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Women's sport in 2023: Leading female athletes on how to reach new heights after game-changing 2022

After an unprecedented year in 2022, Heather Knight, Natasha Jonas, Sarah Hunter, Jamie Chadwick, Nat Metcalf and Molly McCann consider what needs to happen next so women's sport can sustain momentum and keep breaking records

A group of leading sportswomen discuss where women's sport goes from a blockbuster 2022
Image: A group of leading sportswomen discuss where women's sport goes from a blockbuster 2022

Increased visibility, greater financial backing and consistency are just three areas a group of leading female athletes are desperate to see implemented as women’s sport looks to take another giant leap forward in 2023.

Following an unforgettable 2022 that witnessed the barnstorming success and ionic celebration delivered by the Lionesses and Chloe Kelly, the show-stopping historic spectacle of Savannah Marshall vs Claressa Shields at a sold-out O2 Arena and the edge-of-your-seat Rugby World Cup final where the Red Roses saw their 30-match unbeaten run ended in cruel fashion to New Zealand, how does women’s sport continue its climb this year?

With the Football World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer, a T20 World Cup in South Africa this February followed by a home Ashes series later in June/July, a bumper Six Nations programme this spring that will see Twickenham play host to its first standalone England women’s fixture, a Netball World Cup in late July/August and the Solheim Cup in Spain this September, who needs to deliver or what needs to happen to shift the dial even further for women’s sport?

“More financial support, with better facilities, better infrastructure for women’s sport more generally - and with that greater visibility.” That’s according to W Series champion Jamie Chadwick who witnessed first-hand the problems caused by a lack of investment, when the all-female single-seater racing championship was cancelled with three races to go in October due to a lack of funding.

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The Lionesses were greeted by thousands of fans at Trafalgar Square following their Euro 2022 success

“While the Lionesses' success was highly-publicised, there's still a lot of women's sport that isn't covered and doesn't get the recognition it deserves. We need further coverage to inspire more and more people to start whatever it is and get more girls involved,” Chadwick, who will become the first woman in 13 years to compete full-time in Indy NXT, the chief support event to IndyCar series next season, continued.

Britain’s unified world super-welterweight champion, Natasha Jonas, backs that sentiment: “I would like to see major investment from the grassroots up and have big commercial sponsorships for women on those big prime time slots still, and selling out shows.

“I don’t think there’s a need to have female-only [boxing] shows but if that’s the case then let’s do it. Let’s all be behind it, like Sky was with the Claressa-Savannah card and let’s make the big fights happen and get the best people fighting the best.”

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Over two million viewers tuned into Claressa Shields vs Savannah Marshall making it the most-watched women’s professional boxing event in history and creating the biggest audience for a live women's sport event ever on Sky

Visibility can help increase viewing and participation figures as well as allowing the audience to move away from classifying sport by gender. For UFC star Molly McCann, she believes it has been her generation of athletes who have made audiences think differently.

“The visibility we’ve shown this year as female athletes, people have come to understand that it’s not men’s sport or women’s sport. People don’t say: ‘oh, the women’s MMA is on’, people say ‘UFC is on or Bellator is on’,” she said.

“When it’s seen and it’s visible, it’s accessible and people buy into it because women do have to work harder just to be seen.

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Women in Sport CEO, Stephanie Hilborne says the Lionesses' triumph at Euro 2022 has inspired more girls to dream that they could reach the top levels of sport

“This generation before us were the ones who knocked on the door, while we’re the generation who broke the door down. It will be the next year and the year after that where the younger kids will be able to walk through the door.”

England netball captain Nat Metcalf also wants to move away from defining sport by gender.

Nat Metcalf
Image: Nat Metcalf does not want sport to be defined by gender

“It’s an exciting time to be a female athlete in elite sport. I truly believe we are part of a movement,” she said. “I’d love to see a shift in the way it is talked about, for it to be just sport and not women’s sport.”

Further visibility can lead to increased commercial revenue and inspire the next generation of athletes, according to Sarah Hunter, who became the most-capped England international and the most-capped women’s player in history when she made her 138th appearance for the Red Roses in their World Cup quarter-final against Australia.

“I want to see continued visibility of women's sport to showcase how great and successful it is,” she said. “We have continually seen throughout 2022 that people want to watch women's sport. There's an appetite and demand for it. We need to keep shining a light on it. Being visible allows people to see and be inspired to become part of sport.

Women's Sport in 2023: Key events to watch

  • 16-29 January: Tennis – Australian Open, Melbourne
  • 10-26 February: Cricket, T20 World Cup, South Africa
  • 5 March: Football, League Cup final, Selhurst Park
  • 25 March–29 April: Rugby, Six Nations
  • 6 April: Football – Finalissima: England v Brazil, Wembley
  • 20-23 April: Golf, Chevron Championships, Woodlands, Texas
  • 3 May: Football: Champions League final, Philips Stadium, Eindhoven
  • 11 May: Netball: Superleague Grand Final
  • 14 May: Football, FA Cup final, Wembley Stadium
  • 28 May-11 June: Tennis: French Open, Roland Garros, Paris
  • 22 June–18 July: Cricket, The Ashes
  • 22-25 June: Golf: PGA Championship, Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, New Jersey
  • 3-16 July: Tennis: Wimbledon
  • 6-9 July: Golf, US Open, Pebble Beach, California
  • 20 July-20 August: Football, Women’s World Cup, Australia and New Zealand
  • 27-30 July: Golf: Evian Championship, Evian-Les-Bains, France
  • 28 July–6 August: Netball, World Cup, Cape Town, South Africa
  • 10-13 August: Women's Open, Walton Heath
  • 28 Aug-10 Sept: Tennis: US Open, Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, New York
  • 22-24 September: Golf, Solheim Cup, Finca Cortesin, Malaga, Spain

“The more it’s seen, the more commercially viable women's sport becomes and more people want to invest in it, which means more can be put back into women's sport in all formats from grassroots all the way up to elite level. This will allow women's sport to take another giant leap.”

A peak of 2.65 million UK viewers tuned in for the Rugby World Cup final on ITV despite its early kick-off at 6.30am, while a record global audience of more than 365m people watched this summer’s Euro 2022 with 50m tuning in for England’s victory over Germany in the final.

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2003 Rugby World Cup winner Will Greenwood says the Rugby World Cup 'transcended an 80-minute game' and believes the Red Roses will sell Twickenham out in the next few years

Leah Williamson, who captained England on that memorable day at Wembley, believes the old adage of seeing it to be it is absolutely key, and has been throughout her career.

"I was that girl growing up who had that picture of Kelly Smith on my wall, so I know the power of that,” she said. “I never had interactions with them. I didn't ask for a photo, but from watching from afar, it gave me that drive to be where I want to be.

“If we can stand in a space that has always been for men, but only until recently did we really feel like we belonged, it's such a powerful message outside of football. In that public space, it's important that people see us and respect us for being successful women.”

England cricket captain Heather Knight cited another factor important to the progression of women’s sport: consistency.

“The progress has been amazing over the last few years, but there are still some bilateral tours where you don’t get as much coverage as you do for World Cups. So it’s important to keep women’s sport in the spotlight, keep people following it, and make it easy for people to access and watch and have that connection with the team.”

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Recently retired Jill Scott admits she's still in euphoric mood following England's Euro 2022 win

Connectivity was key to the Lionesses' historic Euros success this summer and evident in the overwhelming support for Jill Scott when she was crowned ‘Queen of The Jungle’ having made her first steps away from the football pitch in ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here’ in November.

"There's a real momentum around women's sport at the moment, and it's great to be involved in," added Knight, who was at the forefront of one of the biggest sporting talking points this summer when she offered her verdict on Charlie Dean's 'Mankad' dismissal in the series against India which showed the appetite for healthy debate in sport regardless of it being men or women's sport.

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Former England cricketers Lydia Greenway and Dominic Cork discuss India's decision to run out Charlie Dean at the non-striker's end, securing their victory in the last one-day international of the summer at Lord's.

"We talk about it as a team about being successful and pushing women's sport forward in the UK and hopefully more of that will come," Knight, who made her international debut against India in 2010, said. "Hopefully, we'll have success like the Lionesses to keep pushing it forward.

“The success that teams are having is bringing on board sponsors and bringing more money into the game and accelerating the professionalism and standard of the game as well.”

By driving standards, audiences increase, as witnessed by the 227 per cent surge in Women’s Super League attendances from this time a year ago.

WSL clubs are now starting to stage more frequent fixtures in larger stadiums to accommodate the demand, and Chelsea and England defender Millie Bright believes this will become the norm in the near future.

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England captain Leah Williamson talked about how the Lionesses' Euro 2022 win would change the game for women's football in England

“It's exciting to play in the big stadiums and we're ready to go to that next level,” she said. ”It's time to make that jump and I know we'll get there eventually. Hopefully we'll be in a bigger stadium permanently, but you can see not just Chelsea, but all the clubs are playing in the bigger stadiums and we're getting the crowds in. The atmosphere is unbelievable and we really grow when we play in stadiums like that. You want to put on a show for everyone.”

In just five years of being fully professional, the WSL has shown the benefits of what a full-time programme can do for women’s sport - and that has been despite the impact and delay caused by Covid. It is something that both Metcalf and Hunter hope can filter into their respective sports.

“Netball was one of the hardest hit sports by the pandemic,” Metcalf said. “After a difficult couple of years, participation is rising again and we want to keep that going and get back to where we were before Covid struck. The more people involved in the game, at all ages, the better!

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Could former W Series and IndyCar's Jamie Chadwick be the first female since the 1970s to compete in Formula One?

“I would love to see more coverage of different women’s sports across all media platforms and for more sportswomen to have the opportunity to go fully professional - netball included.”

Hunter, meanwhile, feels that a lack of full-time professional teams across the world has hindered the progress of women’s rugby globally.

“If we look at the recent World Cup, only ourselves, New Zealand and Wales were full-time professional teams there. Italy and France have part-time contracts with Scotland and Ireland in recent weeks handing out full-time contracts. However, players have been expected to be professional in every approach to playing at an international level but while having to go to work to pay bills and afford to live.

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Savannah Marshall made her entrance to the ring alongside Lionesses legend Jill Scott for her historic fight against Claressa Shields

“We are at a stage of the game now where countries need to invest in their female players for the game to move to the next level globally. Our game is now at a level where it's not fair and sustainable for female rugby players to be asked to work full-time and be an international player.”

That investment can come in other areas too, as Chadwick highlighted.

“W Series, unfortunately, fell through (this season) because it lacked investors and people getting involved,” she said. “But then you look at the England women’s rugby team still flying places in economy class, and that's for them trying to go and win the World Cup. We’re still lacking the financial support of the men's counterparts but there's been a massive step forward.”

Progress can also happen fast if given the right backing to flourish, with McCann citing UFC’s rapid rise.

Molly McCann is taking time out of the sport after a whirlwind 2022
Image: Molly McCann believes it is her generation of athletes that have made audiences think differently about watching sport

“Women have only been involved in UFC since 25 February 2013, so it’s not even 10 years and look at where we are. Women’s football has absolutely transcended, especially this year, and yet they were banned from playing for 50 years.

“Misogynistic people can dampen our spirit or try to put us down when we’re just doing well and doing our best.”

What all the sportswomen questioned are in agreement with is the pride and emotion they felt at watching the Lionesses break new ground this summer and how it has changed the landscape for girls and women getting into sport.

“It’s changed women’s sport, it’s changed perceptions even more,” Knight, who watched the final with her England team at their Commonwealth Games hotel in Birmingham.

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Natasha Jonas believes that the Lionesses' success will help change attitudes towards women's sport and create a lasting legacy

“Different people follow women’s sport, you see how the status of the Lionesses has deservedly changed and hopefully it inspires a generation of people, a generation of women to play sport and also change perceptions from what it was.”

“And it proved a point,” Jonas adds. “Some of the barriers that we have as female sport is [perception that] ‘we’re not successful,’ ‘we’re not as good as the men,’ ‘we’re not as commercially viable as the men,’ all that stuff. But all the sellout games proved that wrong.

So the message is clear: 2022 was a great year for women’s sport but watch this space for the next chapter.

Reflecting on 2022 and what to look forward to this year

How would you sum up 2022 for women's sport in three words?

Heather Knight: Inspiring, progressive and exciting.

Jamie Chadwick: Inspirational, milestones and proud.

Molly McCann: It came home. (In terms of myself, I fought in London, Savannah Marshall fought in London, the Lionesses won in London, it came home for all of us).

Natasha Jonas: Visible, exciting and successful.

Nat Metcalf: Captivating, empowering and united.

Sarah Hunter: Game-changing, inspiring and successful.

What was your favourite sporting moment from your own sport?

Knight: The Test match we had in Australia, it ended in a draw, but was an absolute thriller, went down to the final hour of the final day, plenty of twists and turns, really exciting. We were gutted to finish with a draw but looking back it was an amazing Test match - the best Test match I’ve ever been involved in.

Chadwick: For me being biased, it was me winning the British W Series race - and also George Russell winning (his maiden F1 victory) in Brazil.

McCann: UFC London in March. It was the first overseas event we had got to do for a few years because of Covid. It was the first UFC event that the European fans had been able to go to, I felt like every British fighter brought it with some mad finishes. It was the breakout moment for our gym.

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England's Funmi Fadoju says that the opening Test defeat to Australia is all part of a learning experience for the Roses

Jonas: For me, it’s a toss-up between Chantelle [Cameron] becoming the undisputed super-lightweight champion with a very, very good performance against McCaskill. But also Nina Hughes [winning a title]. Obviously, those are my two team-mates from GB. Nina within five fights has become a world champion. Everyone was saying she was too old and she didn’t have it. She proved them all wrong and won that world title against a very good Jamie Mitchell.

Metcalf: It was an amazing feeling to be selected to represent Team England at the 2022 Commonwealth Games alongside so many incredibly talented athletes. Seeing the netball venue sell out for every game was an unreal feeling and I felt so proud to represent my country. Although finishing fourth was really tough, it was a huge honour to take part in a home CWG and see the country unite and celebrate netball together.

On the club front, it was awesome to be back in the Netball Super League with Manchester Thunder after four seasons away Down Under. It was an extremely competitive season back here and to top it off winning the title following an unbeaten season, alongside an incredible group was a truly special feeling.

Hunter: The World Cup final! Despite the result not being what we wanted it was an incredible game to be part of. A sell-out of 42,000 at Eden Park was a record-breaking crowd for women's rugby and the atmosphere was unbelievable even if the majority were supporting New Zealand. I genuinely believe and hope it is a moment we will look back and say this is when women's rugby was put on the map worldwide.

What can we expect from your sport in 2023?

Knight: Another great year. We’ve got an Ashes series at home which is always great fun, a T20 World Cup away from home in South Africa and The Hundred has just got better and better each year, the support and quality of the cricket has been unreal.

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Nat Sciver feels England have 'settled' on how they want to play as an aggressive T20 side, after sealing a series whitewash against South Africa in 2022

Jonas: I think we always knew how good women’s boxing is at its highest level. We just needed the world to see it and I think fans can expect from boxing, especially female boxing, some of the biggest fights, the best challenging the best which is something we don’t always get in the men’s, exciting fights and genuine 50-50s. When the best fight the best, you never know which way it’s going to go.

Metcalf: We’re heading into a World Cup year in netball so it’s a great time to get involved and join us on our journey. We also have the new Netball Super League season - 10 teams competing to lift the trophy, it’s going to be very exciting! Each season gets tougher and more competitive and we’re seeing more fans attending and more coverage on TV. Get yourself to a game and see the high skill out on court and feel the high-energy atmosphere!

"On the international stage we have two events to start the New Year - a home series against the CWG silver medalists Jamaica followed by the Netball Quad Series in Cape Town with four of the top-six nations. It’s currently so tight at the top of world netball so it’ll be very exciting to see what happens in South Africa before we return there in July for the Netball World Cup!"

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