What does the digital revolution mean for women’s sport? Samantha Lewis spoke to Olly Wilton of Twitter Australia about the digital growth of women’s sport.
The rise of the internet has been a game-changer for women’s sport. Having existed for much of its life, with next to no regular media coverage from the handful of monolithic, mainstream organisations responsible for telling sport’s stories and shaping its conversations, women’s sport and its community has had to find alternative spaces within which they could grow.
The internet–and social media in particular–provided that alternative space, allowing athletes, leagues, and fans of women’s sport to seek each other out and begin to build momentum around their shared interests. While mainstream television broadcasters and newspapers were structured by and for men’s sport, and while most physical spaces like stadiums and pubs were populated primarily by male fans, women’s sport flourished within the digital space of the internet; a space where they could set their own parameters, tell their own stories, build their own identities and communities.
As academic Portia Vann wrote in 2014, “[t]he emergence of new media, in a field that has been dominated by broadcast, has transformed the consumption of sport into a more complex and participatory experience, and this new environment can potentially transcend some of the existing structural restraints of old media.
“[A]s the Internet offers more individualized content than television, fans of specialized and specific sports, which may have been overlooked by other media outlets, can direct their enthusiasm to fan bases that are catered to online. For these overlooked interest and sports groups, this creates a particularly potent sense of coherence and community on the internet.”
In other words, the growth of women’s sport and its community has relied on the growth of the internet. Digital platforms–particularly social media–are now central to the sporting experience; we no longer consume sport from a single source, like a television channel, but from many sources. As Vann writes, “Web sites, online content, and social media are acting as ‘second screens’ to the primary broadcast via television, and are being used simultaneously by fans. The key to the future of sport media is the relationship between these screens.”
Twitter, in particular, has become a key space for the women’s sport community. It’s free, it’s accessible, and it’s easy to navigate. Fans are able to participate in the conversations they’re most interested in much more easily than in traditional sporting spaces because Twitter’s tailor-made approach enables fans to locate one another based on shared interests thanks to tools like hashtags and trending topics.
The relationship between Twitter and women’s sport has become symbiotic as more fans have flocked to the platform, resulting in Twitter further promoting women’s sport in order to attract more potential users. The growth of one fuels the growth of the other.
“In recent times, we’ve seen huge growth in conversation around women’s sport on Twitter,” Olly Wilton, the head of Sports Partnerships at Twitter Australia, told Siren Sport. “In 2019, AFLW became the fifth most Tweeted-about sports league, with Tayla Harris’ iconic kick Tweet becoming the most ‘liked’ tweet by Australians last year. We were delighted to partner with the AFLW to stream the annual AFLW kick-off show live on Twitter, and back in 2018, we had 57,000 people watch the AFLW draft on Twitter.
“Outside of AFLW, we’ve seen massive growth in popularity related to conversations around women’s cricket and soccer. In fact, sport is one of the biggest topics related to feminism and equality, with 125 million tweets around this issue in the past three years. This really came to the fore at the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year, where we partnered with SBS to create a Twitter-exclusive daily live show.
“More recently, on June 26, it was announced that Australia and New Zealand won the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Fans were able to tune into this defining moment for women’s sport with FIFA streaming the announcement of our successful bid live on Twitter.”
Twitter’s increased promotion of women’s sport is having an effect on its wider sporting community. Recent research conducted by Crowd DNA found that:
- 61% of surveyed sports fans “agreed that they wanted to see more women’s sport played.”
- 74% “are happy to see women’s sport grow in popularity.”
- 51% “agree [Twitter] is helping them find out more about women’s sport”
- 84% “follow a women’s league” on Twitter.
“Sport and Twitter have long been synonymous with Australian culture, providing a platform for fans to engage in debate and get unfiltered access to their favourite athletes,” Wilton said. “However, in recent times–even more so since the pandemic–we’ve seen the online world evolve as virtual fandom takes grip more than ever. We wanted to dig deeper into this and unpack the deep-rooted emotional affinity that exists in Australian sport and [understand] how Twitter enhances that.”
Rather than go up against traditional television broadcasters, though, as other digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and Amazon have done, Wilton sees Twitter as playing a different role in this emerging digital landscape.
“Twitter is a complementary tool,” Wilton said. “We know that people lean into it in the build-up, during the game or the event itself, and then jump on and get a slightly alternative viewpoint of the reaction and the analysis comes through.
“We’ve experimented with long-form and we will still play in that space. A good example is we’ve just signed on for ten more WNBA games this year, so they’ll be broadcast globally. And that role is that you can reach basketball tragics everywhere; you can go out and find people who will be willing to watch sport regardless of the league, regardless of the code.
“So we want to raise the platform for these [athletes] and give them a bigger audience to talk to. Then we want to double down on it: how do we make sure the highlights and content comes on Twitter during and after [games] so those people who can’t sit down and watch a whole match or are new to the sport, how do we package that up in a way that means we can convert new fans and keep current ones?”
As Siren Sport has been tracking in recent months, there remains a startling disparity between men’s and women’s sport coverage by mainstream media outlets. For Wilton, increasing the amount of coverage of women’s sport is just as important as increasing its quality.
“The first step we took in supporting women’s sport specifically in Australia–and I know there’s more work to be done here–but is by treating it equally, by giving it the same coverage and support that we give the men’s version of the event,” he said.
“A good example would be the last two [football] World Cups in 2018 and 2019 in Russia and France. With the men’s World Cup, we did 23 live shows with SBS, we did live shows with Optus to support it, we partnered with SBS and the Socceroos, we commercialised their content on Twitter–so we went into a revenue-sharing partnership.
“And then when the Women’s World Cup came around in France, we did exactly the same. We were able to commercialise it, we were able to get Craig [Foster] and Lucy [Zelić] on SBS shows talking for an hour before Matildas games.
“So I think that’s where the conversation starts: how do we bring the support levels up to parity, and then with the nuances and the momentum that women’s sport has, how do we approach it differently? How do we attune to the way women athletes can hold themselves, the fact they’re appealing to a different sort of fanbase–bringing lots of young women and girls through to sporting events–so how do we tailor the content around them?”
However, one of the problems that arises with an individually-tailored social media platform like Twitter is that there is a risk that users form silos or bubbles around themselves, making interest in and access to new ideas and communities more difficult. How, then, can general sports fans learn more about women’s sport if they are responsible for curating their own feeds?
“We’ve made a lot of product changes recently to make sure people can find the content they’re most interested in,” Wilton said. “So you’ll have seen a couple coming out like ‘Topics,’ where we’ve given people the opportunity to follow ‘women’s football’ or ‘football in Australia’ and we’re curating them and building them up and playing around with the algorithm all the time to ensure the best content is still surfaced.
“Jack Dorsey was talking this week on The Daily podcast about customisable algorithms; how not one-size-fits-all and how there might be opportunities for people to tailor that further, not just so it becomes a reinforcement of what they’re already following, but ‘because you like and are engaged with [something], this might be of interest to you.’
“The fact that we’re only 20 years into this journey rather than 50 years means that what we find is the women’s sport partners are a lot more open to suggestions; a lot more nimble and more malleable. We’ve seen that the appetite is there when you look at the fact that Ash Barty and Tayla Harris were the most tweeted-about athletes from last year. That’s a huge change.
“The Matildas were the tenth-most mentioned sports brand on Twitter in Australia. That appetite and that conversation is already happening. We see that momentum is there and it’s our responsibility to get those right partnerships in place to elevate it as much as we can.”
Another issue facing women’s sport in the digital era is couched in Wilton’s reference to Tayla Harris. While the AFLW player’s “Kick Like A Girl” photo has become a cultural touch-stone and symbol of women’s empowerment, Harris’ tweet also highlights a paradox that women’s sport is beginning to confront as the wider sport industry pivots to digital platforms.
Specifically, the reason Harris’ tweet was so “big” in terms of its engagement numbers was as much to do with the harassment and trolling she received as it was with the women’s sport community that rallied around her in its wake. All of this–the good and the bad–occurred within the same digital spaces, but there is little knowing how many of the ‘clicks’ she received were out of support or out of malice.
“We are getting better,” Wilton said. “I know it might not feel like that in some situations, but we’ve had it from the top down with Jack saying, ‘we haven’t been good enough, but we are getting better.’
“A lot of my job is talking to athletes and player associations because we’re very concerned with mental health and we want [Twitter] to be a happy and positive experience. There are things we’ve rolled out […] with blocking, we’ve made it easier to report tweets, we’ve wrapped up our proactive and reactive response to any abuse on the platform.
“One in two abusive tweets never reaches its intended [target] because we’ve got computer learning in place to stop it from getting there. We’ve seen a 105% increase in the last year in the number of accounts that have been actioned and taken down by twitter. And that’s a combination of: we’ve really beefed up our User Services team to make sure that if there’s any momentum around a tweet being reported or blocked, we can get some human eyeballs on it as quickly as possible, and then get ahead of it and proactively take down those abusive tweets.
“And then we’ve rolled out conversation controls, [which] means that authors and publishers of tweets can control or limit who responds to their tweets. [The Tayla Harris tweet] shows the positivity is there and we’re getting better at making sure we can elevate those athletes and hopefully the positive experiences outweigh the negative ones.”
Nonetheless, digital platforms like Twitter are gradually replacing traditional media outlets when it comes to sports coverage. Its fragmented, tailor-made nature means women’s sport is ideally placed to capitalise on the transition sports media is experiencing towards digital spaces, so long as these spaces see the value and possibilities offered by women’s sport in return.
“In terms of women’s sport, it’s such an interesting canvas for us because it’s not entrenched in the same historical rights [as men’s sport],” Wilton said. “The numbers aren’t quite as big as they [could be] – hopefully we get there, and there’s been some really great movement towards that place – but it means that the leagues and associations are more generous with their talent and giving access [to athletes].
“And what we’ve seen in the conversation around women’s sport [is] everyone tends to lift [each other] up a bit more; the athletes are more comfortable to do cross-promotion, so you’ll see Sam Kerr retweeting Ash Barty and vice-versa, and that’s not something we necessarily see in the more traditional men’s sports.
“In the second half of 2020, we’ll continue to be laser-focused on supporting our local partners in this space. There’s more to come and we’ll get in touch as soon as we have more to share.”
1 Portia Vann, “Changing the Game: The Role of New Media in Overcoming Old Media’s Attention Deficit Toward Women’s Sport” in Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 58 (3), pp. 438-455, September 2014, pg. 441