MPs try to get to grips with issue of women’s sport

The nation’s sports governing bodies need to work harder, and smarter, to better promote women’s sport to the media, while government departments dealing with health, education and sport also need to communicate more between themselves to help attract more women and girls into sport and active, healthy lifestyles, a report today from the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport recommends.

Major sporting achievements by women, such as Lizzie Yarnold's Olympic gold medal, continue to attract front and back-page headlines
Achievements by women, such as Lizzie Yarnold’s Olympic gold medal, have always attracted front and back-page headlines

The Sports Journalists’ Association submitted written and oral evidence to the select committee’s enquiry into women in sport held last year. It was felt important that sports journalists’ position should be made clear, from those working within the business.

With government funding cuts to school sport undermining Olympic sporting legacy schemes even before London 2012 had got underway, while some publicly funded agencies continue to use flawed research regarding newspapers’ sports coverage, there was a prospect that the sports media could be used as a convenient scapegoat for many other, deep-seated societal issues which impact women’s sporting participation.

And the committee of MPs, chaired by John Whittingdale, appears to have accepted many of the SJA’s points in its report.

“Almost without exception, whether the comparison is made by ethnic group, income status or age, women and girls are less likely to participate in sport than men,” the report’s authors said.

“Women’s sport has for too long been seen as an add-on to men’s sport, of less interest to both male and female spectators, and even, among some people, as unfeminine. Girls give up sport at an earlier age than boys, and are less likely than men to sustain participation into adulthood, as other responsibilities reduce leisure time. Even for those who do want to continue to participate, there are problems of accessibility, availability of suitable facilities and cost.”

And the select committee is particularly scathing about the standard of the physical education offer in our schools for girls: “Many girls are put off sport by their experience of school games lessons, and it focuses a number of its recommendations on making school sport more appealing to girls,” they said.

“Sport still has too male an image, and it will require efforts from sport governing bodies, the media, schools and government departments and agencies to encourage us all to view sporting activity as a normal activity for women, which should be encouraged and facilitated,” Whittingdale said today.

“As far as elite sportswomen are concerned, we must build on the very positive exposure given to them by the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. There is scope for greater, and better, media coverage and more commercial sponsorship, but again NGBs [national governing bodies] must be prepared to put effort into presenting and marketing women’s sport in interesting ways.”

In the report itself, it states, “The Sports Journalists’ Association concludes: ‘Nothing in Britain will supplant
men’s football, particularly the English Premier League.’ This is probably true, but the evidence we received pointed to a number of initiatives taken by some sporting organisations to maximise media coverage of women’s sport that ought to provide inspiration to others.

“However, it is not enough just to besiege the media with demands for more coverage. Sports are in competition for airtime and column inches, and need to understand the factors that make sporting events more attractive to broadcasters and newspapers. It is a matter of spreading best practice amongst the sport governing bodies.”

Coverage of the first day of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games gave much prominence to judo and Scotland's Renicks' sisters
Coverage of the first day of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games gave prominence to judo and Scotland’s Renicks’ sisters

The SJA’s vice-chairman, Janine Self, who drafted our report, went to some trouble to consult with our women members to better understand the reasons for the gender balance in sports journalism that remains unrepresentative of society generally.

In its report, the select committee made this observation: “The issue of the number and prominence of women journalists and broadcasters should be irrelevant to the issue of how women’s sport should be promoted.

“After all, the ultimate aim is for it to be considered completely normal for journalists of both genders to comment on both men’s and women’s sport.”

Sarah Juggins, the SJA Treasurer who gave oral evidence to the select committee, said, “The portrayal of women’s sport can be woefully lacking in the media, but it is a two-way thing: the sport must be interesting enough to sell papers or attract audiences – which is why the Olympics was so successful.”

The SJA has in the past advised governing bodies and sports promoters seeking better coverage of women’s sport. As discussed by the select committee, one area in which women’s sport receives minimal coverage is women’s lifestyle magazines – a prime target for those wishing to promote women’s sport.

Juggins also noted: “When it comes to sports journalism, there are fewer women than men in the industry, and that might mean that females are less inclined to see sports journalism as a career, but look at other sectors – there are far more female fashion writers than men; and there are lots of female journalists in other areas of the industry.

“I find it really hard to believe that a sports report written by a female journalist or a sports programme headed up by a female presenter is going to make females rush out and get a career in sports journalism.”


Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms