Source – Stuff Sport 11.05.2018
‘Give my ‘daughter’ a game’: Are there really lots of opportunities for girls in sport?
ANALYSIS: There’s been a lot of hypothesising about women’s sport lately.
After the Silver Ferns slumped to an all-time low at last month’s Commonwealth Games, many columnists and broadcasters armed with a stretchy bow declared netball to be dead, or at the very least on life support. The premise being there are soooooo many opportunities for girls out there nowadays, why are we even bothering with netball?
Prior to the Commonwealth Games, I examined the challenges netball is facing to retain its membership with the rise of professional leagues for women around the world. What hasn’t been examined is the second part – the assertion that there are now tonnes of other sporting opportunities open to young girls.
The past 5 -10 years has undoubtedly seen a surge in opportunities for female athletes. At the elite end, anyway. The move by the International Olympic Committee to level the playing field and ensure gender equity across Olympic events, along with the establishment of elite women’s leagues around the world in cricket, football, league, rugby and basketball means women now have more opportunity than ever before to compete on the big stage.
* Pay, travel equality for Football Ferns
* Time to stop forcing netball down our girls’ throats
* Kiwi women in sport to receive $300000 cash injection
* Black Ferns stop off in Lower Hutt with the World Cup
But not everyone is going to be an elite athlete. In fact, most people won’t be. The clue is in the descriptor – “elite”. What if you’re, say, an 11-year-old girl just wanting to play rugby with her mates?
In an undercover operation, I tried to enrol my imaginary 11-year-old daughter into an all-girls rugby grade in 10 cities around the country: Invercargill, Dunedin, Nelson, Whanganui, Palmerston North, New Plymouth, Napier, Tauranga, Hamilton and Whangarei. Then I did the same for cricket. Then I tried to do the same with football, which was a bit more problematic, so I had to blow my cover and ask for help from NZ Football.
My carefully constructed backstory was this: my family was relocating to said city at the end of the year and my daughter was mad keen on her rugby/cricket/football. I asked sports reps from each region if there were any girls competitions my kid could play in. Alternatively, did they know of any schools or clubs that fielded all-girl teams?
Turns out, there’s not that many opportunities, after all. For rugby and cricket in particular, it’s pretty hard to find competitions that accommodate the social needs of girls. That’s because until recently, these sports have tended to ignore its women’s programmes or, at best, treated them as an afterthought. In some parts of the country, that’s still the case.
The good news is there are a lot of passionate people working hard to change this.
It’s boom times for women’s rugby with the success of the Black Ferns in both the XVs and Sevens game over the past year winning over a legion of new fans and prompting further investment in the national programme.
There is still a lot of work to be done at grassroots level.
Only three cities I contacted offered junior rugby competitions specifically for intermediate-age girls – Tauranga (Bay of Plenty Rugby), New Plymouth (Taranaki Rugby) and Dunedin (Otago Rugby). There were others that offered special training days and tournaments, with the view to developing it into more regular organised competition. In other regions, like Northland, the focus has been on growing numbers in the U-15 and U-18 levels, with the long-term goal to create girls-only grades throughout.
A couple of rugby unions quite unapologetically told me there were no competitions available for girls of that age. Basically it was a case of waiting until she got a little bit older. It made me angry that my daughter was being deprived of opportunities. I worried she would not adjust well to her new surroundings, she would begin to resent me for making this move, she would start acting out and fall in with the wrong crowd, we would grow apart and probably wouldn’t have a meaningful relationship again until she reaches her 30s and becomes a mother herself.
Then I remembered I did not have an 11-year-old daughter. But still.
In those cities where girls competitions are available they are still fairly informal. Kids can turn up on the night and be grouped into teams. The competition timeframes are still pretty limited as well, with the biggest block being six weeks. But the thinking behind it is based upon the “build your field of dreams and they will come” theory. Once these programmes build critical mass it can progress into more regular, organised competition.
Taranaki Rugby is among the first of the regions to introduce an U-13 tackle rugby grade for girls. Braydon Peterson, women’s rugby development officer for the region, says the new initiative is in its fourth week and already proving popular.
“We’re getting 80 or so kids coming along each week, but there is definitely room to grow. As far as clubs go, we probably only have 50 per cent of the clubs in the region involved, so there’s huge potential.”
They’ve taken a similar approach in Tauranga, where a winter 10s module was introduced just this month for girls aged 7-13. Lesley Elder, women’s rugby development officer for Bay of Plenty, says schools and clubs can enter teams, or girls can turn up on the night with their mates and be put in a team.
Krysten Cottrell, the women’s rugby development officer for Hawke’s Bay Rugby, hopes to get a similar competition off the ground in her region next year. Cottrell believes one of the biggest barriers to girls wanting to continue on in rugby beyond the “Rippa” and “Quick Rip” grades is that they have to play in boys teams.
“What we’ve found is the girls at that [intermediate] age are either a bit shy to play with the boys or some are new and it’s a bit too rough, so I’m working hard on getting a girls-only grade up and going,” says Cottrell, who has been in the role a year.
“There are some girls that just want to get out there and smash the boys, which is awesome, but we also know we have to introduce more opportunities for the girls to play with girls their own age.”
Tasman Rugby’s George Vance has similar aspirations in his region, acknowledging there is currently a major gap in the opportunities offered to girls in the sport. Even at high school level, most schools only have one girls team, which is likely to be made up of senior students.
“Currently what we’re trying to do is fill that gap between junior rugby and first XV rugby for girls. We’ve got an Under 15 grade running for the first time this year, and then as it grows you can add more layers to it.”
Everyone I spoke to in the regions said interest in girls rugby has sky-rocketed over the past few years on the back of increased visibility of our top women’s players. Participation data provided by NZ Rugby supports this assertion — the number of girls playing rugby in the 5-12 age-group has increased 58 per cent since 2012.
For decades, NZ Cricket has neglected the women’s game. That is not my opinion, that is the stated view of the governing body.
In 2016, NZ Cricket issued an extraordinary mea culpa following the release of an independent report, which found female cricketers were “on the verge of becoming an extinct species”.
Among the more damning findings of the report was that 90.5 per cent of clubs around the country didn’t have girls-only teams, while 57.6 per cent didn’t offer girls cricket at all. The report’s authors found female participation numbers had fallen off a cliff since the women’s game had come under the administration of men.
“The 1992 amalgamation of the New Zealand Women’s Cricket Council with New Zealand Cricket was considered trailblazing: a model for the rest of the world,” wrote Sarah Beaman, who headed the review.
“But the buzz quickly faded: women’s cricket, which had been run by women for women for 58 years, was soon run mostly by men; the partnership became a takeover. Female participation — as leaders, volunteers, and players — declined. People I interviewed spoke of a ‘lost generation’. They said cricket for females became relegated to an obligation and a cost centre.”
NZ Cricket has moved to adopt all recommendations in the report, but they are still getting themselves set at the crease when it comes to re-building participation levels.
Four of the regions that responded offered girls-only cricket grades, but most had all-girls teams participating in its junior competitions organised through schools or clubs. There were opportunities for me to be involved too, with Hamilton Cricket inviting me to help out as a volunteer coach. My cover story was clearly too convincing (really sorry about that Janice).
James Carr, cricket development officer in Southland, says there are still no all-girls teams playing hardball cricket in Invercargill. He hopes to build participation by getting them involved in modified forms of the game first. The region currently runs a “Girls Smash” league on Monday nights for years 3-8, which involves around 200 children.
Adrian Dale, NZC general manager of community cricket, says the national body has delivered increased investment to its districts to promote more participation opportunities for girls and women.
“We’re trying to put initiatives in place for girls where there previously wasn’t,” says Dale.
“It’s in that 11-12-13 age-group where they start sort of seeing the differences. Our approach at the entry-level point is not to differentiate between boys and girls – it’s just come and have a go and everybody mixes in. But as they get up through the ages we want it to be a bit more girls specific.
“Those super-competitive sporty girls might want to play with the boys because it gives them stronger competition, but for the masses, we are absolutely aware that we need to be providing female-only competition.”
The football landscape in the regions was a little more tricky to survey, due to the sport being split along quite different territorial lines to the other sports.
Several of the cities I planned to move to came under the same organising body, so I had to come clean and reveal my true identity. It was a relief to be honest. It was getting exhausting leading a double life.
Football appear to be further down the track when it comes to creating a standardised approach to competitive opportunities for girls across the country.
Football New Zealand women’s development manager Holly Nixon couldn’t offer a definitive picture on what was happening in each of the cities surveyed, but says most regions now offer girls-only football grades. Nixon says while some areas may not offer girls competitions for the traditional Saturday morning winter competition, they will likely have some type of adaptive version like Futsal available.
“We’re trying to introduce girls-only pathways around the country to try and meet the social needs of girls that don’t want to play in a mixed environment. We recognise that girls have different needs, so if we actually want to increase participation we have to give them a choice and give them lots of opportunities to give it a go,” says Nixon.
“The girls-only football has been around in the bigger centres like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for the past 10 years, but for some of the smaller centres like WaiBOP football, we only introduced it about three years ago.
“We’ve just seen participation numbers in girls sky-rocket, because girls that want to play with their mates now have that option. They don’t feel intimidated like they might at that age playing with boys.”
WHY THEN THE BACKLASH?
The recent backlash against netball seems to ignore the realities of the sporting landscape for girls.
Netball has thrived at grassroots because it offers something most other sports don’t: regular organised competition for girls and women in every corner of the country.
Now that traditionally male-dominated sports have woken up to the existence of the other 50 per cent of the population, netball’s role seems to have been curiously recast as holding women back from other sporting opportunities.
One columnist, using flimsy anecdotal evidence, argued netball was being “forced down the throats” of young girls and that “we” shouldn’t be pouring resources into netball. But it is the sports themselves that put resources into their own junior pathways and competitions. And it is the sports themselves that fund women’s programmes.
The claim that netball is dying is at stark odds with the participation data. Nearly 68,000 kids play netball at junior level (years 3-8), while there are more than 30,000 girls at secondary school level hitting the courts every weekend, making it the biggest secondary school sport in New Zealand. Compare that to rugby, where there are more than 16,500 girls playing in the junior grades, and nearly 6000 aged 13-20. Cricket’s numbers are still in the rebuilding phase, with 5300 girls playing in the junior grades, and 2300 at high school age.
That netball has become so entrenched in schools over decades is not a failing of those school administrators, it is the failing of those individual sports that have for so long ignored the social needs of girls.
Girls aren’t going to suddenly flood into other sports if there are no leagues or competitions for them to play in.
My unscientific survey demonstrated there is still a lot of work to be done in rugby, cricket and football to create meaningful and sustained competitive opportunities for girls, particularly in the 9-15 year age-group. There are some great initiatives happening around the country, that will ensure girls will soon have something previous generations have lacked for: choice. Netball’s role in getting them to that point should be celebrated, not diminished.