Far fewer articles are written about women's sport, with editors saying they get less interest. But there is something we can doby Scheenagh Harrington / July 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
When was the last time you read a report about a women’s football game, or saw an in-depth profile of a female rugby star in the paper? Could you name the captain of the women’s national cricket team? I know couldn’t—and the UK’s mainstream media aren’t helping.
Women’s Sport Week ran from 19th-25th June, but if you looked at the sport sections of many UK national newspapers that week, you would barely have known it.
In one day, I looked at the online sport sections of broadsheets the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and the Telegraph, and tabloids the Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Express and Daily Mail, and counted a total of 13 articles about women’s sport.
Thirteen stories, compared to dozens and dozens of articles devoted to men’s football and rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, athletics, tennis, and a smattering of others. Only in those last two, athletics and tennis, did women merit coverage—and the tennis coverage focused solely on actual sporting action.
Where are our sportswomen, and why is it so normal for them not to be seen on the back pages?
Women’s sport, especially football and rugby, is being put in the spotlight like never before. Women’s football has finally found a home on TV, after 12 million people watched the 2015 Women’s World Cup on BBC Two—only the second time the competition was shown on the channel. Channel 4 will cover this month’s UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 for the first time, outbidding the BBC for the rights—though Aunty Beeb has hung onto the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.
In rugby, the Women’s Six Nations finally made it to the small screen this year, while the forthcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup will be broadcast on ITV.
That’s not to mention this year’s IAAF World Championships in athletics, taking place in London, and of course the Wimbledon tennis tournament, both of which feature top-class female sports stars.
Growing audiences and increased appetite in many areas of women’s sport make for an intoxicating combination for television audiences—but that increased appetite hasn’t necessarily translated into column inches.
Jennifer O’Neill has been the editor of football magazine SheKicks for almost 20 years and has watched women’s football change radically in that time, with sponsors coming and going, the creation of the FA Women’s Super League and a new era of professional contracts.
She said: “Women’s football has changed so much, even in the last two or three years, but the one thing you can’t doubt is the numbers.”
“There are more women and girls playing various sports and watching them, and more men watching women’s sport. They may not be massive numbers, but they’re definitely growing.”
According to John Birch, editor of rugby site ScrumQueens, the mainstream media has no excuse not to feature women’s sport. “There are brilliant, fantastic stories out there, which, if they were men doing it, they’d be covering. But because they’re women, they don’t.”
Birch, who has followed women’s cricket and rugby all his life, admits the issue infuriates him, and added: “You get the argument of [readers] wanting top-quality sport, but then men’s sport is covered down to ridiculous levels. The excuses make no actual sense.”
This disconnect has struck a chord with the Guardian‘s head of sport, Owen Gibson. He has worked with Women in Sport and Women in Football, looking for ways to tackle the issue. (The Guardian does appear to be putting its money where its mouth is, with live blogging of the Women’s Cricket World Cup, as well as accompanying articles.)
Yet Gibson does not find a ready audience for his articles.
“When we do make a concerted effort to cover women’s sport outside of the big landmark moments—such as the Olympics, the World Athletics Championships, World Cups and so on—the number of readers for those pieces on our website is not great, even when we give them huge projection and promotion.”
This is the central issue that cripples mainstream media coverage of women’s sport: “In an era of tightening budgets there are always going to be difficult decisions about what to resource.”
“It’s not as simple as just commissioning more content featuring women’s sport and assuming people will read it.”
His sentiments are echoed by the Mail on Sunday‘s Alison Kervin, the first—and so far only—woman in the UK to become sports editor of a major national newspaper.
Asked if, as a pioneer in her field, she wanted to champion women’s sport more, she said: “You have to be really careful, when you’re the sports editor of a major national newspaper, not to let your own prejudices and desires stand in the way of producing the most authoritative and engaging of pages.”
“If I leave out a Premier League story which would get millions of hits online, in order to put a piece in about women’s sport just because I’m a woman—then see it get about 20 hits online—I’m not doing my job properly.”
Falling revenues and dwindling readerships are ever-present threats to the publishing industry, and it’s easy to understand why few mainstream outlets are willing to take the leap of faith.
But there appears to be an exception to the print media rule: tennis.
Women have played the game since its earliest days in the 19th century, and while female players have faced their fair share of battles (most recently winning equal pay after a long and difficult struggle, something still lacking in other sports), in the decades since the first Ladies Championship at Wimbledon in 1884, today it is one of the very few sporting arenas in which women and men are treated almost equally.
The honorific ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ was quietly dropped in 2009, as court officials said it caused mix-ups when the Williams’ sisters played each other.
Yet even here there is still work to be done: the 2015 Wimbledon competition saw 38 per cent of women’s matches allocated to the hallowed Centre Court, the best place to build a loyal fanbase and attract lucrative sponsorship. John McEnroe’s recent comment that Serena Williams “would be, like, 700th in the world” if she played on the men’s tour, thrust the subject into the headlines again.
Despite this, the key to the maturity of women’s tennis lies in the fact that, since its earliest days, the sport has allowed its international personalities to become giants of the game, with a popularity extending far beyond their gender.
From France’s Suzanne Lenglen in the 1920s, and American legends Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, to Germany’s Steffi Graf and 21st-century superstar, Serena Williams.
The women’s game also flourished because fans—made up of largely affluent, middle-class men and women, an ideal captive audience for global brands—benefited from relatively intimate but renowned venues, where they could get up close and personal with truly great sports women, at the peak of their careers.
It is from this model that women’s football and rugby, which stand on the brink of possibly their greatest eras, could learn the most.
Seeing how women’s tennis has flourished, it’s not so hard to believe other sports such as rugby, football and golf, could also be in a similar position, with regular coverage in the media, equal pay scales—and no reason for articles like this.
So, having established that quality sporting action exists and the audience is growing, thanks to better broadcasting, how does the print media normalise women in sports sections?
O’Neill, Birch and Kervin all agree change has to start at the grass roots, and insist clubs need to liaise with local media to make sure they are fed a regular diet of quality sports news involving women.
O’Neill said: “There’s an expectation from women’s sport that somebody will come along and give them the coverage, but there has to be a meeting halfway.”
Kervin added: “What women’s sport doesn’t have is the depth of interest in week-in, week-out team sports. That will come in time, but these things take generations.
“When people go out and support women’s sport and engage with it and help develop it, it will grow and then it will receive much more media coverage, more sponsorship and more attention. It doesn’t work the other way round.”
It will be down to the fans, then, to push women’s sport firmly into the spotlight and keep it there, by attending games and pushing the press machine to feed the same insatiable appetite for women’s sport as its male counterpart.
If this new dawn isn’t a false one, then who knows, it may not be much longer before we see just as many women on the back pages and in the sports sections of websites as men.
The ball’s in our court.