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Women’s sport coverage – are we there yet?

by | Sep 25, 2019 | BroadAgenda

The year is 2008 and if you want a reminder of how invisible women’s sport in Australia was just a decade ago, it is worth revisiting the findings from an exhaustive study of the way the media covered sport in this country, conducted by the University of New South Wales for the then-Australian Sports Commission.

The research found just nine per cent of the stories in the press, and on radio and TV were about female sport and athletes. And that was the year of the Beijing Olympics when half of Australia’s medal haul of 44 (13 gold, 15 silver and 16 bronze) was won by women.

The paucity of reporting was mirrored in the broadcasting of sporting events. In the same year, the numbers of hours of sport (‘live’ or otherwise) featuring women on the free-to-air and subscription TV networks was just 14 per cent.

To highlight the disparity, 3,409 hours of cricket was shown on TV in 2008 and just one of those hours was dedicated to the women’s game.

Fast forward to 2019, and much has changed for the better. The women’s Big Bash League last season saw some matches pulling TV audiences of close to 300-thousand viewers with a peak of more than 800-thousand tuning in at some stage to the final.

The very first match played in the AFLW competition in 2017 attracted a national TV audience of almost 900-thousand viewers.

One of the significant triggers for more women’s sport on TV has been the emergence of national leagues in many of the major codes

One of the significant triggers for more women’s sport on TV has been the emergence of national leagues in many of the major codes.

In 2008, the T20 Cup (later to be replaced by the WBBL), W-League (football/soccer) and Trans-Tasman championship (netball) were just beginning, but there was no sign of the AFLW (started in 2017) and NRLW (started in 2018).

All of these leagues as well as the WNBL (basketball) have locked in broadcast deals in 2019 while also exploring other audiences via ‘live’ streaming matches on their own web and social media platforms.

While the landscape has changed in some ways, it’s still the same as 2008 in many others. Click through to the website of your preferred media outlet and see how many stories you find about women’s sport and its athletes.

Coverage continues to be dominated by the mainstream sports – the male versions, that is – despite Australian women being among the world’s best.

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Ashleigh Barty in action during her quarter-final match at 2019 Australian Open in Melbourne Park. 22 January 2019

The Southern Stars have just returned home after winning the Ashes in England and then clean-sweeping a T20 and ODI series against the West Indies. They will defend their T20 world crown in Australia next year.

The Matildas, after winning the 2017 Tournament of Nations against powerhouses the US and Brazil, were voted the Public Choice Team of the Year at the AIS awards in that year.

The Diamonds, despite being runners-up at the Netball World Cup this year and the Commonwealth Games in 2018, continue to be a standard bearer for our national sporting teams.

The Hockeyroos were also runners-up at the Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Champions Trophy after a period of indifferent international form.  

And then there are the individuals who are world leaders in their own right. Sam Kerr has just set more scoring records in the US women’s soccer league after winning awards for the best player and international footballer in the same league.

Ashleigh Barty’s rise to the top of tennis happened in a hurry after her return to the sport from a sabbatical playing first-class cricket, culminating in her maiden grand slam win at the French Open this year.

Stephanie Gilmore has won seven of the past 12 World Surf League titles and fellow Australian, Tyler Wright, took the crown twice in that period.

The list could go on – cricketers Meg Lanning, Elyse Perry, Megan Schutt and Alyssa Healy, basketballer Liz Cambage, Jessica Fox in slalom canoeing – but the point is clear. The feats of Australia’s female teams and athletes are world class and their achievements are newsworthy.

I am in the final year of a sports media degree at the University of Canberra, and media coverage of sport has been central to what I have learnt and hope to put into practice when I graduate.

In researching this piece, I came across an article that might hint at one of the reasons why women’s sport still has a low profile in news coverage. The article from earlier this decade profiled Australian sports journalists and found the profession is dominated by men. And dominated is not too strong a word.

If there are so few women in newsrooms, does that mean there are so few voices advocating for – and making editorial decisions about – the coverage of women’s sport?

In 2011, women made up slightly more than 10 per cent of sports departments in mainstream news outlets. More recent research from the US and UK suggests that trend has not changed.

It begs the question that if there are so few women in newsrooms, does that mean there are so few voices advocating for – and making editorial decisions about – the coverage of women’s sport?

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Broadcaster Lucy Zelić was subjected to online abuse for pronouncing football players’ names correctly

As an aspiring sports media practitioner, it’s encouraging to see this is changing. Take a look at any sports broadcast these days and you’ll see women such as Kelli Underwood, Lucy Zelić, Mel McLaughlin, Yvonne Sampson and Erin Molan – to name just a few – who are widely lauded for their skill as presenters and their knowledge of sport.

As Zelić and Molan recently revealed, acceptance as a sports broadcaster is a fickle thing and subject to the type of scrutiny that most males would not attract

But there are still battles to be won. As Zelić and Molan recently revealed, acceptance as a sports broadcaster is a fickle thing and subject to the type of scrutiny that most males would not attract.

The encouraging development for me and like-minded female sports media graduates is that there are career paths and role models to follow.

All of this suggests the visibility of women in sport in Australia is improving and we appear to have left the dire results of that 2008 research behind.

But there is still much more for the media to do to reflect the rise of women’s sport and female athletes in this country.

 

UnCover Event: Levelling the playing field – Women’s sport in the media. Thursday 26 September 6:30 – 8:30pm, Lucky’s Speakeasy, Canberra. Book your free tickets here

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