#BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired – The Next Chapter For The 52

 

What a summer it’s been for women’s sport.

There were World Cups and Ashes series. Joy and despair. Elation and ovations. Heartbreak and heartache.

Medals were won, goals scored, wickets taken.

The skill levels never wavered from world class, with barely believable sporting brilliance happening at regular intervals.

Not that this was different to any normal summer.

No, the big change wasn’t on the field – it was off it. For once, all of the action took place in full view of the public eye.

The action wasn’t unprecedented but the level of media coverage certainly was.

A recent study by the Women’s Sport Trust revealed between 7 June-14 July, around 46% of the top ten stories and 54.5% of the ‘most watched video clips’ on the BBC Sport website featured women’s sport.

Furthermore roughly a third of the leading sport stories on the Telegraph’s (30.2%) and Guardian’s (28.3%) online sport pages during the Women’s Football World Cup and Wimbledon were about women’s sport.

And then there was the TV and radio coverage. BBC showed every single Women’s Football World Cup match, a decent proportion of which on its main channels, while Sky Sports also showed every game from the Netball World Cup and the Ashes.

The Beeb also aired many of the netball games, while talkSPORT played radio host to the football World Cup.

The Telegraph and GiveMeSport also launched dedicated women’s sport sections, while the BBC ran their #ChangeTheGame campaign.

Never before had we been exposed to this level of coverage dedicated solely to our female athletes. Perhaps for the first time, we as fans could fully immerse ourselves in women’s sport over a concert period of time.

We cheered. We cried. We punched the air. We screamed at the TV. We emulated celebrations. We debated.

And all because we were given the chance to.

Despite what the minority may argue, women’s sport wasn’t shoved down our throats. It wasn’t portrayed so heavily in the media just to tick a box. It didn’t dominate the back pages just to pacify the PC brigade.

It was shown simply because the demand is there.

We proved this last year with more than 6,000 hits to our site despite being a tiny independent blog with no financial backing whatsoever.

If we can achieve that, just think of the reach women’s sport could get if ALL the major outlets took it seriously.

That is where we face our biggest challenge yet.

Gender equality in media sports coverage can’t be just as a fad; it needs to become the norm.

The results from this summer are hugely promising but they can’t be a one off. We can’t go back to a time where less than 3% of sports photos in national newspapers are of women, with days where absolutely no women were depicted whatsoever, as found by Totally Runable as recently as 2018.

As a result, as part of our rebrand, The 52 is dedicating itself to ensuring exactly that happens.

By recruiting an expanded writing team to cover as many areas of women’s sport as possible to give the deepest insight, we are aiming to give women’s sport the platform it deserves.

The platform to #BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired.

#BeSeen
Women’s sport cannot flourish any further if it’s not given a chance to. This summer has proved the demand for it is there amongst the British public and now we need to make sure the level of coverage only continues to grow.

We need to treat women the same way in which we treat the men though. That’s not only profiling the incredible stories and recognising stunning achievements but also tackling the more important issues too. If a point needs making, we will make it. If a controversial topic needs addressing, we will address it. If a question needs asking, we will ask it.

#BeHeard
The more we see women’s sport, the more likely we are to talk about it. How cool would it be to overhear children discussing whether they’d rather be like KJT or Dina Asher-Smith? People at the pub debating whether Leanne Riley or Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt should start at scrum half for England in their next Six Nations game? Groups of friends gathered round a phone trying to work out whether they can attend the next round of Barclays FAWSL fixtures?

While it’s crucial to make gender equality in sports media the norm, this will only allow us to reach a certain number of people. We need to get people talking about women’s sport with their friends, uncles, neighbours and strangers in the street if we are going to make sure it reaches everyone in the country.

#BeInspired
For too long aspiring female athletes grew up with only male role models to copy. Many of those who have made it to the elite level have often said they were barely aware of their female counterparts.

But we are now in a position to change that, to inspire girls to want to take up a sport and try to emulate their female heroes, if we make sure women’s sport continues to be seen and heard.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with a young female cricketer wanting to be the next Ben Stokes. But at the same time she should have the option to aspire to emulate Katherine Brunt or Georgia Elwiss too.

If we want to inspire the next generation, we need to increase how much we see and hear about women’s sport. And the more the next generation are inspired, the more we will see and hear about women’s sport.

That’s what we want. True media equality, giving women as much coverage as men, good or bad.

The chance to #BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired.

WRITING OPPORTUNITY: Join The 52

Women’s sport is in the best position it’s ever been.

More people are watching, playing, reading, writing and talking about it than any other time in recent memory.

Three major outlets – BBC, The Telegraph and GiveMeSport – now all have dedicated campaigns to supply the content demanded by so many and the level of coverage across most media outlets seems to be on the up as well.

At The 52, we like to think we have played a small part too – we received nearly 6,300 hits on our website during our year-long project to champion and promote inspiring individuals, teams, groups and schemes in women’s sport.

There is still a lot to be done though.

Outside of major competitions, there is still a large disparity in terms of the coverage afforded to women’s sport.

Quite rightly, the demise of Bury and Bolton has been dominating the headlines in the last few weeks. The outrage has been clear and there have been seemingly endless debates on what can be done to stop this happening again.

But where was the coverage when a similar fate happened to Notts County’s women’s team back in 2017, when England internationals found themselves out of a job overnight? Or just last season when Yeovil’s women were forced to revert back to part-time status while still in the top-tier Women’s Super League?

How many of you read anything about the inaugural W Series as it happened this year? Golf’s Solheim Cup – the women’s version of the Ryder Cup – begins in Scotland in just two weeks; how much have you heard about that? What about the fantastic success of GB’s female para-canoeists at the recent World Championships?

There is still a lot of work to be done and The 52 wants to be at the heart of that, giving women’s sport the platform it deserves.

However, if we are going to make a significant difference then we need YOUR help!

As part of our exciting re-brand over the next few weeks, we want to put together a team of writers with a range of knowledge and expertise to give the best possible insight into women’s sport; to elicit debate and discuss the most important topics; to bring you the stories that may have gone untold by the major outlets and continue to promote the incredible people within it.

You can write as much or as little as you like; it can be once a week, once every two months or even just a one-off article.

You can write on pretty much any sport you want, from the mainstream events such as football, rugby and cricket to boccia, archery and cross-country skiing. The choice is yours!

So far we have already been fortunate enough to recruit an Olympic champion hockey player, a world champion trampolinist and two exciting young journalists and really hope to add even more talent to that roster.

So if you’re an athlete, coach, aspiring (or current) journalist or someone who is heavily involved in women’s sport, we want to hear from you!

All you need to do is send us an email to editor@the52blog.co.uk or a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (you can find us @the_52blog).

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Australia’s women were a class above England in 2019 Ashes, but why?

Well that wasn’t the summer of cricket we were expecting.

To many it was no surprise to see Australia’s women retain the Ashes for a third consecutive series.

But the emphatic way in which they did so was a shock. And a worrying one at that.

The stats don’t lie. England were beaten. Heavily.

With the series finishing 12-4, this was the joint largest margin of victory since the introduction of the multi-format scoring system in 2013, when England beat Australia by the same scoreline.

Since then the biggest margin of victory had been four points when Australia won in 2015, while the 2017/18 series was drawn.

The difference between this time round was huge though. Across the series, the four top run scorers were all Australian while four of the top five wicket takers also donned the Baggy Green – Sophie Ecclestone was the exception, claiming an impressive 13 wickets and shining throughout. The mercurial Ellyse Perry topped both charts.

So why were the Australians so much better than an England side who famously won the World Cup just two years before?

To me, it seems as though there were two reasons: the brand of cricket they played and the investment that has been made into the domestic game Down Under.

Often throughout this series it felt like we were watching England’s male World Cup-winning team of 2019 taking on their counterparts that flopped so infamously four years before.

Australia adopted an innovative, aggressive, domineering form of cricket clearly created in a T20 style and adapted to each match situation, while England tended to revert to a more cautious, old-fashioned manner that often wasn’t suited to the occasion.

That’s not to say England were incapable of showcasing a more progressive style – Lauren Winfield and Katherine Brunt showed fantastic skill and inventiveness with the bat to help their side out of a hole and set them on course for victory in the final T20I.

It’s just that they didn’t do it enough.

It was as though many of the players were void of the confidence they had shown back in 2017 and didn’t trust themselves, while in stark contrast the Australians were brimming with it and fully committed to the brand of cricket they were playing.

This can be closely linked to the second factor that I believe is behind their success and this is the investment that has been made into their domestic cricket, particularly the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL).

Since the WBBL replaced the Women’s T20 Cup for the 2015/16 season, it’s been very noticeable just how quickly the skillsets of the Australian players have improved.

And with plans to expand the women’s domestic game further announced a few days ago (alongside equal prize money at the 2021 T20 World Cup), the fear for the rest of the world is they will only get even better.

It’s clear to see just how hard the players have worked on developing their game – they’re hitting the ball harder and further, there are so many more variations on show with bat and ball and they’re not afraid to trying something funky tactically to swing the game in their favour.

While the WBBL is still aligned with the men’s tournament, in many ways it also feels like a tournament within its own right in the way it is treated on social media and by broadcasters, as we discussed earlier this year.

These women aren’t playing in the shadows of the men; they are recognised as exceptional cricketers in their own right.

Furthermore it also runs in conjunction with the 50-over National Women’s Cricket League and as a result there are now more than 100 professional female cricketers in Australia, with that number rising.

This also means that a whole host of exciting new stars are coming through into the international set up and cementing their places in at least one format of the game with some exceptional performances. This includes Ash Gardner, Beth Mooney, Sophie Molineux and Georgia Wareham to name but a few.

 

By contrast, due to the central contracting system, there are only 21 fully professional cricketers in England despite there being many more players in the county set up than Australia’s state-based system.

And while the exciting talents of Freya Davies, Katie George and Bryony Smith have recently made their debuts for England, onlyKia Ecclestone has really forced her way in recent time into that core group that has represented the country for so long.

In some cases that can be due to bad luck – George suffered a nasty back injury last November just as she was becoming a regular – but it often seems as though these youngsters aren’t trusted on the biggest stages.

That could well come down to the aforementioned difference in the level of the domestic game, with England’s current county cricket system almost entirely amateur and the Kia Super League (KSL) not taking off anywhere near as well as hoped or expected.

It’s not like Australia possess more naturally talented cricketers (with maybe one or two exceptions) – they just have better opportunities and facilities to develop their games.

As a result, while Australia have improved rapidly, England’s seem to have stagnated.

However there are some exciting and much needed changes being planned for the next few years that could well accelerate the growth of professionalism and skill in English domestic women’s cricket to rival Australia’s.

With the much talked about addition of The Hundred next season, the ECB have adopted Cricket Australia’s plan and will run a women’s competition alongside the men’s, closely affiliating the teams with their male counterparts and ensuring a good amount of coverage.

Furthermore they have also promised a £20m investment in women’s cricket that will see the creation of eight new Regional Centres of Excellence. These will then be paired with the teams in The Hundred and compete in a new 50-over competition to replace the current existing one, with two ‘marquee’ England players selected for each team.

They have also backtracked on a plan to completely scrap women’s county cricket and have promised to fund the County T20 Cup until the end of 2021.

All of this means that there will be more opportunities for talent to grow and develop at an elite level while also hopefully focusing on implementing a new style of cricket into the players from an early age that they can then carry through their careers.

This is a change that is also needed with the international stars too. Once the dust has settled from this series, they need to embrace change as the men did after the 2015 World Cup and re-invent themselves.

They are all incredibly talented players, they just need to be able to show it consistently on the international stage. And, as has been proven time and time again over the last few years, they’re not going to do it the way they are at the moment.

Will this lead to much of a change in the outcome for the 2021/22 Ashes series? It’s far too early to tell.

But one thing that is clear is that if they’re not careful, England could fall a long way behind their most bitter of rivals. Snd we certainly can’t be having that.

Netball World Cup Special: Liz Watson

Success comes naturally to Liz Watson.

She may only be 25 but already the Australian netball star has experienced plenty of it in her sporting career.

Her cabinet currently boasts three Netball Quad Series golds and a Commonwealth Games silver with the Samsung Diamonds as well as an ANZ Championship title secured with the Melbourne Vixens back in 2014.

Individually she’s also won a stack of awards too, including the prestigious Liz Ellis Diamond and Australian International Player of the Year accolades in 2018 as well as two Sharelle McMahon Medals for being the Vixens’ best and fairest player.

Watson will be hoping to add the 2019 Netball World Cup to that collection on 21 July and says that where she grew up has played a major part in developing such a competitive attitude.

“I’ve been so lucky to have grown up in Victoria, it’s such a good netball state,” the Diamonds’ vice-captain explained.

“Right from your junior days you get instilled into you that success and winning is part of the Victorian culture so you get this competitive nature right from the very start.”

It’s not just her external environment that has made Watson so good but the people who surround her too.

Her uncle is Steve Alessio, who appeared in 182 AFL games for Essendon, while one of her older brothers Matthew also played for Carlton between 2011-2015.

And while they may have helped instil that edge needed to make the cut as a professional athlete, Watson puts much of her success down to the love, care and support she’s received from her entire unit of family and friends, especially her parents.

“They travelled over the Liverpool when I debuted for my country a few years ago, they come to every Vixens game, they try and get to away ones as well,” Watson said of her mum and dad.

“They’re always there supporting and even if they can’t be there’s a text, a phone call – there’s always that love and support there.

“That goes to my family and friends, my partner – everyone is just really proud and really happy of what I’m able to achieve and that makes me proud to see how much it connects them and how much they really love it. It makes you want to do really well.”

 

While they could all lay claim to being her biggest fan, Watson admits that accolade can only go to one person.

“My mum’s mum, my Nonna – she absolutely loves netball” Watson said.

“She comes to every Vixens home game that we have and she always says that if I can wear bright coloured shoes it makes it easier for her to spot who I am out on court because apparently we’re all blonde and tall and all look the same.

“She’ll be watching back home on TV and she’ll just be looking for bright shoes.

“I’ll have to probably get some brighter ones, I’m not sure my current blue ones are going to stand out!”

Not only are her family proud of what she’s achieved already on the court, they should also be proud of the person she is off it too.

Watson is a polite, friendly and firmly grounded individual who knows that she is in a position where she can inspire the next generation to take up sport, whether that be netball or another.

“I love going out to see the kids, share the knowledge and all my experience with them and hopefully they’ll either take up netball or continue playing netball or just sport in general,” she explained.

“We’re slowly losing sport with our young kids and I have that opportunity to use what I’ve done, the places I’ve gone and share my stories with them and hopefully inspire them to take up sport.

“It’s so important to give back and share what we’ve learned and encourage them to have their own opportunities and create their own stories.

“To see the excitement and joy on kids faces when they have one little interaction with you is great. You could be having the worst day or the worst game or be quite tired but to them that doesn’t matter, they just want to say ‘Hey’ and give you a high-five and it just brings you back down to earth and what’s real.

“We want to inspire our country and the next generation.”

This is something Watson will continue to do once her netball career is over too as she’s currently studying to become a primary school teacher.

However she does admit that every now and again it’s nice to not be recognised, although with netball’s growing popularity she also knows that may not be so easy.

“I actually tried to hide it on my placement and not let on that I’m a netballer but a few young girls in the Grade 1 class came up with some Vixen posters so once they’d had them signed the news travelled around the school,” she recalled.

“I’m probably more of a teacher in that sense but there are a few lovely little netball fans who recognise you and that’s a good thing as well.

“They’re probably more likely to listen to me. They probably get a different view on me as well if they’re misbehaving!

“It’s good for them to see I’m not just a netballer, I have other things in my life and do other things.

“I definitely have their attention at the start, it’s just how long I can keep it for!”

As for the World Cup itself, Watson is confident that the Diamonds can claim a fourth straight title and a 12th in total.

Yet despite knowing there’s a perfect opportunity to exact revenge on England for last year’s Commonwealth Games final, she says her team are only focusing on themselves and not letting anything else distract them.

“Our first goal is to get to the final. I don’t care who we’re playing – we just want to be in that final and win it,” she stated.

“It could be England, it could be New Zealand, it could be South Africa. There are so many good teams up there and we just want to get our squad into that final before we think about the opposition.

“It’s a very tough draw so we just want to make sure that we have that slot and whoever we play we know we can beat them.”

Netball World Cup Special: Shannon Saunders

Shannon Saunders’ netball career will complete a full circle at 9am tomorrow when she steps out onto Liverpool Arena’s court for the opening game of the 2019 Netball World Cup.

Having made her New Zealand debut back in 2013, there were fears she’d played her last international match at last year’s Commonwealth Games.

While England left Australia’s Gold Coast on top of the world, it was a much more sobering experience for the Silver Ferns as they missed out on both making the Commonwealth final and winning a medal for the first time.

As a result Saunders (then known as Shannon Francois) was one of a number of players who found themselves out of the squad as New Zealand looked to re-build.

That gave the centre a chance to take a break from the game that had dominated her life and shift her focus onto other things, including her marriage to partner Marcus in January.

The time away also helped Saunders rediscover her love for the sport she’d excelled at for so long and she returned to club outfit Southern Steel in blistering form earlier this year.

Despite this, the 59-time-capped athlete admitted she was still surprised when she received the call confirming she would be travelling over to England for this showpiece event.

‘It was incredible, I wasn’t expecting it at all so it’s really cool to come here with my team-mates,” the 28-year-old recalled.

“It’s awesome to be back playing. It’s given me a new found appreciation for netball and I’m really excited to get out there and help my team as much as I can and hopefully we can be successful.

“I think I just found my love for the game again.

“I went away and had a bit more time in my personal life and really found out that it was what I really wanted to do and that I really am passionate about netball.”

Such a comeback is testament to Saunders’ character; it’s not the first time she has shown such resilience either.

Back in 2017, she was twice diagnosed with skin cancer.

Fortunately on both occasions it was caught early and the basal cell carcinomas were removed without issue but it was still a real shock for the University of Otago graduate, particularly as her sister was also diagnosed with something similar at the same time.

But Saunders was determined to not let it affect her life or her netball too much and returned for Steel just eight days after having the first carcinoma removed from her head.

“It’s always at the back of your mind but it’s just changed what I do day to day – I wear a lot more sunscreen!” she joked, admitting she’s enjoying the warm British weather.

“It just makes sure I definitely don’t take things for granted. The ones I had were definitely not too serious so I was very lucky.

“I just wanted to get straight back out there – I think I had 30 stitches in my head at the time! But it was fine, I had all my team-mates there to support me so that was all good.”

While 2018 may have been a poor year for the Silver Ferns, they are heading into this tournament quietly confident of rediscovering their best form.

They enjoyed a highly competitive Cadbury Netball Series back home last month in which they came up against New Zealand’s men on two occasions in a unique move for the sport.

With netball seen as a predominantly female sport woridwide, Saunders says it was a great opportunity to showcase just how talented her country’s male athletes are and hopes it will encourage others to push their men forward too.

“It was good to play the men and experience the physicality and test ourselves against the taller shooters who we’ll come up against with against the likes of Jamaica,” Saunders – who also works as a pharmacist – said.

“It was really cool. We’ve played them a wee bit before behind closed doors and in camps but it was an awesome spectacle and really raised the awareness of the men’s team throughout New Zealand which was really exciting.

“I think they’re incredible and they play the game at such speed and are so aerial.

“A lot of countries are now starting to develop their men’s teams so it would be great if they could play each other.”

As for the Silver Ferns, Saunders believes being seen as a potential underdog in this tournament could work in their favour.

Netball legend Dame Lois Muir also recently said she believes the team are in a strong position heading into the event, quotes that Saunders knows her team will take a lot of confidence from.

“It’s always nice to be underdogs as you go under the radar,” she stated.

“We as a team just really want to prove ourselves and play really well for ourselves, our family and also the nation. We know we have the quality to do it and are excited to put it out there on the court.

“It’s always really nice. We’ve been training super hard and really well so it’s been great when people who have been watching us externally say that we’re on the right track, doing the right things and confirm that we’re going in the right direction.”

Netball World Cup Special: Jo Weston

“I’ve always been somewhat gregarious. My Mum used to say ‘there’s no show without Jo!’”

Speaking to Jo Weston, you wouldn’t realise she is just days away from one of the toughest tests of her netball career; the 2019 Netball World Cup.

The Australian is a fun, relaxed individual off the court and seems totally at ease with life as she prepares to step out into Liverpool’s Echo Arena to represent the Samsung Diamonds against Northern Ireland at 11am on Friday.

“I’ve always been a little bit odd and interested in things that perhaps are atypical of athletes,” she admits.

“I think it [the gregariousness] comes from the dancing background, just wanting to be the star.

“I think my team-mates sometimes get a little bit annoyed about it but I guess they put up with it. I do try to turn it down a little bit occasionally!”

Make no mistake though; Weston is a seriously talented athlete.

Not that she’ll necessarily grab the headlines – it tends to be the goal shooters who do that.

As a versatile defender though her job is to stop exactly that from happening and this is something she has done with aplomb for a number of years both internationally and with her domestic team Melbourne Vixens.

Despite this, the 24-year-old says she had an anxious wait to find out whether or not she’d be playing at her first World Cup.

“I was a little bit nervous actually and I think I was the last one to find out. I was barely able to swipe to answer the phone call!” she recalls.

“I was so over the moon, so excited, but I also felt a bit of relief as well.

“Selection is such a stressful time period and you build up a lot of possible situations in your head so when you are one of the lucky ones that was selected you can breathe a bit of a deep sigh.

“It still feels a little bit surreal.”

The Diamonds will need Weston and her fellow defenders to be at their absolute best if they are to win their 12th world title – and fourth in a row – this month.

They know better than anyone just how tough this will be too, having had gold snatched away from them on home turf by England with the final play of the 2018 Commonwealth Games last April.

Yet, despite possibly having the chance to exact the perfect revenge on the Vitality Roses this time round, Weston says her team are solely focusing on making themselves the best they can be.

And with so many Australian individuals and teams enjoying sporting success right now, she wants her side to be right in the mix to help increase the sport’s popularity Down Under.

She says: “The profile of netball in Australia has risen dramatically since the last World Cup which was held in Sydney in 2015.

“We had the Matildas at the football World Cup, we’ve got both the women’s and men’s cricket teams over here in the UK and we also have a rugby World Cup later in the year so I think it’s a big year full stop for representative teams.

“We’re just delighted to be part of that broader Australian sporting landscape too.”

Described as ‘highly intelligent’ by Diamonds and Vixens team-mate Liz Watson, Weston also works for Deloitte having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) from the University of Melbourne.

Her talents extend far beyond the netball court too.

She is somewhat of a social media star alongside being a highly passionate environmentalist, working as an ambassador for the Sports Environmental Alliance, something that has been instilled in her from an early age.

“Sustainability is something my family has always been very interested in,” she says.

“My dad’s family comes from country Victoria, we have a walnut farm up there and we have some sheep, some goats as well and it’s all very sustainable.

“It’s always been something I’ve been interested in and it’s quite topical, seeing the impact sport can have with such a large number of people and with sporting events, making them less wasteful in terms of one-use products and all those sorts of things.

“It’s a way that we can continue to move forward without leaving our earth in ruins.”

The aforementioned walnut farm also plays a part in another of her big interests – baking.

And even though her team will be following a pre-planned meal routine during their stay in England, Weston is hoping to be able to add one or two of her treats to the menu.

“I did make an apple crumble a couple of days ago when we made a team dinner,” she proudly states.

“My cooking skills leave a little bit to the imagination but I do think I’m quite a confident baker. I’m really edging for that spot in the Great British Bake Off at one stage!

“That farm-to-table mentality is something I’m really interested in and think it’s really great.”

Weston may not be the most stereotypical role model but in terms of personality, morals and skill she is the ultimate professional athlete.

England Inspired, Now It’s Up To Us To Ensure Lionesses’ World Cup Legacy Lives On

21:53 – the time last night when the tears of a nation started flowing as the final whistle was blown on England’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign.

It was a heart wrenching, soul destroying moment, seeing those 23 athletes whom we’ve come to adore over the last four weeks left lying on the baking French turf in complete despair while the Americans celebrated as though they’d won the tournament.

Waking up this morning, the pain for many was just as raw as it was hours earlier.

On reflection though, while being knocked out in another semi-final is tough to take, the Lionesses have already achieved something even more important than a maiden World Cup title.

They have galvanised an entire nation into following women’s team sport.

That’s not to say this is something we’ve not experienced before – the last few years have produced a myriad of exceptional performances in football, rugby, hockey and netball that have captured our hearts.

But this was different. Rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of success, this time the Lionesses were at the forefront of our attention from the off.

It all started with the awesome #BeReady campaign when the squad was announced back in May, which we wrote about in our year-long series.

Add into that an hour-long documentary that gave an unprecedented behind-the-scenes insight into the team and even before a ball was kicked we were already hooked on the story of England’s finest.

Their opener against Scotland, broadcast live on BBC One, then attracted 6.1 million viewers to the BBC, the highest number for any women’s football match in the UK.

That record was then broken three times more, with the figure rising to 11.7 million during last night’s semi-final, making it the most watched British TV show of 2019 so far last night.

This unequivocally proves that people really do care about this team.

It’s not just the viewing figures that confirm this either; it’s the changes in attitude that you can hear in everyday conversations and see on social media.

For every sexist, misogynistic and wrong comment being made on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram there is now another telling a story of how the Lionesses have inspired the author or someone close to them.

Listening to conversations in the street yesterday I could hear people – men, women, young, old – discussing the game, making plans to watch ‘the football’, ‘the semi-final’ or ‘England v USA’ (note the lack of gender-specific phrasing here).

Even though the Lionesses haven’t made the final they – and we – so longed for, they should be very proud of the cultural shift they have achieved.

Now it’s up to us (both the media and general public) to ensure this isn’t just a flash in the pan.

If our female footballers are going to ever achieve the recognition and status they deserve, it’s up to us to keep them relevant and newsworthy by talking about them, turning up to games and continuing to drown out the doubters.

With Team GB now qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and England hosting the 2021 Euros, we already have two huge platforms to continue the hype surrounding the national teams.

But it’s not just here where we need to make a difference; we need to commit to supporting the domestic game too.

Attendance figures initially soared after the bronze medal finish of four years ago but have dropped significantly since, with the average attendance at a top women’s club game less than 1,000 last season.

The players deserve so much more than that.

As has been proven numerous times throughout the World Cup, the standard across all areas has risen significantly since the last iteration four years ago both internationally domestically.

The work they put in and the hours they spend on the training pitch are having a huge impact and they deserve to be showing off their skills in front of large crowds week in, week out.

We need to #ShowUp to as much football as we can, not just to continue the legacy of this tournament but to continue to inspire youngsters to want to play the game.

How cool would it be in 10 years’ time if the next generation of English footballers could say they were inspired to start playing because they witnessed Ellen White produce a sensational finish live for Manchester City? Or Carly Telford making a magical save for Chelsea? Or Alex Greenwood executing a perfect free kick for Manchester United?

Furthermore we need to keep talking about women’s football to ensure the media deem it newsworthy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean just focusing on the positives either; we shouldn’t be afraid to criticise too as that’s exactly what happens with the men.

Let’s face it; England were average at times last night and on the whole probably didn’t deserve to win.

Screenshot 2019-07-03 at 14.59.08

The more we embrace and accept the game’s weaknesses and controversies, the more discussions and talking points there will be to be had that will keep the women’s game on the back pages and trending on social media.

Just look at how much interest has been generated by Alex Morgan’s celebration.

Not that we should solely focus on that though. We need to keep highlighting the power of the game, sharing the heartwarming stories that permeate it up and down the country and celebrating the success of our players.

The Lionesses have inspired a nation; now it’s up to us to ensure their legacy continues.

#52) GB Hockey

What better way to round off our year-long journey than with the team that ignited my passion to try and bring about gender equal sports media coverage?

I was one of around 10 million people watching Great Britain’s women win a stunning gold medal on 19 August 2016, overcoming heavy favourites The Netherlands in a dramatic shootout after a pulsating game had finished 3-3.

Having never shown an interest in hockey before Rio, suddenly I was gripped. And I wasn’t the only one.

One of the key values surrounding the women’s team is around inspiring the next generation and that is exactly what they did that evening with that sensational victory.

Of course one of the best things about the Olympics is that it brings a nation together to support athletes we may have never heard of before, but for 14% of the population to be watching this final was something extra special.

Putting it into context, the series finale of Bodyguard attracted an average of 10.4 million viewers, making it the most watched BBC drama since 2008.

The subsequent media frenzy that surrounded the players wasn’t just a recognition of their superb achievement either.

It was also a celebration of women’s team sport the likes of which this country hadn’t seen before.

Not only did they move the BBC’s 10pm news that evening, they also dominated the front and back pages the next morning and were invited to make a host of high profile media appearances over the next few months, including Hollie Pearne-Webb appearing on Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas special and Sam Quek on I’m A Celeb.

While successes for England at the 2014 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 FIFA World Cup had also received plenty of adulation, this was different.

It felt as though GB’s female hockey stars were receiving exactly the same media attention that a men’s team would if they’d won a major event.

However, as is seemingly always the case with these things, the coverage soon died down and before long women’s team sports were once again relegated to often nothing more than a couple of sentences, if they were lucky.

As someone who was just beginning my journalism career, this is where I decided I wanted to make a difference.

I wanted to be someone who gave our female athletes the recognition and coverage they deserved all year round, not just once every Olympic cycle.

Perfect role models
I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this to the athletes before but they all – on both teams – continue to inspire me day in, day out.

They say never meet your heroes as they often don’t live up to expectations but I can honestly say working with each of them has only enhanced my perception.

Even though times are a bit tough at the moment, every game someone does something that makes me sit back and think ‘wow’.

That could be a goalkeeper pulling off a flying save, a forward scoring a stunning goal, a defender pulling off a last ditch tackle or someone nutmegging the goalkeeper in a shootout on their home international debut (I’ll single out Tess Howard here as that was epic!).

It’s not just on the pitch but off it too, whether they’re smashing through rehab, using their free time to run coaching classes or even setting up their own coaching academies.

They are also the consummate professionals when it comes to media appearances too or filming with our Comms team, always willing and ready to help when they can and often giving perfect answers.

Emily Defroand also deserves a mention here for the incredible attitude she showed to continue promoting last year’s Women’s World Cup despite not making the final 18.

Both sides often talk about the extended squad all being a part of a major event, even if not selected, and Emily was the epitome of that here as she continued to talk enthusiastically about the World Cup and do everything she could to promote it having been selected as a reserve.

Plenty of those stars of Rio 2016 who no longer play have also taken it upon themselves to continue promoting and growing the sport, whether it be directly or indirectly.

Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh are both brilliant commentators and pundits as well as fantastic advocates for women in sport; Quek continues to raise her media profile with numerous TV appearances; Crista Cullen continues to be involved in fantastic animal conservation projects and Hannah MacLeod is coaching the next generation in the EDP setup.

By just putting themselves out there in the public domain, these individuals are significantly widening the pool of people who could potentially be drawn to hockey and this, alongside success of the current teams, could be crucial in growing the sport.

They all also give back to the fans in such amazing ways, taking time to sign autographs, take selfies and engage with them whenever they can whether that be in person or on social media.

I genuinely can’t think of a better bunch of people to work with.

Hockey blueprint the way forward for genuine equality
With the 2019 FIFA World Cup underway, it’s been interesting to note how many comparisons have been made between men’s and women’s football.

This is something we don’t get that much of in hockey for they are effectively treated as their own entities.

People respect both versions for their own different styles and this is something that should be done across all sports.

Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses and just because women may not run as fast or be as strong, it doesn’t mean they are any less skilful or less entertaining to watch.

Furthermore, one of the best things about hockey is that it is a genuinely equal sport.

Most of the world’s leading nations – especially those in Europe – each employ roughly the same number of male and female professional athletes. All major international events have a male and female version and each of these games are broadcast on BT Sport or the FIH’s own live broadcasting service.

Furthermore, in this country we have a 50/50 split between men and women participating in the sport.

And while the sport can be held back at times by certain stereotypes, unlike sports such as cricket, football and rugby it has long been seen as acceptable for both genders to take part in it.

I may be biased but if we really are going to fight for equality in all senses across sports then hockey really should be one of those that its bigger, more popular neighbours should be learning from.

#51) Bianca Walkden & Jade Jones

Who would’ve thought ten years ago that Great Britain would be one of the world’s leading contenders in the sport of Taekwondo? Indeed, how many of us had even heard of it back then?

Yet now our nation currently boasts a roster of international athletes that includes three Olympic medalists alongside three World and five European champions.

More importantly, the sport has also played a huge part in smashing the stereotype – in this country at least – that women have no place in combat events.

And while it has certainly been a huge team effort, much of this revolution can be traced back to two incredible women – Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden.

Jones’ sensational gold at London 2012 was the moment that provided the initial spark for our love affair with the Korean martial art.

That summer we were gripped in a sort of sports-mad trance, desperate to watch as much sport as possible and tuning in to events we would never have considered otherwise.

And despite the seemingly never-ending success over that incredible fortnight, the sight of the 19-year-old from Flint ripping off her helmet and screaming in delight after winning her country’s first ever Olympic taekwondo medal was one that stuck in the minds of many.

However it was her second title in Rio four years – alongside a bronze for Walkden – later that really lit the fire amongst the British public and journalists alike.

After an initial surge of interest after London, Taekwondo was one of many sports put on the back burner by the media, as though the press saw their achievements as nothing more than a result of the ‘Home Advantage’.

Even further medals at major events for Jones and Walkden’s stunning breakthrough – winning European gold in 2014 before becoming just the second British world champion the following year – were lucky if they received a few sentences.

But that all changed after Rio 2016 as a second gold for Jones and a bronze Walkden – alongside Lutalo Muhammad’s silver – showing their previous successes were no fluke and that they were genuinely world class athletes.

This has only been further proven in subsequent years, with Walkden becoming the first Brit to defend a world title in 2017 before adding a historic third – in slightly controversial circumstances – on home soil last month alongside several other impressive wins.

Jones also secured a world title – her first – in Manchester after winning European gold in 2018 and has stated she’s going for a third straight gold at Tokyo 2020.

 

As a result, media and public interest alike have risen exponentially, as proved a the aforementioned World Championships in May with Manchester Arena packed for much of the four days and plenty of articles written before, during and after the event.

Furthermore, Walkden was also on the shortlist for the 2017 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, finishing 10th and receiving nearly 14,000 votes.

It’s not just their talent that Jones and Walkden that this increased coverage is highlighting though.

It’s also proving that ‘normal’ women can excel in combat sports as well as normalising their presence within them.

For so long men have sneered at the thought of the women engaging in a physical grapple; even now too many think their only role should be limited to ring girls, wearing bikinis and cheering on the men.

But the beauty of participating in a sport with no history in this country is that there are no pre-conceived ideas about who should be ‘allowed’ to compete.

On so many occasions I’ve witnessed people saying women shouldn’t be allowed to box or wrestle, but very rarely have I heard they can’t kick each other in the head.

And by not only continuing to be shown on TV but continuing to win on the biggest stages, Jones and Walkden are inspiring a new generation of women and girls that they can achieve and succeed an area of sport long deemed inaccessible.

As if this wasn’t enough, both then enhance this further by being fantastically engaging and relatable role models.

They help out with coaching masterclasses, take selfies and sign autographs after events, interact with their fans on social media while also using the platforms to show they also do run-of-the-mill things and always come across as fun, characterful individuals in every media appearance they do.

Yes all of this is now part and parcel of being an professional athlete but these two do it consistently so well to show women that they can be ‘normal’ and punch and kick people competitively at the same time.

The fact that there are so many exciting young female athletes coming through the GB Taekwondo ranks – including Charlie Maddock, Lauren Williams and Maddison Moore – can certainly be put down in part at least to their influence.

It’s not just the battles on the mat that these two have won; they’ve also conquered the ones off it too.

#50) Leah Wilkinson

Photo credit: Hockey Wales

Alun Wyn Jones, Jess Fishlock, Ryan Giggs, Helen Weston, Sam Warburton, Sarah Thomas – just some of the incredible athletes to have come out of Wales.

Each has a multitude of accolades – both individual and team – to their name and each is revered by many in the very highest terms.

However they have all been surpassed to one particular record by an individual you may not have comparatively heard too much about.

This weekend, Leah Wilkinson became the most capped Welsh team athlete of all time as she played her 158th game for her country in the second of a three-test series against France.

In doing so, she overtook fellow hockey player Paul Edwards in holding the record – in comparison, rugby’s most capped player is Gethin Jenkins (129) while Fishlock (116) and Weston (111) have made the most international appearances in football and netball respectively.

You may not hear much – if anything – about it from the major media outlets but that doesn’t mean Wilkinson’s achievement should be seen as anything but superb.

Wales is one of the proudest and most passionate sporting nations in the world and to hold this record over some of the aforementioned greats while playing as a largely amateur athlete in a relatively minor sport is testament to just how brilliant Wilkinson is.

Since making her international debut in 2004, the Holcombe player has showcased a combative, forceful style of play – she gives everything she has every time she plays and never, ever ducks out of a tackle.

As a result has had her fair share of painful blows – notably a sickening head collision with Alex Danson at the 2018 Commonwealth Games – but always manages to get up and before long is back giving everything for club and country.

It’s unfair to say she’s just a rugged centre back though; Wilkinson also possesses sublime skill when on the ball and can often be found tearing through defences, setting up attacks and even bagging the odd goal herself.

Wilkinson is a natural leader too and assumed the captaincy from Abi Welsford when she retired in early 2018 before overtaking her as the most capped Welsh female hockey player on the Gold Coast.

It was under her leadership at that tournament last April too that Wales pulled off one of their biggest ever victories, beating India 3-2 in their opening group game thanks to goals from Lisa Daley, Sian French and Natasha Marke-Jones.

So good a player is Wilkinson – who is also a history teacher – that many have long questioned why she has not been a part of the Great Britain set up alongside fellow Welsh compatriot Sarah Jones.

 

While the wider sporting world may not hear too much about her achievements, everyone associated with Wilkinson knows how special her achievement is, as does the individual herself.

Speaking to BBC Sport, she said: “It’s an amazing achievement. To put on the Welsh vest any time you play is really special but to do it 158 times – I’m really proud.

“When you step on the field it’s always about the result and how you get on. But I think maybe [I’ll give myself] a little pat on the back because I’m incredibly proud. It’s a big milestone. I haven’t actually sat back and really reflected and thought about it.

“I remember vividly my first cap and I can remember so many of the games I’ve played. Suddenly I’m 15 years on and 156, 157, 158 caps later. I’ve had some amazing experiences, I’ve played with some amazing players and been to some amazing places.”

Wilkinson could create further history later this year by leading Wales to the top tier of the EuroHockey Championships for the first time since 2003.

In order to do that they’ll need to finish in the top two of the EuroHockey Championships II tournament held in Glasgow this August, a feat they so nearly achieved two years ago on home soil.

That time they narrowly lost to Russia in the semi-finals and, with many of the squad from that tournament likely to play this time round, they will be hoping to use the pain of that experience to avenge that defeat.

Whatever the result however, one thing is certain – Wilkinson will go down as not just one of the greatest Welsh hockey players, but as one of the best athletes the country has ever produced.

Surely it’s only a matter of time before she’s indoctrinated into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame…