How Sky’s next bold move will create girl heroes
An ambitious new partnership between Sky Sports and more than 50 sports promises more free sport for Kiwis. Suzanne McFadden looks at how it will change the way we see female athletes
It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1990, when an Auckland school kid named Nikki Jenkins put herself through the greatest twists and turns of her young life.
First, a full-twisting Tsukahara over a vaulting horse, followed by a near-perfect handspring front somersault; each time, her feet landing synchronously on the mat.
Then, the tiny, tearful 14-year-old clutched New Zealand’s first Commonwealth Games gold in gymnastics – becoming the youngest New Zealand athlete to win either a Commonwealth or Olympic medal.
I remember it like yesterday, because I was there. I’d known Jenkins since she was even smaller, when her parents were my PE teachers. And that moment essentially kick-started my own career as a sports journalist.
But others will have a grainier memory, taken from a big old box of a colour TV.
Others like Anna Robertson. She didn’t know Jenkins and she wasn’t doing artistic gymnastics at the time, but the moment she saw her on the screen, she was captivated.
“She became an icon for me, because she made everyone go ‘Whoa, look at that! A New Zealander on the podium!',” she recalls. Today, Robertson manages the performance pathways for Gymnastics New Zealand.
“To see girls doing amazing things inspired me. Boys doing amazing things – well, they were just boys doing amazing things. But I really connected with the girls, because I was a girl.
“That’s why the more girls we can see playing sport, the better. The more we can show girls gymnasts their age, or older, the better.”
But let's be honest: we’ve barely seen New Zealand gymnasts on our TV screens since Jenkins vaulted to gold 30 years ago.
And that’s why Robertson and Gymnastics NZ CEO Tony Compier were at the Trusts Arena last week (as the Tall Ferns warmed up for their first basketball home game in four years), when Sky and the NZ Sports Collective launched a bold new initiative to bring more sport free to New Zealanders.
Gymnastics NZ is one of more than 50 national sports bodies who’ve signed up to the NZ Sports Collective, led by Olympic champion rower Rob Waddell. The Collective has been working with Sky, so that more people – particularly Generation Z – can watch Kiwi sport they might not have otherwise seen.
Sky is investing more than $10 million over the next three years into Sky Sport Next, which will show some of New Zealand’s most popular grassroots sports and rising young talent. It promises to show thousands of events for free, either live-streamed or highlights packages - like national junior skiing championships, school touch tournaments and Para table tennis nationals.
Much of the coverage will be free-to-air - streamed through the Sky Sport Next YouTube channel and shown on Prime. Some content will also be broadcast on Sky Sport’s digital channels, and streaming service Sky Sport Now.
As more sports turned to live streaming their events online, to get coverage to their fans, Waddell took his groundbreaking idea to Sky.
It will be a huge fillip for the so-called minor sports that don't receive a lot of funding, or get a lot of exposure. Sports just like gymnastics, which make an appearance once every two years – at the Commonwealth Games or Olympics.
And it means athletes like Courtney McGregor and Maia Fishwick – who represented New Zealand at the world artistic gymnastics championships this year – could become heroes to young girls as Jenkins did.
Most young Kiwi gymnasts idolise Olympic champions, like American Simone Biles or Kohei Uchimura of Japan, because that’s who they see regularly on YouTube, Compier explains.
“We don’t have any issue with the global profile, but we certainly have an issue with the local one,” he says. “This platform will give us the opportunity to grow the profile of local heroes who will be more relatable to our kids. And it will get more kids active.”
It’s perfect timing for gymnastics, with New Zealand hosting the Pacific Rim championships in Tauranga next year. It gathers the best artistic, rhythmic and trampoline gymnasts from 21 nations around the Pacific - including powerhouses Russia, China, Japan and the US.
Sticking to his commitment to lift the visibility of women in sport, Sky CEO Martin Stewart is vowing the Sky Sport Next channel will have “an equal mix of male and female representation”.
“Men’s and women’s sports should be seen as equal. That’s something we’re driving towards, and we’re not going to stop until we see that become a reality,” Stewart told LockerRoom at the launch.
“We’re not naïve, we know there’s a long way to go. But the important thing is that we’ve committed to it, and we’re making good on that commitment.”
Stewart started this pledge to female sport soon after he started at Sky in February - a time when the company was struggling to connect with its customers.
At first glance, Stewart may not look an obvious champion of women in sport. Yet he’s been one of the biggest movers and shakers in the New Zealand women's sport arena in 2019.
The middle-aged, gently-spoken English business executive has witnessed inequalities in sport through his previous roles, and as a father of sporting children.
He was, briefly, the chief financial officer at the FA (England’s Football Association) when it began building the profile of the national women’s team. Earlier this month, the Lionesses drew a record-breaking crowd of 77,768 into Wembley (but lost 2-1 to Germany).
Under Stewart’s watch, Sky has put its name in front of the Tall Ferns, Kiwi Ferns, White Sox and Warriors Women, and continued to support the Silver Ferns, Black Ferns and White Ferns.
In a flurry of announcements in October, Sky revealed an exclusive broadcast deal with the International Cricket Council, opening with the Women’s T20 World Cup next February and including the 2021 Women’s Cricket World Cup in New Zealand. There was a renewal of the partnership with the World Cup Sevens Series – for the first-time coverage of every game of the women’s tournaments - and a “deepening partnership” with Netball NZ.
Sky also partnered with LockerRoom – another move to boost the profile of women’s sport - and they gave sportswomen part-time jobs in their own organisation.
And then last week, Sky announced it had secured the rights to the 2022 and 2026 Commonwealth Games, and with that came a commitment to increased women’s participation and visibility. That will include boosting the coverage of women athletes at the Games and increasing the number of female presenters and women on the Sky production crew.
There’s a pattern in recent years, where the reporting and broadcasting of female athletes rises significantly around Games time, but drops back down to between 10 and 12 percent of New Zealand’s sports media coverage in between.
Kereyn Smith, head of the NZ Olympic Committee, sees the Sky Sport Next initiative being critical for change.
“For young girls to be able to see other young girls playing sport, and see women coaching and officiating in sport, is really powerful,” she says.
“In our recent history, broadcasting has been very much restricted to a few sports, or during Olympic or Commonwealth Games or some world championships. It’s been elite and narrow, and not so community focused. So this will be great for young people and a real boost to community sport.”
For one new Olympic sport, climbing, it means exposure where there was virtually none before. Climbing will make its debut at Tokyo 2020 - but Sarah Hay has been a competitive climber for a decade. Without any coverage of her sport at home, she took her inspiration and training tips from international climbers on YouTube videos.
Although she wishes the Sky Sport Next platform had appeared five years ago, when she was building to her competitive peak, she’s content that it will bring an awareness of the sport and break down stereotypes.
“There’s an uneducated perception that climbing is a men’s sport because you have to be strong. But women are agile, flexible and good at problem solving,” she says. “There are lots of girls doing it – and doing it well.”
A statement most Kiwi sports would like to be able to claim.