‘I want to get to a point where people are not referring to me as “that female pundit”,’ says Alex Scott. The former Arsenal defender turned broadcaster is talking to me at a BBC Sport photo shoot in London, where a steady stream of well-known sports presenters and commentators have been walking through the doors.
She made 140 appearances for England and represented Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics as a player, before making the switch to TV studios as a pundit – and yet, right now, we are comparing notes about the abuse we have received on social media from people who believe that, as women, we are not qualified to talk about football.
‘Any negative responses are outweighed by those people who have had a positive reaction to seeing me on their screens,’ says Alex firmly. ‘I am changing perceptions and I need to keep doing what I’m doing.’
At the moment, that means preparing for what is being called the summer of women’s sport – when a season of major women’s sporting events will, it’s hoped, enjoy a groundswell of support, much like the London Olympics did in 2012.
From 7 June to 7 July, the BBC will broadcast all 52 games of the FIFA Women’s World Cup live from France – with Alex and seasoned presenter Gabby Logan two of the most prominent figures to lead the coverage – while the Netball World Cup, Wimbledon, Women’s Ashes and World Athletics Championships all air in the coming months.
Last year, Alex made history as a BBC pundit at the men’s World Cup in Russia, as the first female former player to take that role at a men’s tournament. ‘I wasn’t thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m the first female pundit and everyone is going to be looking at me,”’ she says. ‘As a player I had to be the best equipped I could be, and it’s exactly the same as a pundit. Every time I played in an England shirt I knew I needed to be at my best or I would be at risk of losing my place in the team. It’s no different in this field. I never take it for granted.’
Now a regular on Match Of The Day and Sky Sports’ coverage of the Premier League, the 34-year-old will lead a stellar BBC line-up of sportspeople-turned-pundits at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with over 800 appearances for their respective countries between them. Among the pros who will provide expert analysis across the four-week competition are Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes, England’s vice- captain Jordan Nobbs (who will miss the tournament a after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee), Casey Stoney (who steered Manchester United to promotion in the Women’s Super League in their maiden season) and former England forward and London Bees head coach Rachel Yankey. That would have been unthinkable four years ago, when just a few female footballers sat alongside male pundits.
The shift in approach reflects a rising interest in women’s sport. The UK audience for the Women’s World Cup more than doubled from 5.1 million in 2011 to 12.4 million in 2015 – remarkable given that the last tournament took place in Canada, so many of the games happened overnight. According to the BBC, 48% of that 12.4 million audience that tuned in had not previously watched any women’s sport.
Alex is confident the interest will reach new heights this summer. It was only in 2015 that every game of the Women’s World Cup was broadcast by the BBC, and until 2017 it was difficult to regularly find domestic games on TV.
‘Once they tune in, whether it’s grandparents or mums and dads watching the game with the kids, they also begin to follow stories, which is important,’ says Alex. ‘They can relate to the people that they’re seeing on their screens.’
Despite the wave of progress around the women’s game, Alex says she has no regrets about hanging up her boots. ‘I really don’t. What I’ve done in the game has helped to get it to where it is now and I’m proud of being part of that journey – I’ve been to three Women’s World Cup tournaments and earned 140 caps as a player, and this will be the first time I’m going as a pundit.’
The rate of change in women’s football is one of the most exciting trends in the sporting world, agrees Gabby Logan, a familiar face on Match Of The Day and The Premier League Show. ‘Listen, everywhere in society benefits from having both men and women involved,’ she says.
‘We must cut through the idea that it’s women’s sport only to be watched by women. Women’s football will achieve its greatest moments when the audience demographic is much more aligned [with the wider viewership].’
England’s World Cup dreams were shattered in 2015, when Laura Bassett’s stoppage time own-goal saw the Lionesses crash out against Japan in the semi-final stages of the competition. Gabby suggests success in France could have lasting effects on the landscape of women’s sport. ‘There will be an expectation that they go as far [as they did in 2015] and even one step further. If England get to the final it will be a game changer and it will throw a new spotlight on the sport.’
And, after thrashing Japan 3-0 at the SheBelieves Cup in March to win their first trophy, England head into the World Cup with the pressure of expectations that they can win it. ‘We were always told to let the football do the talking; make sure you take care of business first and then the other stuff will follow,’ says Alex. ‘The England players have a responsibility to make sure they’re focused, training hard and doing all they can to get their hands on a gold medal in the World Cup final.’
But, aside from the thrill of following the national team, why does it matter? The fact is, there’s a proven correlation between women’s sport coverage on television and the number of girls
and women participating themselves – something Gabby knows first-hand. As a young gymnast who represented Wales at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, she admits her athletic ambitions were hampered as it was almost impossible to catch a glimpse of rhythmic gymnastics on television during her childhood. ‘To have all these sports across the schedules throughout the year is much more positive for young girls,’ she says. ‘It’s reassuring for them to see that there are clear pathways to success. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’