Written by Jen Offord

Health

Punching within their weight

Women’s sports are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. And boxing, says Jen Offord, is – somewhat surprisingly – setting a good example.

Nicola Adams with her Olympic medal in 2012. Photo by Richard Gillin, via Wikimedia Commons.

The bulk of reporting we see around women’s sport tends to focus on the wholesale sexism we still, depressingly, see within it, but there can be no denying that recent years have seen great leaps forward.

Women’s football has rapidly advanced in the last couple of years, with the emergence of fully professional teams as opposed to the almost universally amateur status it had a few years ago.

We’ve also seen major tournament finals hosted at Wembley Stadium (not, I should add, the women’s national team’s international friendlies last week, which were instead held at the stadiums of third-tier teams), regular televised coverage as well as international transfers of a great enough magnitude to attract widespread newspaper coverage.

All this in a world where in 2015 women’s sport attracted just 7 per cent of all sports media coverage in the UK (10 per cent of televised coverage and just 2 per cent of newspaper coverage) and 0.4 per cent of all reported UK sponsorship deals in sport between September 2011 and December 2013.

Joining tennis as one of the longer-established and more popular of women’s sports, women’s football has seen the emergence of household names such as Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze following a sterling World Cup campaign a couple of summers ago, as have names such as Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) and Laura Kenny (née Trott) in cycling.

However, once upon a time women’s football could command the same crowd numbers as the men’s game – before 1921, when the FA banned women from using its affiliated pitches and facilities. The ban lasted until 1971, the absolute pricks.

Likewise, back in 1967 cyclist Beryl Burton surpassed the men’s 12-hour time trial record, which remained unbeaten by a man for the next two years, in fact.

A sport with a shorter history for women, professionally speaking, and perhaps a more surprising candidate for a recent surge in popularity is boxing, which has also enjoyed its fair share of headlines and endorsements in recent months. With big names such as Nicola Adams breaking into the professional sport now, it’s worth remembering that the first professional licence wasn’t granted to a female boxer in the UK – Jane Couch – until 1998.

Couch fought just as hard out of the ring for her opportunity to fight in it, and only won the right to her licence having taken the British Board of Boxing to a tribunal after they initially refused her on the grounds that PMS made women too emotionally unstable to box. (Yes, really. In 1998.)

Claiming sexual discrimination and with the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Couch won the tribunal and the chance to compete professionally, despite the cries by the British Medical Association that this political correctness gone mad was a “demented extension of equal opportunities.”

“Speaking to ESPN, Frank Warren said: ‘Never in a million years would I have thought I would promote women’s boxing at one point, but Adams changed my mind. She’s convinced me and I’ve seen the light.'”

Nicola Adams who, benefitting from the likes of Couch before her, made and won her professional debut on Saturday, of course broke historic ground as the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for boxing at the London Games in 2012, the first year women had been allowed to compete in the discipline.

Not only that, but she became the first Brit in 92 years to successfully defend an Olympic boxing title at Rio four years later, as well as completing a career grand slam in the titles she was eligible to compete for as an amateur.

And Adams is just one of several, with her fellow 2012 gold medallist, the Republic of Ireland’s Katie Taylor, also turning professional back in November last year. Adams’ former GB teammate Natasha Jonas also announced this week she too would turn pro.

It’s interesting that such a sudden turnaround should have happened in a relatively short space of time. And the rhetoric around the apparently perpetually grinning ‘babyface’ Adams – a woman who literally gets paid to punch people in the face – as reported by the media, certainly goes to great lengths to diminish any perceived threat she may pose.

But, regardless, something fascinating is happening here. Taylor, signed with Eddie Hearn’s promotional juggernaut Matchroom Sport, is even set to fight on the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s much-hyped title bout against Wladimir Klitschko later this month. Adams is signed with another promoting giant, Frank Warren, who has been variously responsible for the careers of Nigel Benn, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton to name a few.

Just three years ago Warren remarked boxing is “not a sport for women,” but was happy to admit his mistake ahead of Adams’ debut. Speaking to ESPN, Warren said: “Never in a million years would I have thought I would promote women’s boxing at one point, but she [Adams] changed my mind. She’s convinced me and I’ve seen the light.”

Be under no illusion about what it is Warren has seen – massive, shimmering pound signs before him. But all credit to him, it’s something that 99.6 per cent of the others in control of endorsements in women’s sport have been failing to see. Up until now, perhaps.

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen