July saw the Federal government announce they would be handing another $10m in funding to FOX Sports, to improve the coverage of women’s and niche sports.
Conversations about the coverage of women’s sport have been reignited in recent weeks, with the return of a number of women’s sporting leagues being met with, at times, apathetic coverage from mainstream media. Let’s not talk about that Super Netball season review before it even kicked off.
By far the biggest conversation starter was the news last month that the federal government would be giving FOX Sports $10 million dollars in funding to broadcast women’s and niche sports. The announcement brings the broadcaster’s federal funding to increase coverage of women’s and niche sports to $40 million over six years.
In 2017, when the original $30 millions dollars in funding was included in the federal budget, it was met with scepticism. The money, to be paid to FOX Sports over a period of four years, was ostensibly to “support the broadcast of underrepresented sports on subscription television, including women’s sports, niche sports, and sports with a high level of community involvement and participation”.
A Freedom of Information request submitted by ABC Radio Melbourne’s Mornings program about the initial funding revealed, well, nothing. As the ABC reported in 2017, “the Legal Director for the Department of Communications and the Arts ‘refuse(d) access to the requested documents… as I am satisfied that documents falling within the scope of your request do not exist’.”
Perhaps in response to the fierce debate that surrounded the initial $30 million in funding—and the complete lack of paper trail to explain the thinking behind the grant and the process of its allocation—in October 2018 the Department of Communications and the Arts released a three page document titled ‘Supporting coverage of under-represented sports’. The report outlined what the purpose of the grant was and also what FOX Sports had done with the first part of the funding.
The report said that the Australian government gave $30 million to FOX Sports “to support television and online coverage of sports that receive low or no broadcast exposure”.
The Department claimed that in the 2017-2018 financial year, FOX Sports had broadcast more than 4,800 hours of content, including 1,600 hours of live sport falling into the categories outlined in the report. This, they claimed, was a 39 per cent increase on coverage in the previous financial year.
A similar report for the 2018-2019 financial year claimed that FOX Sports had broadcast more than 5,850 hours of content, including 1,649 hours of live sports. While it’s unclear how much of the 4,800 hours of broadcast content in the 2018 FY were women’s sports, FOX Sports claims that in the 2019 FY, 3,800 hours of broadcast content were women’s sports.
There are no details in the 2018 or 2019 report about online coverage of women’s sport.
Looking at the numbers
The coverage of women’s sport is something we keep a close eye on here at Siren. And when news dropped late last month of the additional $10 million in funding, we turned our attention to FOX Sports broadcast and online coverage to see what we were getting for our money.
Between 6pm AEST on Monday July 27th and 6pm AEST on Monday August 3rd just 7.5 of the 1,344 broadcast hours across Foxtel’s eight dedicated sports channels were allotted to women’s sport. That’s just 0.56%.
Admittedly, live women’s sport has been few and far between due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. But among those 1,344 hours there are hundreds of hours dedicated to documentaries, match replays and delightful trips down memory lane with ‘classic’ match replays. In fact, nostalgia has been a feature of sports coverage since the beginning of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, women’s sports has been conspicuously absent from this reminisience.
Foxtel boasts thousands of hours of women’s sport coverage made possible by the government handouts. This suggests they have hundreds of AFLW, W-League, WBBL and WNBL matches to, at the bare minimum, be included in these replay cycles. But they choose not to include them.
It’s not just the broadcast hours that indicate problems here. In partnership with Swinburne University, Siren gathered the average women’s sport coverage across 20 different mainstream sport websites from April to June 2020. This included both FOX Sports and the ABC. Throughout this 88 day period—notably within the four years the government’s initial $30 million was intended to cover—FOX Sports’ homepage shared women’s sport on an average of 2.37% (87 stories out of 3,667). Conversely, the ABC featured women’s sports 11.85% of the time (488 out of 4,117).
Incredibly, FOX Sports failed to feature any women’s sport on 42 of those 88 days, while the ABC failed to feature women’s sport stories just twice.
With the federal government funding designed to not only increase television broadcast hours of women’s and niche sports, but the online coverage of those same sports, these numbers are damning for Foxtel.
There will be plenty that will argue that there’s no women’s sport happening right now. But that’s not true. Last Saturday for example, the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season started. In the week leading up to the beginning of the season, a beginning that has faced some extraordinary circumstances, FOX Sports posted one article on the SSN. Platforms such as FOX Sports don’t require broadcast rights to a league in order to share the emerging news around it.
And as already mentioned, with thousands of hours of competition and hundreds of games across plenty of sports, the dearth of women’s sport in the broadcast schedule is troubling.
More questions than answers
It’s an admirable goal, to want to increase the coverage of women’s sport. (One we at Siren very obviously support.) According to Clearinghouse for Sport, many of the barriers to participation in sport for women and girls “have been attributed to sociological and cultural influences” with the “predominant social ‘view’ of sport is still a male oriented and dominated activity”.
Media coverage is something the Clearinghouse for Sport highlights as having a significant influence on the long-term sustainability of women’s sports, and of female athletes. It links a lack of media coverage with a lack of commercial sponsorship. One does not come without the other.
In line with that, the visibility and accessibility of women’s sport is crucial to its long term sustainability. As many pointed out when the initial $30 million in funding was announced, to select a subscription based broadcaster as the main avenue for women’s sports immediately limits its visibility.
Women’s sports have made some serious strides in recent years. The launch of the AFLW, the increasing professionalisation of women’s cricket in Australia and the popularity of national teams like the Matildas and the Diamonds can attest to that. But there is still a long way to go. Particularly in respect to the often part-time and semi-professional nature of women’s sport that hampers it’s growth and development.
If our government is serious about supporting that growth and development, it must think more strategically and more creatively rather than just simply handing over huge amounts of money to private, subscription based broadcasters.