Interview: Erin Walters on the future of women’s sport

Gerald Wu 23 January 2014

In light of the recent proposals in the House of Lords, Ospreys president Erin Walters talks to TCS Sport about the road ahead for sportswomen and the Ospreys…

Why do you think women's sport is less popular nationally?
I think it is because of deep-rooted traditional attitudes and social limitations more than anything else. Our world is one in which women’s sport is already starting from a position of disadvantage. The hurdles include funding, old-fashioned ideas on how sportswomen should look and act both on and off the pitch, and disparities in facilities and resources.

Women’s sport needs a much bigger boost not only from National Governing Bodies (NGBs), media, and government, but from communities and society as a whole to close this gap.  However, we are at a very exciting crossroad.  A lot of research is being done into the matter-both government-driven and academic, including here at Cambridge-so important steps are being taken in the right direction.  Women’s sport is receiving attention in Parliament, and corporations such as our Ospreys sponsors BP, Deutsche Bank, and Oliver Wyman realise how beneficial women’s sport is in a wider sense.

This is mirrored to a good extent at Cambridge, with the men’s teams benefitting from a much more substantial tradition of male sport.  Women’s teams work extremely hard and are closing this gap, which is invaluably beneficial and a major credit to all of these sportswomen. I believe in supporting Cambridge sport as a whole.  Men’s and women’s sports cannot exist in this day, and Cambridge sport cannot be as good as it can be, without each other.  We’re all rooting for the same side and supporting each other.

Talk us through proposals being made in the House of Lords. Are they enough?
The government is conducting an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the House of Lords on women’s sport.  It is led by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and I was fortunate enough to attend as a representative of Ospreys.  It is early stages and there’s still a lot of work to do to move beyond discussions and into action. However, with the government paying attention, things do appear to be moving in the right direction.  There has also been oral evidence presented in the House of Commons, so the push is on.  Quite a bit of this research is being conducted here in Cambridge, so it should be recognised that the University is playing a key role in what will hopefully be a major step forward towards reaching some measure of equality

How much will increased funding for women tackle the problems?
Money can’t solve all the problems, but-if spent correctly-it can do a lot of good.  This isn’t even a discussion of reaching any semblance of wage equality for women’s professional athletes, it’s about using the money to fund high-level role models alongside grassroots development.  It’s about generating publicity and media to spread the popularity of a sport, and creating and advertising opportunities for participation at every ability and age level.  If the top players are funded, then we are best equipped to continue to push the sport to its limits, develop new techniques, and impart such to the younger generations of up-and-coming players.  Without funding, women’s sport finds itself stagnating.

Using my own experience with lacrosse as an example, I can see how this could be very beneficial. Playing international lacrosse is expensive, especially in a World Cup year, and the majority are self-funded. So when the NGBs of many sports barely have the money to support their own athletes, publicity and media come as an afterthought.  Any publicity surrounding the World Cup came from the players and coaches. Although we worked hard for it, our priorities and skills are on performing well and not marketing.  If we had more money, we could have afforded to hire media professionals to do this for us. Compare this to the situation in the USA, for example, where there’s a very public national lacrosse team for girls to admire, and where the growth of the sport is exponential.  This all needs to be done alongside grassroots development of sports.

How can female sports at Cambridge raise their profile for the future? What is the role of the Ospreys?
The key is a relationship between the Ospreys, clubs, and partners such as the Women’s Blues Committee.  The Ospreys is Cambridge’s society of sportswomen for sportswomen and our motto is to raise the profile of women’s sport.

We hold events throughout the year, provide bursaries, and offer career opportunities. The events are opportunities for the Ospreys to come together, meet sportswomen from other clubs in a social environment, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.  Our Michaelmas speakers dinner featured GB Olympic hockey bronze medallist Hannah Macleod and Kate Dobinson, sports content editor for The Telegraph.  The dinner was also in aid of Women’s Sport Trust, which is an outstanding new national charity started by female leaders in business, media, and sport that helps fund women’s sport in the UK from the grassroots to the amateur elite.

On another level, I think the on-pitch success is what most clearly defines the development of female sport at Cambridge over the last few years.  We’ve had the women’s Boat Race moving to the Tideway and the women’s rugby club merging with the men’s, which couldn’t have happened if not for the hard work and successes of the women of those clubs.  Then there’s the exciting Varsity upsets, and a variety of results such as fencing’s BUCS medals, cycling’s presence on the national and international stage, hockey getting promoted to the Premiership, lacrosse winning two BUCS National Championships in a row, and many, many more.

How much have you been able to make a difference at the head of the Ospreys?
It’s not just me. We have a fantastic committee and a great membership base.  This year, we are working hard to increase our membership, provide opportunities to meet other sportswomen and bond over a shared Light Blue pride, and in general be the backbone for all the women’s sport clubs here at Cambridge.

My main aim is to focus on access, development, and equality of sport to make all of our lives easier as Cambridge student-athletes.  We’re working on setting up an academic liaison scheme to help sportspeople balance their academic responsibilities with sporting commitments, based on a model I experienced as an undergraduate student-athlete at Brown University. Ospreys has also established three new awards to go along with our bursaries and Osprey of the Year award: The Lady Gurdon Award for academic excellence, the Oliver Wyman Team of the Year award, and a Deutsche Bank Award for Development to honour contribution to access, equality, and Cambridge sport beyond the pitch.