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Women, sport and the media: the SJA’s report

This week, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee held its first oral evidence session at parliament on the subject of women and sport. As part of select committee’s evidence-gathering process, the Sports Journalists Association submitted the following report

Summary

  • The Sports Journalists’ Association [SJA] is the world’s largest independent organisation for professional sports journalists.
  • Members include British-based writers, photographers, editors, cartoonists and broadcasters.
  • There are more than 700 members, of whom 10 per cent are women. Of these, around half work in PR and other fields, leaving the rest as “frontline” sports journalists.
  • The SJA stages two prestigious annual events – the British Sports Awards, including Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, and the British Sports Journalism awards.
  • The SJA has international recognition through the Association International de La Press Sportive [AIPS], which represents national sports journalist associations worldwide.
  • There are three women on the 12-person committee, including two of the executive – vice chair and treasurer.
  • The SJA has 21,000 Twitter followers and averages 65,000 unique visits a month to its website (www.sportsjournalists.co.uk).
  • SJA member Anita Lonsbrough in her days as an Olympic swimmer: she transferred her expertise from the pool to the press box
    SJA member Anita Lonsbrough in her days as an Olympic swimmer: she transferred her expertise from the pool to the press box

    The SJA would submit that there is a growing appreciation of women’s sport and a steady increase in coverage in both print and broadcast outlets, which has significantly grown since London 2012 and that media coverage is no barrier.

  • Successful individual sportswomen like Jessica Ennis, Rebecca Adlington, Chrissie Wellington, continue to raise the profile while the national football, rugby and cricket teams are beginning to attract serious attention and column inches.
  • Where once sport was confined to men-only back pages, there is now a crossover to other sections of print media including glossy magazines while broadcasters like the BBC and BT boast significant coverage of women’s sport.
  • The influence of women in sports journalism is also growing rapidly. This has been mirrored in the SJA’s sports journalism awards where this year Clare Balding became the first woman to be named Broadcaster of the Year while Martha Kelner won the Ian Wooldridge prize for young sports writer – the second woman to do so in four years.

Submission

1 The SJA was formed in 1948 and the first British Sports Awards were introduced in 1949, making them the oldest in Britain. Ten years later the Sportswoman of the Year award was added to that of Sportsman of the Year, in hindsight an avant garde decision to acknowledge sporting excellence no matter the gender.

2 Sports journalism has been a predominantly male occupation, mainly because football, rugby, cricket, motor sport, boxing, racing, golf were historically only played by men and, therefore, reported on by men. The perceived wisdom was that men read the sports pages and women were simply not interested.

3 The membership of the SJA would have reflected this. There has only been one woman chairman – Pat Besford in 1976, who was also British Olympic press attaché for 11 years and president of the swimming commission of AIPS 1981-1988.

4 Women’s sports were, in essence, school sports – netball, hockey, lacrosse, rounders. Girls did not grow up wanting to be footballers; in fact they were not allowed by the FA to play football.

5 However, in sports where gender does not matter – tennis, swimming, athletics, equestrian events – there have always been elite sportswomen. Some of these elite sportswomen turned to writing and broadcasting after they retired and can be regarded as the fore-runners of today’s generation of female sports journalists.

6 Anita Lonsbrough, who won an Olympic gold in the 200m breaststroke in 1960, became the Sunday Telegraph’s swimming correspondent. Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, who led England to victory in the inaugural women’s cricket World Cup, similarly wrote for the Telegraph while 1957 French Open champion Shirley Brasher reported on tennis for the Observer.

7 These remained niche sports and the coverage was largely restricted to broadsheet newspapers, which had the space to devote column inches to “minority” sport. The trio named above would not have been seen as trend-setting, but simply as former elite sportswomen and experts in their own field.

8 Until the 1970s it was unthinkable that a woman journalist would report on men’s sport. Football is Britain’s national game, and, as such, is probably a good barometer by which to measure the progress of women in sports journalism and compare it to media coverage of women’s sports today.

9 Forty-four years ago Julie Welch was a football fan and a journalist. She was also the first woman to write seriously about football, covering her first match for The Observer in 1969. She recalls that the opposition to her presence in the press box was so great that she was even assaulted with a chair by a male reporter. In contrast, she was accepted by footballers and football managers.*

Julie Welch: was assaulted with a chair in a football press box
Julie Welch: was assaulted with a chair by a male reporter in a football press box

10 The 1980s saw the emergence of a few more female sports print journalists and there was a spell in the 1990s where nearly every paper employed one “token” woman, sometimes with little or no experience of reporting sport. Ms Welch’s sports editor at the time labelled them “the fluffies” — an accurate indication of how women were viewed in the sports department.*

11 There was, however, a small but committed group of women who wished for no special treatment and who wanted to be judged purely on their journalistic ability. Another of the forerunners was Sue Mott, who was working at the Sunday Times by the 1980s.

12 She recalls that she asked Julie Welch for advice and was told “wear a cap and swear a lot.” She was also informed by a hugely influential football writer (male) at the time that women playing football was as unnatural as dogs walking around on their hind legs.**

13 From the mid 1990s onwards, there were other national newspaper writers; Janine Self (The Sun), Vikki Orvice (The Sun), Alyson Rudd (The Times), Louise Taylor (Guardian), Amy Lawrence (Observer) were all press box regulars and accepted as such.

14 Today the membership of the Football Writers’ Association [FWA] is believed to be 4 per cent female. There has never been a woman chief football correspondent.

15 In tandem with the print industry, female voices were heard reporting on football on BBC radio. Eleanor Oldroyd was the first woman to present Sports Report in 1995 and can talk knowledgeably about rugby, cricket etc too, while Charlotte Nicol was senior football producer for many years and is now a sought-after freelance.

16 The TV breakthrough, helped by the launch of Sky, saw the likes of Gabby Logan (formerly Yorath), Kelly Cates (formerly Dalglish), Rebecca Lowe, Jill Douglas, Sonja McLaughlan, Clare Balding, Hazel Irvine, all emerge as top-notch sports presenters on terrestrial channels.

17 The late Helen Rollason presented Grandstand. Football, cricket, rugby, motor racing, racing are no longer seen as an all-male preserve. Women were being accepted, if still in the minority. Sue Mott believes the problem starts in the class room when girls decide they do not like sport.**

18 In addition, she cites the competitive nature of the industry and the practicality of a woman covering major sporting events. She once went to the French Open [tennis] with two small children, one husband, one nanny and 11 pieces of luggage and her daughter slept in a suitcase. This tends not to be a problem for men, who leave their family at home.**

Jacqui Oatley: Match of the Day's first woman football commentator
Jacqui Oatley: Match of the Day’s first woman football commentator

19 Jacqui Oatley found herself on the news pages when she became the first woman commentator on Match of the Day. Oatley had another claim to fame. She was a former footballer, forced to retire early through injury, and a massive supporter of the women’s game while equally an expert on the men’s version. Over the years she has continued to bang the drum on behalf of women’s football.

20 The London 2012 Olympics appears to have been a watershed moment for women’s football as far as mainstream media is concerned. The Great Britain team was given extensive coverage in print, on radio, on television, on the internet and on social media like Twitter.

21 The crowds flocked to the matches, which were reported on by recognised football journalists of either gender – a significant advance on the original theory that women had to write about women’s sport because men did not want to “lower” themselves.

22 The knock-on effect was that the BBC announced live and extensive coverage of this summer’s European championships, featuring England. When England went crashing out of the tournament, there was serious debate and the head coach lost her job. Hope Powell may not appreciate the significance of the sack but it illustrated how the status of women’s football has been elevated.

23 Equally this summer has seen the England women’s cricket team take on Australia in the Ashes, while a 15-year-old girl golfer called Charley Hull emerged as the star of the European Solheim Cup team and Laura Robson briefly became the darling of Wimbledon. All were reported on.

Teenaged golfer Charley Hull: her success with the European team in the Solheim Cup received extensive coverage
Teenaged golfer Charley Hull: her success with the European team in the Solheim Cup received extensive coverage

24 Last year’s Olympic Games produced many female sporting heroes, from heptathlete Jess Ennis, cyclists like Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott, to rowers Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins to dressage gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin. They were afforded the same attention, the same respect as their male counterparts.

25 However, it is a fact that none of the sports named above would continue to attract similar column inches outside a major event/tournament/championships. This applies equally to men – Mo Farah, Sir Bradley Wiggins, etc.

26 In December 2012, the SJA hosted its annual sports awards lunch at the Tower of London. Jess Ennis, Sarah Storey and the rowing pair of Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins were all winners. In recent years the SJA has recognised weightlifter Zoe Smith, taekwando star Sarah Stevenson and ironman Chrissie Wellington.

27 In March 2013, the SJA held its annual sports journalism awards dinner. Not surprisingly, winners in recent years have been predominately male but times are changing. Clare Balding became the first woman winner of the broadcaster of the year award, which has been running since 2005. The Mail on Sunday’s Martha Kelner was named young sports journalist of the year, following in the footsteps of Emma John in 2008.

28 Sports journalism continues to be dominated by men, rather like fashion journalism continues to be dominated by women. However, since London 2012 there have been other, significant, breakthroughs.

29 Alison Kervin, a respected rugby writer and author, became the first woman sports editor of a national newspaper when she was appointed by the Mail on Sunday earlier this year

30 The power of Twitter cannot be discounted either. The Women’s Sport Trust provides scholarships/grants to aspiring sportswomen and support all women’s sports in the UK while the Women’s Sports Net provides a complete service of reports and results on women’s sports.

31 A magazine, entitled Women in Sport, has just been launched.

Breaking new ground: Alison Kervin, sports editor of the Mail on Sunday
Breaking new ground: Alison Kervin, sports editor of the Mail on Sunday

32 AIPS, which represents national sports journalist associations worldwide, is about to set up its first commission on women’s sport. The SJA has nominated vice chair Janine Self as a representative.

33 The BBC has announced a commitment to women’s sports while BT Sport, new players in the broadcast market, cover women’s sport and have a Women in Sport section on their website.

34 The days when women’s sports were regarded almost as an embarrassment are long gone. Tabloid newspapers still have a tendency to be “laddish” in their approach, especially in their choice of photographs. Equally, glamour shots of an elite sportswoman could encourage school girls into participation if they believe “sporty” equals “sexy”.

35 Broadsheet newspapers have the opportunity to project women’s sport because they have more space. A good story is a good story, regardless of gender, and stars like Ennis, Robson, Serena Williams, Paula Radcliffe, command column inches whenever they speak. Virginia Wade’s Wimbledon triumph in 1977was given the same profile as Andy Murray this year.

36 Nothing in Britain will supplant men’s football, particularly the English Premier League. Little boys grow up wanting to be David Beckham or Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale. Men’s sport has had a head start of over a century and newspapers will continue to reflect that, regardless of whether the writer is a man or a woman.

37 However, there has clearly been a gradual groundswell in terms of interest in women’s sport, fuelled perhaps by the Olympics, and media coverage has reflected this.

38 In conclusion, therefore, the SJA does not believe that media coverage in the last 13 months has had a detrimental effect on women’s participation in sport.

* Observation by Julie Welch, in interview Sep 2013
** Observations by Sue Mott, in interview Sep 2013

  • Between now and the end of 2013, anyone wishing to join the SJA may apply, with their initial fee covering their membership through until the end of 2014 – effectively 14 months’ membership for the price of 12. Click here for more details

UPCOMING SJA EVENTS

Thu Dec 12: SJA 2013 British Sports Awards. Bookings now open. Click here for details

2014

Mon Mar 24: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, Grand Connaught Rooms, London
Mon Apr 14: SJA Spring Golf Day: Croham Hurst GC, Surrey. Booking details to be announced