We caught up with Sarah Colgan of Along Came A Spider, the agency responsible for 20x20.
Sarah Colgan recalls a time when her, now 8-year-old, daughter Emily used to dread playing sport. “Emily was 6-years-old then and she used to moan every time she had to go to our local sports club,” explains the former TV producer and mother of three from Dublin. “I remember thinking, well maybe she can do drama or ballet instead, but there’s no way her brother is giving up sport.”
This, Sarah now realises was ‘auto-pilot thinking’. “It was a moment of weakness on my part,” she says. “The reality was that my daughter needed to play sport, just as much as my son. She needed it for social, emotional, physical and identity reasons. It’s just so important.”
20x20 was born from the idea that there was a vicious cycle holding women back.
It was this realisation, coupled with conversations she was having with other female members of staff, including the co-founder of Along Came A Spider, Heather Thornton, that led to the idea for the 20x20.
For those who don’t already know, the KPMG-sponsored 20x20 initiative called for an increase in media coverage, as well as aiming to boost attendance and grow involvement in female sport by 20 per cent, by the end of 2020. Moreover, the aim was to create a cultural shift in people’s perception of women in sport.
It was no ordinary task. But then this is no ordinary campaign. If it was to work it had to involve not just sporting bodies, but the Irish public and the media. A report by Nielsen commissioned by 20x20 in 2018 found that just 3 per cent of sports print coverage, 4 per cent of sports online coverage and 12 per cent of sports television coverage was dedicated to women. Yet, 57 per cent wanted to see equal visibility in the media for female and male sporting roles. And 67 per cent would like to see Ireland’s sportswomen become national heroes in the same way as sportsmen.
“In fact, 20x20 was born from the idea that there was a vicious cycle holding women back,” says Sarah. “We looked at the barriers and realised we needed to put a dent in them and change people’s perception of women in sport. From the start, however, we were clear, this was not about women for women. We wanted men to be just as involved.”
Of course, more women playing sport is hugely beneficial for both men and women – and for society as a whole. “It gives us more athletes to follow and therefore more sport,” says Sarah. “It also sends a message to the younger generations – both boys and girls – that women are not inherently less worthy of our attention than men. What’s more, 50 per cent of our population playing more sport, means that 50 per cent more are healthier physically, mentally and emotionally. This leads to a happier society.”
Launched in October 2018, 20x20 has gone from strength to strength. It’s no wonder that in 2019, #20x20 was the second most-used social issue hashtag in the country.
Key factors in its success, says Sarah, include sponsorship by AIG, Investec, Lidl, Three and of course KPMG. “It sends out the message that brands of this stature see the value of growing women’s sport,” she explains.
Another important factor is the partnership with The Federation of Irish Sport, and the fact that 71 sporting national or governing bodies, or local sports partnerships, got behind the campaign. “That level of support is unprecedented,” says Sarah, pointing out the impact which has been felt, not just in Ireland, but globally.
The achievements of 20x20 are numerous. National broadcaster RTÉ came onboard as one of the official media partners, announcing in May that, rather than simply increasing coverage of women in sport by 20 per cent, that 20 per cent of their overall sports coverage would be of women in sport, by 2020.
Support has come too from media companies TG4, Off the Ball, Her.ie and SportsJOE.ie, and more recently from Facebook, Google and Twitter. Sarah and Heather won 'The Gamechanger’ award for 2019 at the Irish Tatler’s Women of the Year Awards and 20x20 won ‘The Sporting Innovation of the Year Award’ at the 2019 Irish Sport Industry Awards. It also resulted in the first ever 20x20 Media awards, launched by Investec in February 2019. What’s more, last July AIG announced it was taking their sponsorship logo off the Dublin GAA jerseys and replacing it with ‘If She Can’t See It, She Can’t Be It’ in honour of 20x20.
In addition, 28 out of 30 national universities have signed a 20x20 charter. And athletes, not just in Ireland, but around the world, have pledged their support.
If you need more proof: a total of six attendance records were broken at national women’s games in Ireland this year. These include: Ireland v France Women’s Six Nations; The UEFA Women's Ireland v Ukraine Euro 2021 qualifier; The Ladies All-Ireland GAA Football final; The 2019 All-Ireland Senior Camogie All-Ireland Final; and the two Women’s Hockey Olympic qualifiers.
It’s not over yet. The two-year campaign will continue until October 2020 and is divided into five phases. The first two have already taken place and garnered much attention. ‘Show your Stripes’ which launched in March, on International Women’s Day, asked men and women across the country to pledge one action to support women in sport in 2019. The ‘Hero your Hero’ initiative meanwhile, launched last May, and urged women to pay tribute to the people who encouraged them in to play sport along the way.
The current phase called ‘Show your Skill’ looks at the common misconception around female athletes and skill – as a direct result of not being visible enough. Women and girls are being asked to post short clips of themselves, excelling at any type of sport with the hashtag #cantseecantbe. “It’s not just about seeing elite female athletes on television, it’s about seeing women in sport valued,” says Sarah.
Boys need to play well to feel like they belong, but girls need to feel like they belong, in order to play well.
All this activity appears to be working. The latest television rating point results of an RTÉ survey found that 62 per cent of those aware of the campaign watch more sport on TV as a result of 20x20, 57 per cent read more about women’s sport in the media and 38 per cent attend more female sports events.
There are anecdotal signs of change too. Sarah’s daughter Emily – now 8, has, with Sarah’s encouragement, changed her attitude to sport and now happily plays football, camogie, gymnastics, Taekwondo, swimming and tennis. “Seeing the difference in her is great,” says Sarah, adding a quote she heard recently. “Boys need to play well to feel like they belong, but girls need to feel like they belong, in order to play well.” She pauses and smiles. “The landscape is changing and it’s so exciting.”