In 2017, Ida Sports co-founder Laura Youngson led a group of women to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to play a record-breaking football match.
The match became the highest altitude football match ever played, and it marked the first time that Laura, a keen football player herself, realised there was a massive gap in the market when it came to women’s football boots.
Here were a group of female football players, hailing from all corners of the globe, and most of them had never worn a specifically designed women’s football boot in their lives. Some of these women had played in World Cups and at the Olympics, and even at the highest level, they had worn children’s or men’s boots.
“This notion that football boots are meant to be comfortable was not even considered in the women’s game,” Laura told Women’s Agenda recently.
The reality of the situation hit Laura like a ton of bricks, and as soon as she was home, she started researching about how men’s and women’s feet are fundamentally different. It quickly became clear that major sports retailers had a history of simply taking men’s boots, and using the “shrink it and pink it” method for women’s products.
Soon after, Laura co-founded Ida Sports with Ben Sandhu, and the pair teamed up podiatrists, physiotherapists and footwear designers to create female specific football boots, releasing their first products in February this year.
Below, Laura answers some questions for Women’s Agenda about the multiple world records she has broken to spark conversations about gender equality in sport, and why she decided it was high-time that women had football boots that worked for them.
Can you tell me a little about your relationship with sport, and football specifically? What role has it played in your life, and what makes you passionate about it?
I’ve always been very active and encouraged from a young age to play lots of different sports. My first sport was actually ballet but it has stood me in good stead for transitioning to other sports where you need a strong core.
I first played football as a kid but just for fun in the garden with my brother and cousins. It wasn’t until I went to university that I joined a team and played more competitively. Since then, football has been a great way for me to meet people around the world when I’ve moved for work.
With football, I’ve learnt languages and cultures. I’ve played with incredibly strong, resilient and wonderful women and in a lot of mixed teams, where you’re judged on your performance not your gender.
As it’s essence, it’s a brilliantly accessible game. Anyone with jumpers can make goalposts. Footballs can be fashioned out of almost anything. And anyone can stand on a pitch and play. It’s a perfect entry to playing sport, working together with a team and having fun.
Could you take me through the Guinness World Records that you hold, through Equal Playing Field? Why did you decide to set out to achieve these?
Our first record came out of the frustrations I was experiencing as an amateur player but also watching elite players trying to make it as professionals. As a player, I was used to men’s teams getting the funding and women’s teams having to always ask for it. As a fan, it was almost laughable the continual stories of women’s teams wearing youth boys kit and getting meagre salaries. As an individual, I was looking around for what I could do to highlight this issue and the WR came out of this. Could we bring together a group of women to do something that had never been done before? That would be eye-catching and hopefully lead to discussions about inequality and ultimately positive change.
The first record became more successful than we could ever have hoped. From the moment we set the record on the top of the mountain, we were able to have conversations with more people about why we were doing it. Women climb invisible mountains every day; here we were climbing a visible mountain to highlight the injustices in sport.
After that, World Records became a habit as people asked us what was next. We were able to do the lowest altitude match at the Dead Sea in Jordan in 2018 and then two records at the World Cup in France: the biggest 5-aside game and a game with 53 different nationalities.
Each record shines a spotlight on women’s sport and the fact that women and girls can do anything.
When did you realise that finding comfortable, and specifically designed football boots was an issue that affected women everywhere?
I had always hated wearing kids boots and on Kilimanjaro I got a chance to talk to players who had been to World Cups and OIympics and they too were wearing men’s and kids boots to play at the top level. Back home I started researching, and realised men’s and women’s feet are fundamentally different and that we’re putting ourselves at risk of injury if we wear ill-fitting boots.
The problem wasn’t just affecting me, it was affecting many, many players. This notion that football boots are meant to be comfortable was not even considered in the women’s game.
What are the main differences in what women require in a football boot, compared to men?
There are a few fundamental differences between women’s and men’s feet. In general, women tend to have narrower heels, a different width to length ratio in the toes (which manifests itself in pain in the little toes and sides of the feet), higher arches and a different bend point in the foot, which affects the stud configuration. We’ve taken all this into account when designing the Ida boot.
It’s also about the experience for players: when you walk into a sports store or look online, there are men’s football boots, kids football boots and …nothing else. The revolution that has happened in running has yet to happen in football (and other sports) and it’s time women had shoes that work for us.
How did you and Ben come together, and decide to create Ida Sports?
Ben and I played social futsal together each week in a highly competitive team called the Galahs. Each week, I would give updates about the project to Ben and after three months he decided to jump onboard. He is a former professional cricketer and has never had any issues with finding shoes so for him it was a complete eye-opener that players wouldn’t be able to access great gear. He’s super passionate about social impact and creating a better environment for female athletes.
How do you see the state of women’s sport currently?
I think it’s really exciting to see the new talent coming through demanding more from the sporting bodies. The professionalisation of AFLW has meant that a lot of athletes have switched codes, which then puts pressure on other sports to invest in the game.
The Women’s World Cup in 2019 was a real highlight smashing viewing figures and building on a momentum around the game. I also think the exciting part is that we’re seeing gains in lots of different sports, not just football. More role models in the media, better fitting products (!), and more investment in sponsorship.
However, there is still a long way to go to stop women’s sport being treated as an afterthought. Hopefully, we can equal the playing field so the next generation doesn’t have to worry about this.
Where do you see the biggest challenges in moving towards equality in sport (at the professional or community level)?
For the professionals, it’s a combination of more investment into the game to get more fans, and supporting the players with all the off-field services, such as physiotherapists. The appetite for the sport is there, as seen in the AFLW and World Cup viewing figures. Major broadcasters, such as the BBC, getting behind the sport also makes a huge difference.
At the community level, the demand from younger players is there so it’s ensuring there are enough coaches, fields and pathways to satisfy that demand. Sport is a whole ecosystem that needs to be nurtured and it’s time to invest in the women’s game.
Love women’s sport? Sign up to our weekly update The Sporty Wrap, here.