The Guardian: More girls are now playing football than netball. And that’s a healthy competition

Gone are the days when a footy-loving girl was told to hang up her shorts for a netball skirt. But that doesn’t mean one sport is better than another

The headline couldn’t be clearer: “More girls now playing soccer than netball”. Soccer, or football, is now more popular among girls aged 6-13 than netball, according to the latest findings by the market research company Roy Morgan Research. The headline is stark, the inference appears damning; netball is a sport in which Australia’s women have dominated the international scene for decades. They have won the last three World Cups in succession. On the domestic scene too, the Trans-Tasman league, played across Australia and New Zealand, is the strongest in the world. Now, however, netball has been “overtaken” by football, that rough and tumble, imported game played, traditionally, by men.

Football is now, according to the data, also more popular among both 6-13 year-old girls and boys than basketball, athletics, bicycling and cricket. Cricket, a sport whose national team captain – the male version – is widely considered to be only second in stature behind that of the prime minister, ranks as only the seventh most popular sport among this age bracket. Given the age bracket, it’s perhaps understandable; at this stage in life it’s often the sports that are simple to play and easy to facilitate that are most attractive to children and parents alike. The intricacies of sports like cricket come later.

The newly released data on the whole is encouraging; more Australian kids are participating in a wider range of sports than they were 12 months ago. However, it’s the figures on girls’ participation which arethe most interesting and, on the whole, appear a thoroughly good thing. It wasn’t long ago when any girl interested in footballwas in danger of suffering unflattering labels and cast aside from the gang of girls we all so aspired to join. Only the truly committed prevailed.

A girl playing football was a test of her environment too. Aged 12 and well on my way to becoming the first woman to play in the English Premier League (yes, this was going to happen, alongside Alan Shearer, obviously) I remember the gentle nudge towards the more “appropriate” sport of hockey. “Wear a skirt,” I was told. “They suit girls more than football shorts.” Hockey it was.

Now however, the barriers are falling. Despite netball’s loss (although I never really did understand the fascination with this game – what use in stopping the moment one is in possession of the ball?), the breaking down of gender stereotypes and removal of inhibitions is a positive step. For sports previously classed as masculine – football, cricket, rugby, Australian rules football – it’s a sign that attitudes are changing. Only last month we heard that female participation in Australian football soared by 46% in the space of just a year. Cricket, too, has enjoyed a 20% bump in female participation. More sports, more sport. This is healthy, not only for Australia’s inclusiveness, but for its sporting pedigree full-stop, as well as the nation’s waistline, no doubt.

Netball isn’t in fact in decline – it has just been knocked off its pedestal. While a bit of jostling for position is healthy in any scenario, it’s important that netball, personal indifference aside, be kept a serious option for any child. Some kids enjoy netball not because of the company or image, but for the game itself – the very essence of sport in the first place.

In the United Kingdom a campaign recently launched by Sport England, a government quango, is seeking to get girls active, regardless of sporting ability or inclination. While the breaking down of barriers for women and girls to “non-traditional sports” is a welcome progression, it’s important that all sports, netball, dance, gymnastics – those perceived as the traditional “girly” sports – remain accessible to all girls. And boys. The dangers of stereotyping work both ways.

All in all, however, the research provides welcoming news. The Australian women’s football team, the Matildas, have been very successful of late. Earlier this year they became the first Australian team, male or female, to win a knockout stage match at a World Cup when they defeated the highly-rated Brazilian team. Australia’s premier domestic women’s competition, the W-league, is gradually increasing in prominence too. Young girls, and their parents, are taking an interest.

Recently the Matildas made headlines as they were embroiled in a public pay dispute with Football Federation Australia. While the encounter proved ugly, and a US tour was sacrificed, the mere fact that headlines were being made and real wages negotiated is perhaps another part of the increasing attraction of women’s football . There is still a long way to go; latest reports suggest that a woman representing Australia’s national soccer team can expect to earn just $34,000. However, like cricket, a career as a professional football player, previously the preserve of men alone, is now, slowly, becoming a viable career option. The question now perhaps shouldn’t be why so many girls are playing football , but why not more?

• This article was originally published in The Guardian on 25 November 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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