New RFL president Clare Balding says the sport has done so well in terms of diversity, but adds there’s still more to do
The new President of the Rugby Football League has spoken of her pride at the example the sport has shown in embracing diversity.
Seen by many as the face of TV sports presenters, Clare Balding took up her new role this month and said today that while much has been achieved there is still more to accomplish, but added that it is 'going to be really good fun’.
Balding, who took over from former Arsenal captain Tony Adams, said: “The first thing I would say is that there is always further to go, there is always room for improvements.
"Yes, I think it [rugby league] is ahead of the curve in many ways, for example I am not the first female president of the RFL. In 1995 Kath Hetherington was president and that is really far ahead of the curve! Secondly, you'll find women in quite senior roles in rugby league.
"And thirdly, in terms of embracing sexuality, I think rugby league has been, I mean, oh my word, so much further forward than other sports. I think there are some other sports who could consult with rugby league and say ‘how did you do that because you seem to be successful at creating a warm environment’.
"That’s because the crowd have never been [threatening]. Yes, you care passionately about your club and you will support your club until the end of your days, but that doesn't mean that you are aggressive or violent towards someone else.
“I have never felt that feeling I have felt at men’s football matches where you just go ‘I dont want to be here anymore’. There has never been that threatening [feeling]. Not in my experience anyway.”
Alongside its level of diversity, Balding also hails the RFL’s commitment to developing the women’s game, something she believes is important. And she is very keen to see an increase in participation levels.
"I think it’s access and understanding. Its availability is the biggest challenge because it doesn't have the history that women's football has, that goes right back to the early 20th century.
"Obviously the Rugby League World Cup next year is going to do a massive job in promoting the sport. Most people won’t have seen it and I think that's why you don’t imagine yourself playing it.
"It's beyond the imagination of most girls in schools because they’re not seeing their peers or immediate elders do it and that can change really quickly. So I think the snowball effect from the World Cup is going to be really interesting.
"The coverage the BBC are giving the women’s game with the World Cup is going to be absolutely essential, getting names and personalities and stories out there - all of that matters. But I think the best thing about it is the RFL is so committed to making sure it is properly supported.
“That coaches and the facilitates are top class and, essentially, if you make that choice to play the sport you are going to be looked after and that’s something you can count on."
And personally she added she wants to use social media as a force of nature to increase the exposure of the women’s game.
“I think putting a focus on it and talking about it is something I will always do. I will love to go to matches in person, when we’re allowed to, and that always helps, get to know some of the players,” she added.
"And because I come from a media background, I am very aware of storytelling and we tell our own stories on social media. What social media can do is create a buzz that rolls and rolls and rolls. I think that there are real opportunities for making good online content that is good and sharp and interesting and insightful.
“I think across the game there is an honesty and emotional intelligence that is appealing to people because players will be honest about their struggles as well as their successes.”
Balding has two years in the role, so what specifically will she be doing in that time to leave her stamp on the presidency?
"From now until the World Cup I certainly think my role is promoting that competition and making sure people are aware of it. Trying to, as soon as we know where we are with crowds, increase ticket sales. And I think because I still write myself and make films there’s a chance for me to generate my own things.
"There is a real commitment from the RFL to seeing that growth [in the women’s game] so that would involve me going into schools. I also want to understand what the facilities are at various clubs so I can be much more accurate when children ask me questions and I need to be able to answer those questions.
"I think for me, I said yes because I know I am going to enjoy this. I know I am going to see fantastic sport, but I'm also going to meet people and learn more about how the game is run.
“I hope I can bring something to it and it matters to me that I do it well. But I'd be lying if I pretended that I said yes and didn’t think in the back of my head this is going to be really good fun!”