In search of sport’s level playing field

A debate about media coverage of women’s sport almost missed the most fundamental point, says STEVEN DOWNES

I normally turn off Radio 4 just before 10am because its programming excludes half the population.

But a trail for Woman’s Hour on Wednesday morning persuaded me to listen. There was to be an item about that old saw, media coverage of women’s sport.

The piece, hosted by Jane Garvey, avoided the flawed and inaccurate research on the subject published last year by the Women’s Sports & Fitness Foundation, although their self-justifying document is referenced on the programme’s webpage.

What the Woman’s Hour website does not mention was that one of the WSF’s “big ideas” for increasing women’s sporting participation ahead of the 2012 Olympics is compulsory installation in school changing rooms of hair straighteners. Let’s not worry about talent identification, or the training and retaining of the coaches and the officials essential to stage competitive sport, let’s make sure our hair looks great.

Instead of this flight of fancy, Garvey focused on eliciting the views of two men, culture secretary Andy Burnham and former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson, to further the ding-dong that they had had earlier in the week in the pages of The Independent.

Subbed down, the argument was something like this:

Burnham: Isn’t it terrible that there was not enough coverage on radio or TV of England winning the women’s cricket World Cup?

Lawson: Well there was coverage, and anyway, women’s cricket is not very good.

Perhaps we ought not be surprised that the son of a former Tory Chancellor should use any opportunity for a bit of Labour bashing, but can we expect a government minister to be better briefed on a subject within his portfolio?

In his Indy article, Burnham had written “… subscription sports channels are not available in every home. So we look to our public service broadcasters to redress the balance – and yet, with some exceptions, the fare on offer is very traditional”.

Lawson has a point when he says that it is Burnham’s own department that influences what sport is available to terrestrial channels.

“As far as I am aware, Andy Burnham is typical of New Labour in being obsessed with football, in a way that almost blots out all other sports,” Lawson wrote.

“If it were otherwise, it would surely have occurred to him that the BBC has long ago given up televising cricket altogether; if that doesn’t bother him and his colleagues, why on earth should they be putting pressure on the Corporation to show England’s women cricketers?”

The simple fact is that many sports, whether competed between men or women, struggle for any coverage on radio, television or in our papers. Unless they happen to be football.

Earlier this month, one national newspaper sent to a single European Cup soccer match its football correspondent, a senior reporter, plus no less than two “chief sports writers”. Such saturation coverage leaves other sports – regardless of the gender of its participants or the reporters – scrabbling for what space is left in the sports pages.

When a cycling correspondent rings his sports desk to offer a story about yet another British world title, his sports editor does not say: “I only want to cover it if the rider is a man”. The allocation of space is determined by the strength of the story itself, and often by what is left after the first six or seven pages of the, say, eight-page sports section are taken up with whether or not Ledley King really is fit enough to play for England.

Much of the “sexist media” argument is often based on assertions that have no basis in fact. Even as Burnham was on BBC Radio decrying the lack of media coverage for the female gold medal-winners from Beijing, nearly 30 journalists were gathering in central London to meet and speak to swimmer Rebecca Adlington at an SJA-organised lunch.

Had the minister not read the newspapers the previous week? Then, the majority of the coverage from the British swimming championships in Sheffield was about Adlington and her races against Jo Jackson. This was not because they happen to be women, but because these were the better stories.

Indeed, last week swimming enjoyed more coverage than in recent times because of Adlington, following her successes in Beijing. But the column inches were still minimal compared to that enjoyed by football or, admittedly in a final Six Nations week, rugby.

Burnham asked why the swimming championships were not shown live on television, without considering that national swim championships have not enjoyed any such coverage since the halcyon days of Grandstand in the 1970s. For the last quarter century, outside the Olympics, live swimming has rarely been given air time except on Eurosport for international championships.

That can hardly be because of a “sexist media” – swimming, like hockey, tennis or athletics, now has as many opportunities for women to shine as men. In Britain, the reduction in TV and newspaper coverage of such sports in the last 40 years is often a reflection of the shortcomings of the sport and the people running it.

There is the tale of women’s hockey, soon after Jane Sixsmith’s team came back from the Barcelona Olympics with bronze medals. BBC Sport approached women’s hockey officials to offer them live coverage of a couple of international matches the following year.

The hockey blazers offered two dates in April. “Sorry, that clashes with the Boat Race and the Grand National,” said the BBC, not unreasonably, “can’t you suggest some alternative dates?” The women officials refused, and a major broadcast opportunity was lost for the sport.

Burnham’s grasp of his brief is disappointing. He praised Sky for showing netball. Perhaps Burnham does not realise that in common with several other sports such as triathlon and some athletics events, which almost suffocate for lack of the oxygen of publicity, England Netball has had to use its sponsors’ money to pay the TV production costs for the programmes.

Netball has then given their coverage of the event to a broadcaster, who use it on its third or fourth digital channel. Viewing figures – including repeat showings – for the 20-or-so domestic matches shown recently have reached a peak audience of 100,000.

The demise of Grandstand as a regular strand has probably done more harm for the “minority sports” (I hate that phrase, but use it here because you will know that I don’t mean football, cricket or rugby), and indeed for women in sport, than perhaps anything else. Gone are the days for a half-hour slot between the racing at Haydock Park to be filled with highlights from a little-seen sport.

A free-to-air BBC sports channel might offer more of an outlet for the likes of hockey, swimming or judo – but then the culture secretary is not going to grant the BBC any more of our money to launch such a venture.

Nigel Holl, the director of netball at England Netball, is appreciative of Burnham’s moral support, but suggests practical help would be more welcome. Holl says that netball will soon be negotiating for future seasons of Sky programmes as well as a new televised world series to be staged in Manchester later this year. “The Holy Grail of television coverage for a sport like ours would be on the Freeview platforms,” he says, “but we also want to build our audience, and to do that, half an hour once or twice a year is not enough.

“In New Zealand, where netball coverage is now massive, television coverage started because legislation was passed to force the state broadcasters to show a minimum amount of women’s sport.”

For all the platitudes from DCMS about wanting more coverage of women’s sport, there has been no suggestion of similar legislation in the UK.

Instead, Burnham has revealed that he has tasked staff at his department to investigate the establishment of schools league websites to cover football and cricket, for boys and girls. Yet a simple Google search on his own ministerial laptop would have revealed that such websites already exist, nationally for football and rugby, and on a county level in many sports. And without a penny of government money spent.

Sadly, Lawson’s argument often let down the media’s cause because, as he sought to explain why women cricketers being unable to bowl 90mph bouncers makes their game less appealling to him, he lost sight of the fact that, overall, such shortcomings are rarely relevant. Competition between women can be just as fascinating as competition between men.

Lawson’s lauding of Usain Bolt, while being unable to name the winner of the women’s Olympic 100 metres (it was Shelly-Ann Fraser, pictured left), also failed to prove very much: could interviewer Jane Garvey name the winner of the men’s 400 metres in Beijing? I am quite sure she remembers Christine Ohuruogu, the women’s Olympic 400 metres gold medallist.

In the Woman’s Hour debate, it was presenter Garvey – doubtless calling on her background at Radio 5Live – who identified the real elephant in the room when, in response to Burnham’s complaint that girls lack successful female sporting role models, she noted that none of them could look up to someone earning “150 grand a week”, either.

Of course, more coverage of women competing in sport, as Burnham summises, will encourage more women to participate in sport. But then, more coverage of any sport other than football will also encourage more people, whatever their gender, to participate in those other sports.

The views are those of the author and in no way represent the position or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association.

Steven Downes has covered athletics, swimming and other Olympic sports, plus football, for 25 years, he is a former editor of TV Sports Markets and is a past winner of a Royal Television Society award for sports news

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