On Tuesday, the FA announced that tickets for the England women’s football friendly against the USA in October had gone on sale. Within an hour, its website had crashed from the demand. Gabby Logan had predicted as much when she signed off from the Lionesses’ victory at the European Championships last Sunday. “You think it’s all over?” she told viewers. “It’s only just begun.”
In the week since England’s historic win over Germany in the final, there has been understandable excitement about the future of women’s football in the UK. Even the Queen, not noted for her football punditry, has added her voice to the throng. “You have all set an example that will be an inspiration for girls and women today, and for future generations,” she said in her congratulatory message to Leah Williamson’s side.
Her words consciously echoed the slogan for the 2012 Olympics – “inspire a generation”, a phrase that has become embedded in our reaction to sporting success. We unthinkingly accept its implicit message, that achievements on the world stage will generate an increased following and take-up of sport. Government and administrators have both modelled their funding on the precept.
And yet the 10-year anniversary of the London Olympics has challenged that received wisdom. Last month the National Audit Office reported that, despite initiatives aimed at improving local facilities, training leaders and encouraging people to try new sports, the proportion of adults participating at least once a week declined in the three years after the Games. Other government-issued statistics reveal that participation is down to below pre-2012 levels, while childhood obesity has soared.
From 2004, when Tony Blair first launched London’s bid to stage the event, successive governments promised it would leave behind a fitter, healthier nation. Last year a House of Lords report determined it had not. “The Olympic legacy did not deliver the more active population we were promised,” wrote Lord Willis, chair of the committee for a National Plan for Sport and Recreation. Others have expressed concerned that this month’s Commonwealth Games will have similarly little impact beyond the medals table. “Legacy can’t be delivered by the shine of the Games alone,” said Andy Reed, founder of the Sports Think Tank. “It requires long-term commitment to system change, not fleeting ‘inspiration’.”
Dr Chris Mackintosh of Manchester Metropolitan University, a sports policy researcher who has been advising the Lords committee, says Reed’s assertion is backed by the evidence. “One red herring is there is an influential power in social media, and that TV has a demonstration effect,” says Mackintosh; he points to a review of sporting mega-events by Professor Mike Weed at Canterbury Christ Church University, which found “no evidence of any of them delivering it”. Trickle-down benefits may be as overestimated in sport as they are in economics.
And while British sport has reached dizzying heights in the past two decades, it has repeatedly failed to stick the landing. Take England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win, which drew 15 million viewers in over their breakfast, still a UK record for a rugby union match. “The Jonny effect” – named after Jonny Wilkinson’s match-winning drop-goal in extra time – attracted an extra 5,500 children to the sport in the year that followed. But England’s win was unexpected and the RFU, the national governing body, was overwhelmed by the sudden influx; newcomers fell away as facilities and coaching staff proved inadequate. At the height of Jonny fever in 2003 there was a peak of 255,000 people playing rugby regularly; a decade later, the figure had fallen to 190,000, and last year it stood at 133,600.
Two years later, England’s cricket board demonstrated their own (well-practised) ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. England’s long-awaited Ashes win in 2005 had given their Test side its first success against Australia in 18 years. A gripping five-match contest, complete with nerve-shredding finishes, attracted record-breaking viewing figures for the sport on Channel 4. But, apart from a few exceptions, that was the last time England’s games were freely available on terrestrial TV. The ECB’s decision to sell the broadcasting rights to Sky has been widely blamed for the dramatic drop-off in interest in the nation’s “summer sport”, with participation levels plummeting by a third in the decade that followed.
The good news for women’s football is that the sports bucking the trend have been predominantly female. Since the GB women’s hockey team took bronze at London 2012, and gold in 2016, the sport has seen its junior participation double, from 35,000 to 73,000, with the majority of that increase coming from girls. Girls and women have become increasingly engaged with cricket – as spectators and as players – since the England team won a home World Cup at Lord’s in 2017.
Netball, meanwhile, has enjoyed a bumper four years since Helen Housby scored her last-second goal against Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. England’s gold-medal win – their first victory in a major tournament, and watched by nearly two million on the BBC – drew 135,000 new players. The sport sold out arenas with both its domestic and international games. It, attracted new sponsors and expanded its volunteer base. This year’s Commonwealth Games team were unable to match their predecessors’ win over Australia, but are aiming to take the bronze today.
Fran Connolly, the chief executive of England Netball, was then the sport’s development director. She says the secret to their success was that they had been planning for the moment for a decade. “Traditional sport wasn’t working for women and girls,” she says, “so we asked them what they wanted.” Over 10 years, the sport’s governing body designed programmes tailored to all different kinds of potential players, from Bee Netball, which helps primary-school girls learn to throw and catch, to Walking Netball, for women of any age or fitness ability.
The strategy – which included Back to Netball sessions for women who hadn’t played since school – was designed to prepare the sport for the interest they anticipated from hosting the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. In the end, it proved its worth a year earlier. “We had a menu of opportunities for any girl or woman interested in the sport, and we equipped a workforce across the country … in every locality,” says Connolly. “So the minute the spotlight was shone on our sport, we could point them to an offer nearby that worked for them.”
It helped that England Netball was run by a gender-diverse board, who recognised and understood the issues that keep women out of sport. Stephanie Hilborne, who runs the campaigning charity Women in Sport, believes England Netball has offered a model for other sports that want to build on high-profile successes. “There’s no point getting girls desperate to play if there aren’t opportunities for them on the ground,” says Hilborne. “It’s a positive feeling for the nation but it won’t change the system. We need to address how society is limiting opportunities and that’s about inequality of access – whether that’s economic inequality, which affects both girls and boys, or gender inequality.”
Andy Murray has called it “madness” that tennis has seen recreational numbers decline over a period in which he won two Wimbledon titles, two Olympic golds and a US Open, and his brother Jamie has openly criticised the LTA for failing to capitalise on Andy’s achievements. “How on earth are you going to grow a sport,” he asked in 2019, “if you can’t do it when you’ve got one of the biggest stars in tennis for the last 10 years?”
The seductive nature of elite success can blind us to the greater work needed to ensure a sport’s sustainability: Mackintosh describes it as “like repainting your car and not looking under the bonnet”. He says sports have to think more carefully, and far earlier, about legacy to ensure isolated moments of glory are not wasted in the years ahead.
“Yes, winning things is exciting and it makes us feel great,” says Hilborne. “But what it needs to do is fire people up, to make us more urgent for change.” Ten years after the London Olympics, that’s a lesson it’s time to learn.