checked out of the The victory of the lionesses at the European Championship last Sunday. “Think it’s over?” – she told the audience. “It’s just begun.”

In the week since England’s historic victory over Germany in the final, there has been understandable excitement about the future of women’s football in the UK. Even the Queen, not known to her football pundits, added her voice to the crowd. “You have all set an example that will be an inspiration to girls and women today and to generations to come,” she said in her congratulation to Leah Williamson’s side.

Her words consciously echoed the slogan of the 2012 Olympic Games – “inspire a generation”, a phrase that has become part of our response to sporting success. We mindlessly accept his implicit message that achievement on the world stage will lead to greater fan following and passion for the sport. Both the government and administrators have built their funding around this rule.

And yet the 10th anniversary of the London Olympics challenged that wisdom. Last month This is reported by the National Control Service that despite initiatives to improve local facilities, train leaders and encourage people to take up new sports, the proportion of adults participating at least once a week has fallen in the three years since the Games. Other statistics released by the government show that participation has fallen to pre-2012 levels childhood obesity has increased.

Since Tony Blair first launched London’s bid to host the event in 2004, governments have promised it would leave behind a fitter and healthier nation. A House of Lords report last year found that this had not happened. “The Olympic legacy has not delivered the more active population we were promised,” wrote Lord Willis, chairman of the National Sport and Recreation Plan committee. Others expressed concern that this month Commonwealth Games will have as little impact apart from the medal table. “Legacy cannot be delivered by the brilliance of the Games alone,” said Andy Reid, founder of the Sports Think Tank. “It requires a long-term commitment to system change, not a fleeting ‘inspiration’.”

Andy Murray has criticized the Lawn Tennis Association for failing to capitalize on his 2013 Wimbledon win and other achievements. Photo: Adam Davey/PA

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dr Chris McIntosh, a sports policy researcher who advised the Lords committee, says Reid’s claim is supported by the evidence. “It’s one thing that social media has influence, and that television has a demonstration effect,” McIntosh says; 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 were doing it”. The benefits of tracking can be as overstated in sports as they are in economics.

And while British sport has reached staggering heights over the past two decades, it has repeatedly failed to land. Take it England winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup, which attracted 15 million viewers at breakfast, which is still a UK record for a rugby match. The ‘Johnny Effect’ – named after Jonny Wilkinson’s winning extra-time drop goal – attracted an extra 5,500 kids 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; beginners dropped out because the equipment and coaching staff proved to be insufficient. At the height of Johnny’s fever in 2003, there was a peak of 255,000 regular rugby players; ten years later, that number fell to 190,000, and last year it was 133,600.

Two years later, the England cricket board demonstrated its own (well practiced) ability to pry defeat from the jaws of victory. England is long-awaited Ashes victory in 2005 gave their Test team their first success against Australia in 18 years. The thrilling five-match contest, complete with nervy finishes, attracted record viewing figures for the sport on Channel 4. But, with a few exceptions, it was the last time England games were shown on free-to-air television. The ECB’s decision to sell the broadcasting rights to Sky is often blamed for a sharp drop in interest in the country’s “summer sports”, with participation levels plummeting by a third over the next decade.

An England player who wants to play in the 2018 Commonwealth Games
When England won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, their leadership was well prepared for the surge in interest in the sport. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The good news for women’s soccer is that the sport bucking the trend has been overwhelmingly female. Since Great Britain’s women’s hockey team won bronze in London in 2012 and gold in 2016, participation in the sport has doubled from 35,000 to 73,000, with girls accounting for most of that increase. Girls and women became increasingly involved in cricket – as spectators and players – after the England team won the home world championship in the Lord in 2017.

Netball, meanwhile, has been enjoying a bumper four years since Helen Housby scored her last-second goal against Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. England winning a gold medal – their first major tournament win, watched by almost two million on the BBC – attracted 135,000 new players. The arenas of this sport were sold out at both domestic and international games. This attracted new sponsors and expanded the volunteer base. This year’s Commonwealth Games team failed to match their predecessors’ victory over Australia, but are targeting bronze today.

Fran Connolly, Chief Executive of England Netball, was then the director of sports development. She says the secret to their success is that they have been planning for this moment for ten years. “Traditional sports weren’t suitable for women and girls,” she says, “so we asked them what they wanted.” Over 10 years, the sport’s governing body has developed programs tailored to a wide variety of potential players, from Bee Netball, which helps primary school girls learn to throw and catch, to Walking Netball for women of all ages and fitness levels.

The strategy, which included ‘Back to Netball’ sessions for women who had not played since school, was designed to prepare the sport for the interest they expected from the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. After all, she had proven her worth a year earlier. “We’ve had a wealth of opportunities for any girl or woman interested in sports, and we’ve equipped a workforce across the country … in every community,” says Connolly. “So at a time when our sport was in the spotlight, we were able to show them an offering nearby that worked for them.”

It helped that England Netball was governed by a gender-diverse board that recognized and understood the challenges that prevent women from playing the sport. Stephanie Hilborn, who runs the campaigning charity Women in Sport, believes England Netball has offered a model for other sports looking to build on high-profile successes. “There’s no point in making girls desperate to play when there’s no opportunity on the ground for them,” says Hilborn. “It is a positive feeling for the nation, but it will not change the system. We need to address the ways in which society limits opportunity, and that’s linked to inequality of access – whether it’s economic inequality that affects both girls and boys, or gender inequality.”

Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.  The RFS was unprepared for the next surge in participation.
Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. The RFS was unprepared for the next surge in participation. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Andy Murray has described it as “madness” that recreational tennis has fallen during a period when he won two Wimbledon titles, two Olympic gold medals and the US Open, while his brother Jamie has openly criticized the LTA for did not take advantage of Andy’s achievements. “How are you going to grow the sport,” he asked in 2019, “if you can’t do it when you have one of the biggest tennis stars of the last 10 years?”

The seductive nature of elite success can blind us to the greater work needed to ensure the sport’s sustainability: McIntosh describes it as “like repainting your car without looking under the hood”. He says the sport needs to think more carefully and much earlier about legacy, so that individual moments of glory are not wasted in later years.

“Yes, winning is exciting and it makes us feel great,” Hilborn says. “But what needs to be done is to push people to make us more urgent for change.” Ten years after the London Olympics, it is time to learn this lesson.

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