This summer’s sporting action offers a huge opportunity to reach out and inspire people who do not normally watch sport. Yes, we will always have a captive audience of well-informed sports fans. But it is the people whom traditional men’s events do not reach that I want to talk about. Newspaper sports pages are an essential part of the business, but I have always wanted to see sportswomen promoted in different ways, through women’s magazines and lifestyle pages as well. That is a fresh demographic and a whole new audience.
Sport needs to meet entertainment more than it ever used to. You cannot assume that people understand scoring systems or even recognise the players. We need to be thinking of the first-time visitors, to help them to get more from their visit.
Take the big screens: why not use them more proactively before the start of play? Alongside “No flash photography”, and “Turn phones off”, how about “Here’s how the scoring system works. And a run-down of each of the players”, making sure to show their faces clearly so they can be easily identified.
What about music at the changeovers, or at breaks in play? It is something that the US Open does really well. At Flushing Meadows they have the Kiss Cam, or showing a famous face in the crowd with a caption on the big screen. Many tournaments have added screens on the practice courts too, so that fans can match faces to the names and learn about world rankings and how many tournaments they have won. You cannot expect fans to recognise every player in the singles and doubles draws, so this kind of innovation creates higher profiles for players and more information for fans. Win-win.
As a latecomer to many sports, I know how much of a difference it makes when you receive personal guidance from an expert. At Aintree, jockey Katie Walsh took me around the course explaining the race tactics and the challenges of particular fences and bends. Before that I would just have seen the Grand National as a bunch of horses running and jumping, now the sport has a whole new meaning in terms of watchability.
Take cricket, which used to be something I watched once in a blue moon on TV before I was lucky enough to have a sit-down at Lord’s with Andy Flower, the former England coach, who talked me through the men’s England-Pakistan international in real time.
The tactics and positioning were fascinating and not something
I could have worked out for myself as an armchair spectator. How the fielders moved when a left-handed bowler came on to anticipate where the batsman might hit the ball, or why you would change the bowling to disadvantage a particular style of batsman. It made all the difference to my enjoyment of the game.
Armed with my newfound cricketing expertise, I really enjoyed my trip to Lord’s to see the women’s World Cup in 2017. I was invited to one of the hospitality boxes, but I preferred to queue up at the public entrance because
I wanted to experience being part of the crowd. And I was not disappointed. There were so many families, with their picnics, their banners and their face paint. The ground was full, only the posh members’ section had empty seats.
When I got up to the box, it was full of ex-cricketers who told stories of how they had lacked any kind of recognition or media coverage, never mind technical and financial support. They had struggled to pay for the petrol to get from one match to the next. What a stark contrast to the showpiece final. For them to see how far women’s cricket had come in the last 50 years, finally arriving at this full house at Lord’s, in front of TV cameras and a really vibrant atmosphere was huge.
There was a similar feeling with the sell-out crowd at last month’s Fed Cup event at London’s Olympic Park. In the crowd were women, teenagers and children – disputing the theory that tennis fans are pensioners. The only disappointment was the lack of free-to-air television coverage. The Lawn Tennis Association did broadcast the event live on its Facebook page, but when I went on to watch it said the audience had peaked at 1,800 people.
Clearly, we still have to get our heads around watching tennis on laptops and phones. It is important to experiment with these things, though, we have to understand the world we live in. People are time poor, they are not going to sit there for the whole day. Kids do not have the attention span to sit through five-hour five-setters, so we need to experiment with shortened scoring systems and fun formats.
In tennis, we are facing a shift, as the three biggest female stars – the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova – move towards the end of their careers. They have built global brands, raised important issues and elevated the profile of their sport, all three instantly recognised beyond a tennis audience. Now the sport needs other players to step up and create the same aura.
This summer I will not be spending too much time in the viewing areas of grass-court tournaments such as Birmingham or Eastbourne. My priority is to help develop the next generation of female coaches, players and volunteers. I will be on site, but I will be running workshops for coaches, parents and teachers, showing others how to teach fun starter tennis. It is certainly way less stressful than sitting in Jamie and Andy’s player boxes.
I like to follow all the tennis action online these days and love my social-media feeds. I am looking forward to seeing how the new world No 1 Naomi Osaka copes with grass, a surface she would hardly have encountered while growing up in Japan, Long Island and Florida. Osaka has entered the Nature Valley Classic at Birmingham, two weeks before the start of Wimbledon, to give herself a chance to acclimatise. But
I suspect she is still trying to find her feet in other ways. Her victories in the two most recent grand-slam events – the US Open and the Australian Open – have catapulted her into the superstar bracket. And that is a massive mental and physical challenge for any player, because there are so many more demands on your time from media, sponsors and fans. And so much more expectation.
I met a bunch of fascinating women at the Telegraph Women’s Sport launch in March. I was so impressed with Dina Asher-Smith and how well she spoke – not just about sport, but about women and equality and the challenges we all face. I am far more likely now to follow what is going on in her world of athletics, and to check up on her social media timelines.
I have also been fortunate to meet several members of the England women’s football team, Steph Houghton and Toni Duggan among them. In a couple of weeks I am going to Hampden to support Scotland in one of their warm-up matches. Again, it is so much more interesting to follow the sport when you are familiar with some of the personalities. That is why we need to create more profiles and showcase more personalities among our female sports stars. And what about that irresistible women’s World Cup football match on June 9 – Scotland v England? I will definitely take a break from my workshops to watch that one!
What changes to the way women's sport is promoted would make you more likely to watch it? What would make you more likely to encourage your friends and family to watch it? We want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments section below or email email@example.com for the chance to be featured in the Telegraph.