home Op-Ed, Women in Sport Media Equity in sports media? Numbers alone won’t deliver change

Equity in sports media? Numbers alone won’t deliver change

Siren co-founder Kirby Fenwick digs into the history of equity in sports media coverage research and why we need more than numbers to effect change.

“During the last five years, the growth and development of women’s sport have been meteoric.
Fresh fields, hitherto sacred to men, have been explored and conquered by women, and the public,
from being mildly amused and tolerant, is today impressed by the high standard of play attained.”

If I asked you to guess when those sentences were written and published, what would you say? Would you say Friday the 1st of May in 1936? When South Australian sport journalist Lois Quarrell wrote those words in her inaugural women’s sport page in The Advertiser, she probably wasn’t thinking: “I really hope we’re not having these same conversations in 90 years”.   

Disappointingly, yet unsurprisingly, we are. 

If you stick to the headlines, women’s sport has been “booming” for more than 100 years. Research by Associate Professor Fiona McLachlan revealed that a “celebratory discourse” permeated the media coverage of women in sport. McLachlan collated more than 500 newspaper articles spanning more than 100 years from the 1880s to 2017. What she found was a “sense of optimism about the progress of women’s sport”. It’s never been a better time to be a woman in sport after all – whether you’re in 1954 or 2024. Of course, placing these narratives of progress alongside the reality tells us a very different story. 

There have been some developments in this narrative, at least at the elite level. The launch of competitions like the NRLW and AFLW, the popularity of the Matildas, the success of athletes like Ash Barty and Sam Kerr. But for all the booming that might be happening on the field, the giant that is sports media seems to have missed the memo. 

Sport dominates Australian media

Sport is the largest sector of the Australian media. Research from Women in Media found that for every story on politics or health, there are three on sport. After collecting nearly 20,000 press, radio and TV news reports, they found that 23% were categorised as sport. And more than 80% of those sports stories were authored by men; women sports journalists authored only 18% of sports stories. 

Given the dominance of sports media in the Australian landscape, understanding how it operates and why it operates that way, and who and what it privileges is very important. That understanding is critical if we want to effect change.

Earlier this year, the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation (OWSR) released a report about the media coverage of women’s sport available in Victoria. The report assessed more than 30,000 sports news items. Its findings were, unsurprisingly, pretty bleak. 

The OWSR report found that overall only 15% of sports news covered women’s sport. When the report broke down the results by media type, they found that print came out on top with 20% of sports coverage dedicated to women’s sport, online came in second with 15%, and radio and TV both 12%. The report also found there were less women than men working in sports media and that women were less likely to be a quoted source in sports media.

These are not new conversations. At a Women, Sport and Recreation Seminar held in Melbourne in 1976, sports journalist Peg McMahon laid it out pretty succinctly, if somewhat brutally: 

Here we must face facts. You may be a golf champion – have a handicap around scratch or so. You may be a fine sprinter, cover 100 metres in just over 11 seconds. That’s fine. Maybe you captained the national netball team when it won the world championship or you can fly down the slopes in slalom, execute superb turns and jumps. You know all the techniques. Or maybe you’re a whizz at cricket. You made 290 not out, then took eight wickets for 12 runs before tea. Very interesting!

But, do you look like Raquel Welch? Or are your legs reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in her heyday? You naturally ooze charm, of course. Because if you don’t, forget about getting your picture in the male organised, male oriented sports pages. A girl has to be twice as good as a man to get half the space. She does have a chance, however, if she fulfills most of the foregoing requirements, as well as being a champion.

Don’t hold back, Peg. 

The long history of sports media research

Research into the media coverage of women’s sport has been undertaken at somewhat regular intervals over the last 40 or so years. Early reports from 1980 paint a pretty dismal picture with research undertaken by Helen Menzies showing that only 2% of sports media was dedicated to women’s sport and 12% of sports results. 

Then came the groundbreaking Women, Sport and the Media report, commissioned by the Australian government and published in 1985, which replicated Helen’s research and found that the numbers had dropped. In 1984, only 1.3% of sports media was dedicated to women’s sport and only 4.9% of sports results. 

Further research was undertaken in 1992 which resulted in the 1994 report Invisible Games. That report found that 4.5% of sports coverage in newspapers was dedicated to women, while only 1.2% of television sports coverage was dedicated to women. 

Then in 1996, more research was undertaken and in 1997 An Illusory Image: Media Coverage and Portrayal of Women in Sport was published. This report looked at a range of media and found that 10.7% of sports coverage in newspapers covered women’s sport. When it came to television, the report found that 0.2% of commercial television sports coverage was dedicated to women but the number soared to 20% of non-commercial television sports coverage. Radio was a similar story with 0.4% of commercial radio sports coverage dedicated to women’s sport but 3.4% of non-commercial sports coverage was dedicated to women’s sport. 

Data helps to tell a story but it is not the whole story. 

While sometimes useful to encourage change, data siloed from the broader story of sports media and from any historical context becomes less useful. What does the data presented in this latest report from the OWSR tell us about where we are, about what has worked, or not worked in the long push for equity in sports media? How does this new data fit into the ongoing story of sports media and women in sport? How does this data help us to understand how we got here?  

Why we need more than numbers

Sports media in Australia has deeply patriarchal and conservative foundations. As sport progressed from social good to form of entertainment to professional business, sports media was there, telling the stories and linking the sports with their fans and audiences. Sport and sports media shared a symbiotic relationship.

Of course, sports media in 2024 looks very different to what it looked like in 1936 when Lois Quarrell was writing or 1976 when Peg McMahon was talking at the Women, Sport and Recreation Seminar. Independent creators and platforms are harnessing new technology to reach their audiences whether by social media, newsletters, podcasts or YouTube channels. Major sporting organisations have created their own media arms and now speak directly to their fans. The media itself has undergone, and arguably continues to undergo, a transformation that means the once solid ground beneath them is now more like sticky mud.  

While this diversification in sports media presents opportunities, it similarly presents challenges. Among the challenges: are we just replicating the decades old model of sports media, dressing it up in fancy new clothes and calling it change? Or is sports media still the “male organised, male oriented” space that Peg McMahon described in 1976?

In her research on the reporting around women’s sport, Fiona McLachlan wrote that progress narratives are “potentially part of the very structure that prevents long-term change being achieved”. 

As I wrote for Women in Media in September 2023

“These progress narratives serve to keep us in cycles of celebration, relishing snippets of joy in moments disconnected from the larger story, rather than engaging in serious critique of the status quo and of the structures underpinning sport that continue to marginalise women.” 

Are these reports, packed with data collection and percentages, our snippets of “joy”? We relish the numbers because, at the very least, they’re going up, right? 

McLachlan quotes Joan Wallach Scott in making the case for her critical history of these progress narratives and the celebratory discourse in the coverage of women in sport: 

“The point of critique is to make visible those blind spots in order to open a system to change. Not to replace what is with a fully formulated, ideal plan, but to open the possibility for thinking (and so acting) differently.”

Like Scott and McLachlan before me, I critique the collection of data in order to illuminate those blind spots in the system that is our reporting on, approach to and discussions of equity in sports media. 

The collection of data is not enough. It alone does not move the needle. If it did, we wouldn’t have this latest data from the OWSR and I wouldn’t be writing this. Siren wouldn’t exist. 

Change is difficult, a sticky process that rarely takes a linear path. Changing something like sports media, with its deeply patriarchal and conservative foundations, presents additional challenges. Because the change must be holistic, coming from sports media, from sporting associations and organisations, from athletes and teams, from government, and also from audiences. Tackling equity in sports media coverage must go hand-in-hand with tackling equity in participation, access, remuneration, opportunity at all levels of sport and for all the myriad roles within sport: athlete, coach, administrator, media, fan. 

But the change must come from a place of understanding. 

Understanding what happened or didn’t happen to give us the sports media we have today. 

Understanding the myriad actors in the room (or the media box) reinforcing or rejecting the systems and structures of sports media. 

Understanding what strategies have been tried before in service of equity in sports media and what has worked or not worked. 

Understanding how we got here will help us to find a way out of here.  

I don’t profess to have the answers. I’m not even sure I know all the questions. But I do know that if we keep looking forward without ever looking back, if we keep coming up with new data and new strategies and new policies without considering, knowing and understanding what has come before us, we may find ourselves stuck in this cycle of knowing the problem, but consistently failing to find the solutions. 

There’s little joy in that. 

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