Women’s sport and social media: the arguments over shared or separate accounts

Our own Hannah Thompson-Radford and Joe Cable wrote the very well received article for the Conversation recently…

Women’s sport has long battled for equal visibility in the media spotlight. But social media has become a powerful tool for sportswomen and women’s sport to control their narratives and connect directly with fans.

This has sparked debate among communication experts about whether men’s and women’s teams within the same sport, or even the same club or international side, should have separate social media accounts.

England Rugby is the latest team to split the social media accounts of their men’s and women’s teams. Earlier this year, the governing body established dedicated Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) accounts for the Red Roses, the national women’s teams.

The decision by England Rugby follows the Football Association’s move a little over a decade ago to create a distinct brand for England women’s team, the Lionesses. Some researchers have argued that referring to the team solely as “England women” reinforces the notion that the men’s team is the default, or the standard.

The Lionesses moniker, with its connotations of strength and fearlessness, carves out a distinct identity for the women’s side.

Traditionally, women’s sporting achievements have been either ignored or problematically portrayed. Sports sociologist Toni Bruce has highlighted how women have been positioned as “the other” in media narratives meaning they’re different or separate from the default of the men’s teams.

But there are also arguments that traditional coverage for women’s sport is evolving, with a gradual increase in both quantity and quality.

Social media holds particular importance for women’s sports due to historical shortcomings. Decades of unequal coverage has prompted female athletes and teams to leverage social media. These platforms have helped foster greater visibility and reach for sportswomen, potentially leading to increased viewership for women’s sports.

Shared or separate accounts?

Proponents of shared accounts argue for a unified team identity. But questions remain over content parity. Shared accounts often raise questions about gender disparity, where women’s content is crowded out by men’s.

For example, England Cricket at present only have one account to represent all of their teams. In 2018, Manchester City opted to merge their social media accounts during their The Same City, Same Passion campaign. At the time, the team noted the importance of a shared platform to harness visibility for women’s sport. But now they are using two separate accounts for Man City and Man City Women.

The argument for separate social media accounts for men’s and women’s teams in the same sport is that it allows for a more targeted approach to engagement and content creation. But this comes with challenges because rebuilding a dedicated following and social media engagement from scratch take time, effort and resources.

Some notable examples of teams that have separate social media accounts include the USA women’s soccer team (USAWNT) and the Australian women’s cricket team.

The case of USAWNT is particularly interesting. Media scholar Roxanne Coche has explored how the US federation presented the women’s team in comparison to the men’s team on X. She found that by using one account for both teams, the women were treated as a “niche” product while the men’s side received more coverage.

Since splitting accounts, the USAWNT have amassed 2 million followers on Instagram and 2.4 million followers on X. While the men’s account has 2.3 million followers on X and three million on Instagram.

The debate among experts is over whether separate accounts lead to a lack of exposure and visibility for the women’s teams, as they may not have the same reach as the men’s teams. On the other hand, having separate accounts reinforces the notion that men’s and women’s sports are separate entities, rather than being part of the same nation, team and sporting landscape.

It appears that it is women’s teams which mostly have to create new platforms rather than the men’s. This reinforces the idea that men are the established group, while women are positioned as outsiders. Consequently, increasing the media work required by women creates an additional gendered burden.

Red Roses

We kept track of the amount of social media followers the Red Roses England rugby team had before and after the 2024 Six Nations Championship. England Rugby had been the main account, with 1.3 million followers on Instagram and 1.1 million on X.

One week before the start of the tournament, the Red Roses had 14,100 followers on Instagram and 2,600 followers on X. After the Six Nations had ended, the Red Roses had amassed 29,600 followers on Instagram and 5,200 followers on X.

This demonstrates how tournaments are heightened periods of visibility. Splitting the account during this time was useful for the Red Roses. But it also demonstrates the huge disparity in the quantity of followers, subsequent visibility, and the time it takes to grow an online fan base.

The effect of separate social media accounts extends beyond follower numbers. A dedicated platform allows teams like the Red Roses to take centre stage, freer to find an audience beyond a mere bolt on for men’s content. This focus can foster a stronger brand identity and deeper fan connections, potentially leading to more positive long-term outcomes for women’s sports.

Hannah Thompson-Radford, Senior Lecturer in Sports Communication and Journalism, Media, Swansea University and Joe Cable, Senior Lecturer in PR Media and Communications, Media, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.