Niamh McEvoy: "We've hit a plateau in growing women's sport at the moment"
Her's digital cover star for April 2022 is Dublin ladies' footballer, Australian rules footballer, and presenter Niamh McEvoy.
"It's been very encouraging in Ireland, but I still think there's a long way to go."
It seems there's no stopping ladies' football star Niamh McEvoy.
The athlete has come a long way since she got her start playing soccer in Dublin. As a teenager, she switched to Gaelic football and, after watching the 2004 All Ireland Finals, she threw herself into the sport and carved out an impressive career on the Dublin team.
After winning the All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championships four times between 2010 and 2019, Niamh has also enjoyed a hugely successful career playing an entirely different sport - Australian rules football - with the Melbourne Football Club in the AFL Women's, which is Australia's semi-professional league.
She subsequently announced her retirement from AFLW last April.
To the uninitiated, AFLW might seem like an unexpected choice for Irish sportswomen, but there are actually a huge number of Irish athletes crushing the game down under, a facet which made Niamh's transition there even more enjoyable.
"As Irish people, we can be very tribal," she says. "So it was definitely lovely when we were over there to have other Irish girls to connect with through sport. You find yourself - even though they're on different teams - cheering for other Irish people to do well. It was a great experience for me."
The idea of a new sporting challenge and the prospect of living in Australia was what attracted Niamh to the sport initially, though she admits it wasn't necessarily easy to adjust from football to Aussie rules.
She says: "I don't think it's quite as similar as people think before they go over. The rules are all very different, it’s quite technical, you can give away quite significant penalties and free-kicks if you don’t understand the rules properly.
"It’s a bit more physical in the sense that there is a full rugby style tackle whereas here at home with a football, you’re just tackling the ball and not the player, so it was definitely an adjustment."
Niamh adds: "It took a few rounds in my first year to get to grips with it, but overall it was just a great experience.”
Another major draw for Niamh was the culture of support that surrounds female athletes in Australia, as well as getting the opportunity to play for pay.
"It was really interesting to get to the experience of playing another sport and playing in a professional set-up where there's accessibility to all the same resources the men have," she explains.
"The men's setup is completely professional, whereas the women's set-up is semi-professional. It took them a long time to get this league set up, but when they did get it up and running, they got it right.
"Female athletes get just as much coverage as the men, which is incredible to see. Even when you're walking around Melbourne city and you see billboards of AFLW players. Or you're just watching TV and every second sports ad that comes up is a AFLW athlete. They just get a huge amount of exposure."
Niamh also explains how Australian athletes have the opportunity to advocate for themselves.
"When they got the AFLW going, they went ahead and did it properly," she says. "The women have a very strong voice. They have a player's association there and a bargaining agreement every two years. That allows them to step forward."
Niamh notes a stark difference between the way female athletes are treated in Ireland compared to Australia, and she reckons the former could learn a thing or two from the latter.
She reflects on her own experience coming into the world of sport as a child and teenager, and remembers the stark lack of coverage female athletes received compared to their male counterparts.
"I had no accessibility to women’s soccer in Ireland, I didn’t know any of the Irish internationals. I followed Arsenal and I couldn’t follow their women’s team, there was no accessibility to it. I couldn’t find any of the League of Ireland stuff, so all my role models were male soccer stars," she says.
When Niamh did get into GAA as a teenager, she found role models in the women of her club, who brought her to watch ladies' matches in Croke Park. Without them, she believes her career would have followed a different trajectory.
"I would not have those aspirations to go ahead and play with Dublin, or even see it as a goal for me," she says.
Niamh does acknowledge how there has been some progress since she was a teenager, but in recent years this progress has stalled.
"There has been some improvement," she says. "There's been some great sponsors for loads of different women's sports across the board. But at times, when you hear of people talking about support for women in sport, they're kind of preaching to the converted. This message doesn't get out to those who are not into women's sport."
She continues: "I think we've hit a bit of a plateau in growing women's sport at the moment, the support for it and the exposure to it.
"It's been a great couple of years, we've had a few great campaigns, they were brilliant, but I don't know what the next step is to move forward and break through the barrier and to get to that stage where it is in Australia. We're a long way off."
The model for women's sports in Australia could be an illuminating one for Ireland, Niamh notes.
"Sport is massive in Australia. It's like a religion over there. There is equal coverage of all games and all sports. The women's cricket over there is massive. It's shown as much as the men's cricket is. But it was definitely interesting to be over there in Australia and to see the difference. It's been very encouraging in Ireland, over the past few years, there has been some really positive steps forward, but I still think there's a long way to go."
Coverage of women's sports remains a central issue to Niamh, and she's committed to doing exactly that, as the host of AFLW Highlights on Virgin Media alongside Will Dalton.
The move to providing on-screen analysis for the sport was a bit of a no-brainer for the athlete.
"I would be watching the games anyway," she says. "We've finished up the group stages now, and we've got really good feedback, so it's been positive all around."
You can watch AFLW Highlights on Virgin Media Television right here right here.