By Merryn Sherwood

2015 was declared a watershed year for women in sport. The Matildas barnstorming run at the 2015 Women’s FIFA World Cup. The Australian Diamonds triumphant win in the Netball World Cup in front of a world-record crowd. The Southern Stars held the No.1 ranking for all three forms of the game. Michelle Payne won the Melbourne Cup. However, the doubters questioned whether it would stick.

But in 2016 the momentum continued. The highest-rating Saturday night AFL game in Melbourne was the women’s exhibition match at Whitten Oval. Cricket NSW announced that the Breakers would be the first domestic Australian women’s team to be fully professional. In 2017, Australia will welcome a new Australian netball league with a salary cap of $675,000 for 10 players, and a brand new AFL league for women.

But is the rise of women’s sport opportunity, or opportunism? Are sports organisations coming around to the idea that they should provide equal opportunities for female athletes, or is it simply good business sense to do so? This was the topic of a panel at this year’s Sports Writers Festival. The consensus was it’s probably a bit of both.

A panel that included broadcaster and documentary maker Angela Pippos, former SBS Zela editor Danielle Warby, Age sports editor Chloe Saltau and freelance journalist Karen Lyon – hosted by Lynn Haultain – discussed several reasons why women’s sport was booming.

These included that more women are playing more sport than ever before, and within that contact has been normalised and even admired. Alongside this, there the suggestion that sports organisations have realised that there is an audience for women’s sport.

Put simply the key triggers appear to be that more women are playing sport, many of them in traditionally male dominated fields, and more sports fans are enjoying watching them. Saltau noted that this led to a situation where there is an “arms race” for female athletes. Major sporting codes suddenly aren’t just providing opportunities for women to play, they have been trying to outbid each other to become the sport of choice for women at the elite level. Suddenly, there has never been more value in women’s sport.

But as a sports journalism lecturer and sports media researcher, one of the most interesting points in the panel for me was the recognition that the sports media narrative around women’s sport is changing. Historically sports media has trivialised women and coverage was often sexualised.

Some of my previous research in this area found though that Australian journalists and editors had started to question these news values. For example, a journalist said this about stories on women’s sport:

“You know, a lot of the editorial decisions you see here are made on instinct, thinking we want to see Sharapova in a pretty dress, we want to see those sorts of images and those sorts of stories in the paper but, is that what people are genuinely interested in?”

The consensus in the room at the Sports Writers Festival would suggest the landscape has moved forward again. In fact, the panel noted that “that Sam Newman way” of seeing the world is shrinking. Instead, we are seeing thoughtful stories about players with thoroughly interesting backgrounds, such as Moana Hope and Susan Alberti.

There is still be work to done. The panel noted an important step in adding legitimacy to coverage of women’s sport is to include female commentators and experts in it. But generally, there was a feeling that the ongoing professionalism of women’s sport is starting to be reflected in its coverage.

As Angela Pippos aptly noted on the panel, “I’ve spent a few months thinking wow, I’m going to see change in my lifetime.” While Pippos was at the time talking about the chance for women to earn living wages playing sport, it’s also applicable to the representation of female athletes in the media.

You can listen to the entire panel, here.

 

Merryn Sherwood is a member of the Centre for Sport and Social Impact, and coordinates the Sports Journalism major in the Bachelor of Media and Communication. La Trobe University is a partner of the Sports Writers Festival.