Photo by Jeffrey F Lin / Unsplash

Limitless: A future of one’s own for women’s sport

Missing Perspectives contributor and sports expert Kate May dared to ask herself: if you were to design women’s sport from the ground up and with no limitations, what would it look like? This manifesto is her answer.

"As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think," - Toni Morrison 

A couple of years ago in a work meeting with senior executives, a straight, white, male leader commented that he’d only recently come to realise that other people had different perspectives of the world to him. It was an unbelievable statement, but also perhaps his honesty in sharing this reflection made it all the more believable - there’s probably plenty of straight, white men in positions of power who have never had this thought. 

At the time, I was shocked and frustrated. To be honest, I still am. How could a man in a leadership position, setting the tone for critical decision making and role modeling culture, have completely neglected to consider diversity in people and perspective? But then we do know how... Research and lived experience tell us that many, if not all, of the systems that exist today in society were designed by and for a subset of the population, and this is enshrined in processes, access, culture and decision-making. 

Ever since, I have since channeled this memory into a fuel that drives my passion for achieving equity and empowering diverse communities. For me, I always come back to sport as a platform and source of common good that can benefit everyone. It helps us to connect as a community, it’s flexible enough to suit the needs of everyone, and has the power to improve our health and create immense joy. But it’s not perfect, in fact I would argue that sport, from grassroots through to elite representation and professional competitions, is fundamentally flawed given the significant barriers to access for so many diverse cohorts. It’s a system largely designed by and for the same type of people, and fails to deliver tailored options to meet the needs of the whole population. 

So what do we do? We fight, argue, retrofit, borrow, hope, adapt and try to ‘make it work’. But is trying to fit ourselves into a broken sporting world all that there is? Constantly working towards a future state we might never get to, and doesn’t really achieve what we would want if we had the choice? 

These feelings and frustrations recently crystallised for me after listening to Chloe Dalton’s interview with futurist Reanna Browne, who asked Chloe - if you were to design women’s sport* from the ground up and with no limitations, what would it look like? 

Daring to dream

With the broadest possible view of sport, I am going to take on the challenge. 

It’s no small task to create a new version of the world we know. A system that is oppressive, discriminatory, and rigid. But by starting anew, we can break free from those limits and dream about the future of women’s sport in a way that we’ve never dared to. We owe that to ourselves, to those who dreamed before us, to those who created change, and to those who will come after us. 

Sufi mystic and French philosopher Henry Corbin calls this headspace the “imaginal realm”, and Princeton professor and activist Ruha Benjamin and author of Imagination: A Manifesto invites her readers to dive into an imaginative space that’s “undisciplined, promiscuous and porous”. With this in mind, let’s lean into radical imagination and see what kind of world we can create where everyone can thrive.

The foundation of our sport

One of the most special things about women’s sport is the heart, the humanness, the bravery, the community and the passion. There’s nothing quite like the determination of someone who’s trying to prove people wrong and achieve their dream. I can only begin to wonder how powerful this could be in a limitless world, where opportunity and creativity have free reign. 

This becomes the core of my new world -  the establishment of a set of binding and common values that draw on the strengths of diverse communities and women’s sport to create a strong foundation. This provides clarity, consistency and connection, guiding operations and decisions. This approach enshrines the heart and soul of women’s sport into the core of everything, from how decisions are made to the culture.  

When I imagine what values would underpin this new world of women’s sport, and how these could guide decisions about business partners to sponsorship agreements, I think of intersectionality, empowerment, collaboration, sustainability, social justice, self-determination, continuous improvement, and integrity. These are the values that I see in women’s sport, from the volunteers, to the fans, to the athletes and leaders. More broadly, this is what we as women stand for because ultimately the liberation of all marginalised groups is tied into our own liberation, and so we stand together and show up as a community for the greatest good. 

Intersectionality is a key driver for achieving a system that is stronger for recognising and celebrating the diversity and uniqueness of each individual.

As a white queer woman with disability, I am continuously reflecting on my privileges while also acknowledging the limitations imposed on me by society’s systems. I think about all the opportunities I’ve been able to enjoy, but also the times I’ve been told no or been discriminated against. I’d like to think in this limitless world, we’re bringing out the best of each other and ourselves to ensure that everyone can benefit.

Building our world from the ground up 

Infrastructure - be it for community, competition, and/or training - should be designed by those who are intended to be the end user. This looks like engaging construction and architectural businesses that are led by marginalised genders and diverse individuals who understand the needs to be met through the product. Underpinning this approach is a commitment to universal design, a philosophy that posits that if an environment can be accessed, understood, is convenient, pleasing to use, and most importantly, benefits everyone. 

It seems obvious that maximising how a building and/or environment can be used by addressing the needs, size and abilities of all people is essential to the design of a building, and yet it’s here in my future limitless world because I don’t think this is what we see in our present - in sport or more broadly.  It was only a few years ago that I got heckled by a security guard for using a lift at Stamford Bridge instead of taking the stairs… sigh #invisibledisability.

In my dream world, there’s a new stadium built by and for women. It serves both grassroots and elite level sport for training and games. For community and fans, this includes accessible and inclusive bathrooms and change rooms, childcare and family friendly spaces, dedicated quiet and safe sensory spaces, local and healthy food choices, appropriate security measures. 

If we turn to Kansas City, the new CPKC Stadium is one of the first known examples of a stadium designed and built exclusively for women, and by women. In terms of features, it includes eco-conscious design, separate rooms for kids and adults with noise sensitivities, a nursing room for new mothers, and a changing room for families with small children.

Meanwhile, in Portland Oregon, Jenny Nguyen has opened a women’s only sports bar called “The Sports Bra”, telling Missing Perspectives that she’s had women athletes enter as a customer saying that they’ve never felt so “seen” by a venue. If I could realise a dream with passion alone, I’d be the next franchisee with a venue in Melbourne… and no prior hospitality experience! 

Jump over to South Korea, and women now make up 55 per cent of fans at professional sporting events, according to estimates by the Korea Professional Sports Association. How did they get here? In part due to a strong sense of security and family friendly childcare facilities. 

In my dream women’s sporting world, public transport and parking is convenient, affordable and accessible. It’s easy and safe to walk around. Partnerships with local councils and transport providers support ease of access for people with disability, frequent public transport at relevant times, and discounted ticketing for use of public transport. 

The facilities employ best practice when it comes to environment sustainability and considering the impact of climate change on the infrastructure and the sport itself. This includes building a carbon neutral stadium with recycled materials, native landscaping, solar panels and other renewable energy sources, electrification to the greatest extent possible,  use of sustainable products (e.g., cleaning, or in bathrooms), partnering with and promoting local environmental organisations, and achieving relevant environmental accreditation and certifications. 

For elite and professional purposes, there are lecture and study spaces for both team specific education and extracurricular learning for all athletes to support long-term career planning on and off the field, a kitchen to support athletes to learn essential skills and good nutrition, quiet and rest facilities. 

Co-located to the stadium is a health centre to support medical assessments, research, education; a childcare centre to support working athletes and staff with caring duties; and local businesses with shared values that can serve the community. 

Tell me ... does this not sound like the dream work place, or setting to attend a professional women's sporting game? You can get there easily, be comfortable and know that it's a safe and welcoming environment. Even more, it's a precinct dedicated to opportunities for women in sport, sustainability, and the local community, built on a model of lifting each other up and exploring opportunities together.  

Everyone gets the chance to see the game 

In my dream world, schedules are based on the needs and preferences of the audience attending games and the players and with consideration of prime time broadcast opportunities. NOT like the current status quo where women’s professional sports aren’t always televised, or are played at times around the clock to make sure men get the best opportunity for viewers and attendees.

Implementing a co-design model empowers those involved to elect the best schedule whilst also avoiding potential  conflicts i.e., during business hours or children’s sport and school pick up times, whilst capitalising on peak engagement periods i.e., prime time evening or family friendly slots. 

Athletes have access to fair and reasonable pay, which reflects their on court performance and full time dedication to the sport. Full stop. 

A slide scale ticketing system is implemented for games, to make sure that  everyone can view the sport regardless of their income or economic status, charging more to those who can afford it. This approach in part addresses the present issue of access vs cost, whereby you either prioritise increasing exposure by minimising the cost of attendance but potentially by devaluing your product, or increase costs and discriminate against communities and families who can’t afford such expenses. Sport is a joy that should be shared, and everyone should have the opportunity to participate on and off the field; to see themselves represented, and to attend the highest quality matches. 

Leading from the top and the bottom

Leaders and decision makers, on and off the field, are diverse individuals who truly reflect our society.  Having a variety of perspectives, lived experience, and expertise that represent the broader community will ensure the sport is delivered in alignment with their needs.

It’s important in my view to have leaders that are engaged and visible in the community, helping to role model culture and inspire the next generation. This can be part of a pipeline to support education, training and mentoring of both current and future leaders to help build a legacy of success. 

To help inform leaders and decision makers, separate advisory committees made up of athletes and individuals with intersectional lived experience are created. This will further ensure the experiences of those on the ground are understood at the top, uplifting the community’s voice.  It also provides those individuals with incredible personal growth opportunities; and to help develop skills in advocacy and governance to support their own journey. 

As this is my world, everyone has the opportunity to engage in sport and in the ways that suit them, regardless of age, size, ability, disability, culture, athleticism, and financial means. There are a range of programs and clinics from ‘come and try’ sessions, to traditional competition, to flexible and social participation opportunities. These are delivered to the participants in ways that reflect the different ways individuals learn, express themselves, and engage with their culture or religion i.e., through a wide range of uniforms, flexible schedules, closed sessions. 

A ‘complete pipeline’ is available to support participation from grassroots development, to youth competitions, to high performance and -professionalevels. This type of feeder system could theoretically see a young athlete learn the game, refine their skills, and enter a professional league all within the same eco-system and with a comprehensive holistic support system along the way. 

Alternatively, an older individual might re-engage with sport for the first time through a come and try session, or a mother with disability joins a social league that meets her caring and accessibility needs. Or a young woman who got told she could never play team sport again due to her chronic health issues/disability, 10 years later finds a social competition that connects her with her authentic self, her community, and is physically manageable. Spoiler alert, the last one is me and I am grateful, deep into my soul, for Queer Sport Alliance and specifically their netball program in Melbourne. 

In the US, the League One Volleyball (LOVB) has created a complete pipeline with programs at the youth, college and professional levels. It’s investment in grassroots development and growing fans of the game has led to it becoming the country’s largest youth volleyball brand, fundraising of $35 million from high profile athletes and celebrity investors, a multi-year media rights deal with ESPN, and 9 of 12 starters from the US Olympic women’s volleyball roster having signed deals with the LOVB professional league.

Time to try something new 

Let’s create new sports and recreational activities. Who would’ve thought of that? As it turns out, not me, but my wife so thank you to her for helping demonstrate the power of different perspectives! 

I want to know what it looks like to get a room full of diverse experiences, different disabilities, size, ages and with consideration of what a fun new activity could look like built by and for us; with the capacity to be flexible in line with universal design. This would be an incredible opportunity to lean into creativity, to our understanding of the strengths of women’s bodies and minds, and consider what could be possible. Let’s think about speed, endurance, balance, strategy and all the different variables that can be played with to develop a wonderful new way to exercise and connect. 

A new style of marketing and storytelling

This is sport i.e., not women’s sport. Communications and marketing highlight the stories of the sport - the athletes, officials, on and off the field leaders, the volunteers, the fans, the supporters. Celebrating diversity, resilience and a human-focused approach is embedded into business as usual communications including imagery, marketing, inclusive language.

This would negate the need for specific inclusion rounds. I’m not saying that there’s no value in these types of events, but for me these are only truly celebratory if the organisation is genuinely practising and standing up for inclusion. Also a person’s identity doesn’t disappear for the other 364 days in a year, nor can a person’s whole self truly be honoured through the narrow lens of one part of their identity. 

A strengths based approach is applied which leans into empowerment, authenticity, the uplifting of voices, and celebration of abilities. This approach doesn’t suggest there are no issues, but instead refocuses on the existing strengths and how they can be built on to achieve improved outcomes. 

This takes me back to my favourite part and the heart of women’s sport - the people. It’s each individual’s journey, their grit, resilience, strength, vulnerability. It’s the story of where they came from and how they got there, who helped them and who inspires them to the next level. In limitless world of women’s sport, we harness the power of each individual’s unique identity, the strength and connectedness of our community, and we lift each other up into the unknown. We celebrate and value those who came before us, those around us, and we prepare for those coming next, because who knows what they could do when the whole world is at their fingertips. 

I hope reading this article prompts you to reflect on what YOU want in the future for women’s sport, and to what extent that is informed and potentially constrained by what you know. Tap into the dreams of your inner child and your most imaginative self to consider what the future of women’s sport looks like, and from there? Take the first step in that direction. Lean on the legacy of the trailblazers before us, share ideas with your  community, challenge the system, and let’s bring that future into the present because why wait?  

* Editor's note: In this article ‘women’s sport’ represents more broadly ‘sport for marginalised genders’.