Engaging in change to grow women’s sports

Women's professional sport leagues are growth products and need to be treated as an investment.

The explosion in popularity of women's professional sport leagues means a rethink is needed to set the direction for future research into sports knowledge and practice, a Federation University researcher says.

International Sport Management lecturer Dr Alana Thomson said a recently published review of research over a 20-year period showed progressive ways of understanding women's professional sport leagues or how they could develop in the future are lacking.

"Women's sports have been niche for a long time, and when we're trying to understand women's sport, it is typically compared to men's sport or understood through ideas of sport management developed in men's sport, but men's sports are decades ahead in terms of development and investment," Dr Thomson said.

"If we compare the two at this point, women's sports will come out as the poorer sister. And when you are looking at something from that deficit perspective, it's very hard to justify a business case or keep moving things forward."

Comparing the two also deprived women's sports of opportunities to develop an appreciation of the nuances of women's professional sport and imagine a thriving future for women's sport, Dr Thomson said.

"There is still a perspective in many parts of our community that women's sports aren't going to be as good as the men's, but we need to be better at acknowledging these are different products because we're developing women's sport in our lifetimes. With some professional sports, something that is a decade old for women might have been around 100 years for men, so it is very different. We need to acknowledge that, and we need to support it that way," Dr Thomson said.

"That means basic things like looking at return on investment, which is done every day for men's sport, might not be the best analysis for women's sport during these early phases.

“Women's professional sport leagues are growth products, and they need to be treated as an investment. If you think about women's sport in a product's lifecycle from a marketing perspective, it has a different position in a portfolio than a men's sports product might.”

Dr Thomson said another of the key findings to come out of the literature review was that the success of women's sports was often attributed to aspects like good sportspersonship or having a positive family feel, which were not always associated with men's competitions.

"The issue of making that a great value proposition of women's sport that we should be promoting is, if we were to look at it from like a critical gender lens, why should we lump that on women that they need to be professional athletes and they also need to be standing up for everything in our community? Those expectations are a subtle type of sexism," Dr Thomson said.

"If these comments are informing what we all know to be true about sport, we're shooting ourselves in the foot. There's a real need to stand back and be critical in how we engage in research."

Dr Thomson said there were also studies that brought an empowering lens to women's sport and considered things that were working well and aspects that should be grown in the future.

She said the key to progressing women's professional sports was for researchers to work in partnership with sports associations and leagues and with the athletes themselves to understand their situation while coming up with new ways of thinking.

"There is a shake-up that needs to happen so that research isn't always looking at established theories and trying to retrofit them in women's sport." Dr Alana Thomson

"We've got to take on contemporary ways of looking at things. What does that mean? It means that we engage differently. We're not just a researcher observing a phenomenon, we're a researcher and a practitioner and an athlete talking together and generating knowledge together.

"Valuing differences in understanding, valuing differences in position, is not something that comes through in traditional approaches to research and probably something that we want to see better developed in sport management."

Dr Thomson said research into women's sport could consider approaches in other areas like social work or education, where the goal of the research is to engage in change. She said the review paved the way for a research agenda for women's professional sport leagues being addressed by Dr Thomson and co-authors Dr Michelle Hayes, from Griffith University, Professor Clare Hanlon, from Victoria University, Emeritus Professor Kristine Toohey, from Griffith University, and Prof Tracy Taylor, from RMIT, and supported by the Australian Research Council Discovery Projects.

"The research process is about change. A lot of the time in our traditional research, we set off to prove knowledge or disprove knowledge rather than going in to be generative and understanding and looking for meaning in different people's understanding of things."

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