Is it really all about sex? Women’s sport and media coverage

Clare Balding

Some more please
Source: The Guardian

I had a surprise last weekend. Right there in the middle of the BBC sports update was a story about the England Cricket Team — the women’s England Cricket Team.  Not only were women playing cricket right there on my telly, but there was a match report of their progress in the World Cup in India. It was not a fluffy feature that outlined the details of a “fringe” activity or the get-a-kick-out-of-girls-playing-cricket-aren’t-they-cute treatment. It was a proper match report, almost like they deserved to be there, almost like women’s cricket was a real sport, like women were real athletes.  I almost wanted to give cricket a go . . . and I really don’t get cricket.

I did a few seconds of soul-searching about my hitherto antipathy toward cricket as a game. I watched the women celebrate a good play and thought that looks like fun, maybe I’ve been too harsh.  But then I thought have I disregarded cricket before because I didn’t like the sport, or is my sudden interest because I’ve never seen women playing before?

Women’s sports coverage makes up just 5% of all UK sports media coverage, according to the annual study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, and yet huge numbers of women take part in organised sport — women’s football is the third largest participation sport in England.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that one of the arguments for men’s dominance over the sports pages and updates is that papers and broadcasters are giving readers and viewers what they want. The argument says that people just don’t care about women’s sport. So does that mean if women’s sport was covered, people would stop buying papers or watching sports shows?  Do we know this to be true?

First, are we sure we know what people want? Would anyone have believed that the British nation would hold its collective breath as Rhona Martin cast her “stone of destiny” at the 2002 Winter Olympics or as Charlotte Dujardin danced with her horse this summer in London? Probably not.  Why not? Is it because curling and dressage are fringe sports? Is it because both of these heroes are women? Is it because there are people who might not consider either ‘real sport’? The answer is a combination of all of these things. But we still watched and then read all about it.

What gets me going about sport is the story. Growing up in America, every Saturday I’d listen to Jim McKay promise “The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition” at start of each ABC Wide World of Sports programme.

It wasn’t just the coverage of the events that delivered this promise it was the stories of the athletes, the teams, and the competitions. I have a fuzzy memory of a woman at a starting gate and wanting her, more than anything, to fly.  The WWoS team told me about a woman I’d never heard of, doing something I’d never seen anyone do. They told me about her training, her rivalry with the Swiss skier, the broken leg two years before that threatened her career, the troubles she’d had on the training runs. Now she was back and this was her chance. Would she do it? Could she do it? I didn’t keep watching because I knew about skiing (I’m from pancake-flat Ohio, for goodness sake). I kept watching because I’d been told the first part of a story and I was desperate to find out what would happen in the end.

There is evidence that the story is what many people want from sport. Why else would someone who’d gone to a match, read the coverage the next day.  Because even though they’d seen it, they want to hear about it, read about it, re-live the story. Why did record-breaking numbers support the women’s football Team GB this summer? Because the team were given the unprecedented profile of being the first event of the Games, spectators were treated with some cracking play and people wanted to see the end of the team’s story, they wanted to be part of the team’s story.  If the story is good, people will watch/read about anything, even curling and dressage … even women’s sport.  So why don’t we have more stories about women playing sport?

Shaking up sports newsrooms up might help.  In the UK there are a few high-profile female sports broadcasters: Clare Balding, Gabby Logan, Hazel Irvine, Sue Barker, however only  3% of UK sports journalists are women and not one of the UK’s national dailies or Sunday papers has a female sports editor. Lynne Truss, a former sports columnist for The Times, wrote in her book, Get her off the pitch! How sport took over my life:

“… [T]he more I saw of this particular all-male world of sports writing, the more I found it peculiar that it was even legally allowed to exist. Why is sports journalism considered a job that only a man can do? Why is it (generally) only men are drawn to it? Is it a job for a man? I mean, it’s not like going down a mine. It’s not like rounding up mustangs, or rescuing people from towering infernos.”

She asks an interesting question. It seems clear to me that the primary prerequisite for being a good sportswriter is being a good writer. This skill is clearly not limited to men. Some maintain that participation at the highest level of sport is important to be able to report it. More and more women are competing at the highest level, so this should not be a barrier.  Also while some ex-athletes are good writers, there are many who are not. Experience on the pitch in not essential to tell the good story, good storytelling skills are.

Outdated societal attitudes about femininity also seem to get in the way.

No. 1 – Looking pretty is more important than performing well.

When I googled “female sports writers” the top result was an article called “The 50 hottest Sports Broadcasters in the World” written by a female sports writer. I’d love to think that the definition of “hottest” included necessary intellect and the red-hot ability to do their job.  Several of the women’s entries did include information about journalism degrees and previous sports or writing experience. Many entries listed beauty contest and reality TV credentials. All had pictures, some even had clothes.

The Stylist magazine is currently running a Fair Game Campaign for Women in Sport with the aim of changing attitudes towards female participants.   As part of this series, Laura Williamson, a sportswriter for the Daily Mail, asked why women’s sport, generally, and women’s football specifically, are overlooked:

“ The underlying assertion that playing, watching or even writing about sport somehow makes you “less feminine” may be the real crux of the issue. Male and female tennis players now earn equal prize money at Wimbledon, but it’s no coincidence that the more traditionally attractive women at the championships, the likes of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, get greater media attention. Last year, the All England Tennis Club admitted “good looks are a factor” when deciding which players to put on the high-profile show courts.”

No. 2 – Women should be soft

There was plenty of coverage of Ellen MacArthur’s record breaking around-the-world sail, however not on the sports pages. Simon Barnes, chief sportswriter at The Times, in his interesting book, The Meaning of Sport, wondered why he was one of the few sports writers present when MacArthur hit land for the first time at the end of her voyage:

“I, apparently alone among my tribe, found all this fascinating. Why so? Was it a question of categories, then? Is round-the-world sailing not really a sport, but more like climbing a mountain or flying a balloon around the earth? Or was it because she’s female? Did MacArthur’s gender – and the consequent sentimentalising of her—make this a soft, human interest […] story? […] But perhaps the fact that it was a woman who had done this thing did not make the story acceptably soft. Perhaps it made the story unacceptably hard.”

No. 3 – It’s all about sex

Finally, Lynne Truss, in her book about her sports writing experiences, puts forward an altogether different theory. She recalls that Victorians established organised sport in the 19th century in an effort to ensure that working men would fill their newly found leisure time and use energy that they might otherwise be directed towards misdirected sinful and sexual activities. She suggests that this original aim still colours our enjoyment of sport today.

“All of this may explain […] the timeless mystery of why women’s team sports never catch on with the public […]. The trouble is that when women play professional sport […] their play is plainly not about sublimating the sex urge; it’s about celebrating physical liberation, which is a lot less interesting to watch. […] Women can play game’s brilliantly to the crack of doom, I reckon, and no one, including me, will give a toss, because they make it too obvious they’re enjoying it. Unlike men, they wouldn’t rather be doing something else, you see. What they’d rather be doing is this.

My hope is that, as with other Victorian notions like the benefits of child labour, the poor house and limiting suffrage, things have changed.   However, Truss raises an interesting question: is there something about women playing sport that so challenges our ideas about men’s and women’s roles that keeps us from wanting to talk about it? What else but something deep seeded and profound would keep sports editors from telling women’s stories?

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About Jennifer Flueckiger

writer/blogger, accidental parisienne, girl's football/soccer coach, lover of travel and good food
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