Sarah Shephard: “It’s going to take a long time, but the progress of the professional side of it should help encourage women into other areas of the sport.”
By Chris Akers
There have not been many positives from the way boxing has been affected by the current pandemic. However, one upside has been the increased coverage of female fighters in the sport.
Not just those fighters who had a successful international amateur career and thus were well known before their pro debuts, such as Katie Taylor and Claressa Shields, but also world champions such as Terri Harper who has gained a sizeable following within the sport after winning the world title.
Yet while there is increased visibility of women competing, women reporting from the periphery of the ring as well as working within the sport are still low in number.
“I spoke to a female referee for an article. She’s high up but she works at amateur level. I spoke to her about how she’s found it and it’s obviously very male-dominated. In any industry, it’s kind of known that the more diverse it is, the stronger the better it is. I think the sport would only improve if you had more woman judges and referees,” says Shephard for FightPost. Shephard explains how striking the lack of women in the sport is, by was due to start.
“There was a woman wrapping a fighter’s hand in the dressing room. That immediately hit me when I saw it, as I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. It’s one of those sports that will probably be one of the last ones to diversify in terms of gender, because of the nature of the sport I guess.”
The story of Jane Couch is well known amongst fans of the sport. Yet go back further and the stories of women such as Barbara Buttrick, while maybe less known, are equally important. Women such as Couch and Buttrick show a chronology of the struggles of women to not just be allowed in the ring, but to be taken seriously within the sport.
“Women have only been allowed to do it professionally since 1998 and it’s only been an Olympic sport since 2012,” Shephard explains. “It’s so new in that sense compared to other sports. It’s going to take a long time, but the progress of the professional side of it should help encourage women into other areas of the sport. We see some female broadcasters now. You have Anna Woolhouse on Sky, Jeanette Kwakye on Channel Five which is brilliant. In terms of female writers, there are not many. That’s definitely an area I’d like to see grow. But that’s going to take time.”
While more women writing about the sport would be a good thing, there’s an argument that the introduction of podcasts and websites will make that slightly easier for women to write and report about the sport. Those two mediums often don’t require the gatekeeper avenues of traditional media outlets, such as television and newspapers.
“There are more options now. Boxing writing in this country is so hard to get into because not many of the national papers have a dedicated boxing writer anymore. The writer who does boxing also does tennis or does football or athletics. Even The Times laid off an excellent boxing writer in Ron Lewis, which is just baffling for a national newspaper, as far as I’m aware, not to have a full-time boxing writer.
“So the fact that there are other avenues is brilliant for people who want to get into covering the sport in any way. There’s more options to do that now and to an extent, it feels a bit more in your control.”
Control of a career is something that fighters would love to have, yet only a few are blessed with. Indeed, it seems to be you have to be a certain kind of boxer just to receive an opportunity to get to the highest level or have a top promoter sign you. Either you have to have an exciting style or be unique or eccentric. Is this truly the case? Shephard explains that in the modern age, social media can play a part in this.
“I think with social media, it has had an impact. I know that promoters look at prospects’ social media, in terms of the following they’ve got when they’re looking to sign up people from the amateurs. So in that respect, that has had an impact I would say. Often it’s the ones who make the most noise on social media who get opportunities ahead of others who may deserve those opportunities more, because of the position they’ve worked themselves into or their talent in the ring.
“But because they are a quieter character or they don’t quite have the following, they’re overlooked a little bit. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. But I think every fighter now understands the importance of social media, and I think they are aware that it’s a necessary evil.”
Maybe the authorities themselves could do a better job in promoting boxing? Shephard’s answer is more subtle than a simple yes or no.
“I see where you’re coming from, but I know that organisations like England Boxing and GB Boxing are restricted. They don’t have huge numbers of people working for them. They’re quite small organisations. And I know that the time that it takes to properly promote a young fighter and what it cost.”
This comes in part to Shephard’s own experience when she began writing about sport.
“When I was covering sport for Sport Magazine, especially women’s sport, often we’d want to promote the fact that there was a women’s football match or a women’s hockey match on that weekend. We would try and get information about it for the governing bodies was like trying to get blood out of a stone sometimes. They didn’t have anything in place to really promote their sport. And at the time I was like ‘I don’t understand why this is.’
“Over the years I’ve come to understand that a lot of the time it is resources. That they just don’t have those resources in place. So yeah I kind of agree with you, but on the understanding that it’s not always that easy and I think that the fighters have to accept that that’s the case and there are going to have to do a lot of it themselves.
“Even at the pro level, I think that they don’t promote the female boxers as much as they could. Matchroom is doing a brilliant job with Katie Taylor, and Terri Harper they’re doing a great job with. But they’ve also got quite a lot of other female boxers who don’t always get the push or the airtime they need. They need more often than the guys because it’s harder for them to get coverage and make themselves heard. They haven’t always had the platform through the ranks that the guys have had, so they need a bit more pushing. So there has to be a concerted effort by everybody I suppose.”
Matchroom has become a centrifugal force around which the majority of women’s boxing has operated. While other promoters do promote the odd female fighter, Matchroom appears to be the only promoter with a substantial portfolio of women boxers, who operate at all levels of the professional side of the sport.
“It’s crazy. Frank Warren had Nicola Adams, but since her, he hasn’t dipped his toe in it at all. The problem is that when you have one promoter dominating like that and threatening to dominate the whole sport, in terms of unifying at all different weights, it’s not great in terms of competition. What you want is the talent to be spread out. The Sauerlands have a few fighters. But it feels like Matchroom is doing all the pushing. That has good and bad connotations.
“I think people will catch up eventually. It’s a bit like women’s football where Man United didn’t have a women’s team for ages and you just couldn’t understand it. Every other Premier League team had a women’s team and they were refusing to go that way. And then a couple of years ago, they changed their mind and now they’re reaping the benefits of that. It took them a bit longer to realise the opportunities that were in front of them.
“I’m hoping that will be the case in boxing, where other promoters think ‘Hang on. We can do this too.’ It’s pretty cost-effective when to comes to boxing and it can earn us all this other attention and there’s no real downside to it. So you hope that other people will follow Matchroom’s lead eventually.”