Updated: May 11
Despite being such a simple statement, and one that surely requires a straightforward 'yes' or 'no', it feels like this looming grey area in Women's Rugby is expanding rather than declining. In short, kind of yes, kind of no. Is it more accessible than this time ten years ago? Well yes, but so is just about everything in the entertainment industry, so that's not much of a metric to it compare to. Is there a clear focus on making Women's Rugby more accessible than other sports on the market? Well, yes, but in a similar way to the Government doing more about climate change... A broad statement with little to no definable principles or commitments behind it despite the public outcry. Women's Rugby sure is on TV more often, but we watch more TV, and more TV is hence screened anyway; just because we can watch some Women's Rugby on TV, doesn't make it right to fall below recycled episodes of Flog It and repeats of old Soaps as it has done on BBC and ITV respectively over the last five years; notably, disgracefully, this year.
I'm a lifelong Rugby fan, following all levels of the sport religiously for over twenty years now, and spending the last year in a slightly more professional capacity creating content to do with the sport I'm smitten with. However, why is it that I found myself reading through the Radio Times, surfing site after site, just to find where I could catch a glimpse of the Women's Six Nations? Heck, if it weren't for some fantastic Facebook groups and Reddit threads, I'm pretty certain I would have missed some of the bigger games. That doesn't scream accessibility to me, but perhaps that's fittingly reflective of the sport as a whole? Since it's currently spread across BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Amazon Prime, Sky Sports and BT Sports, it's getting quite difficult to afford all that Rugby anyway; that's a problem for a different day's discussion. For all the cries of, 'well maybe you just didn't try hard enough to find it', you're missing the point. Why should I have to find it? I know more about Raid Shadow Legends than I do about Women's Rugby despite my algorithms being surely weighted to one and not the other; is it advertised enough? Also, no. Outside of the weird piggybacking it has to do after the men's Six Nation's just to generate a buzz, it feels like it's not advertised at all. No google suggestions, no punditry coverage, no indication of any events even existing; the majority of my Women's Rugby news stems from LinkedIn from the players involved themselves!
Women's Rugby is still a rarity at schools, it's still the sport shunned by most comprehensive schools in the country despite the talent and promotion of it amongst students. It shocked me to find out that my fiancé wasn't even given the option to play Rugby at her secondary school (a school of over 1000 students). That's a good 500 (estimated of course) students who don't get the immediate access that men do. If you take a conservative approach and say that 20% of schools in the country don't support Women's Rugby, that's at least 670,000 women who's only opportunity to play Rugby, is if they actively seek it out elsewhere. That's not very inclusive.
But what is the men's game doing about it? To be honest, there is a definite spectrum of success when it comes the promotion of Women's Rugby across male dominated clubs. Wasps is a great example of a side that promotes both Women's Rugby and Netball equally across it's digital channels; I know more about Wasps' women's results and fixtures than I do about the national side, that's a little unusual. Even clubs like Saracens, often lamented by the everyday fan, do an excellent job of promoting female achievements across their social media feeds. However, is it really much of an excellent job to be doing that though, when it should be expected of a side with a name like 'Wasps Ladies' to be supported by the Wasps media page. It is accessible, but it's this constant argument and debate between equality and equity in Women's sport. To do equal is not improve the other product, but merely adopt the same attitude without understanding the context.
If you want to get even more meta about it, is the game even accessible for professional Women's Rugby players? Again, kind of yes, kind of no. The English Women's game is now professional and there are superstars that often cut through traditional media like Scarratt and Brown. It's taken two decades longer than the men's game, but it is finally there. However, funding is clearly not the same because sponsorship and support is not the same. But my argument is that you can't compare the sponsorship + support = funding equation to the men's game due to context; equity vs equality. Without deep pockets and a commitment to losing money, Women's Rugby can't become equally accessible to even professional sportswomen because you have to spend to promote; without fast tracking, Women's sport will constantly be twenty years behind because of accessibility, rather than being twenty years behind because of quality. That's what's worrying to me, why should sport have an accessibility problem despite not having a quality problem? There is a quality deficit internally don't get me wrong, if England play Wales 100 times in a row, England win 90 of those games comfortably due to their facilities that allow them to become such a qualitative outfit. How can you expect Welsh Women to get into Rugby in a similar vein to the men when they are getting pumped by their nearest and dearest every year. The draw is there overall however, and the product is ready, they even have a proven example in the English Women's side that facilities, exposure and professional contracts will pay dividends, but no one wants to sell it.
Don't just take it from me, take a look at the quote below from Harriet Millar-Mills:
“It is great for women’s rugby that it is on the BBC because it means it is so accessible, we all know people who look for something to watch and scan TV channels, but Saturday’s match is something they can now watch if you know what I mean?"
“For my first cap, it wasn’t even streamed! There was no footage of it. My Dad tried to follow it on Twitter, I think! The first tour after that, there were actually updates on the radio. We weren’t even in the radio era then!"
“People didn’t think women’s rugby would get a crowd so they didn’t show it. It is that awful wheel of nobody wants to invest money into it because nobody watches it, but nobody is going to watch it until it is put on TV and invested in."
“Somebody has got to break the cycle and say ‘we are going to support the game’ because that is such a key part in the development of the sport and I do mean the whole sport and not just England. If it is accessible for people living in Wales for example, then they will look to their local team. It is not about ‘I want to play for England?’ It is about ‘I want to play rugby.’”
I'm not being pedantic when I say that BBC offering to show Women's Rugby shouldn't be applauded but expected. If the last 6 months of sport has taught us anything, putting up with the bare minimum despite the time, effort and money forked out by fans and professionals is not fair. I'm concentrating on professionals here though, I can't believe in 2021 we are allowing the Scottish Women's Rugby team to travel and play against France annually whilst returning to their day-jobs the same week. That's surely not on. This isn't frisbee golf or murderball, this is an established top ten sport in a tier one country without Women's support; you can stuff your 'BBC Women's Rugby Showcase' up ya bloody jumper if you're not going to pay them what they've earnt.
All in all, yes Women's Rugby is more accessible than it once was, but we have so much to learn and to grow from before we can actually class it as at all accessible.