The truth about girls

Don't believe the gloom merchants - the women's sports revolution is real.

Knowing what to call them ain’t straightforward. That’s the first truth about female athletes.

“Girls” is often condescending. But it’s not always inaccurate. Many outstanding female athletes become noteworthy at an age when they are, quite demonstrably, still girls. At what point of a sports career does a young female athlete cross over into womanhood? For some, unfortunately, the answer is never.

Truth be told, lapsing into saying something like “these girls are amazing” when discussing female sports stars is a pitfall awaiting all but the most precise speakers. Most of us (men and women) wouldn’t dream of referring to Kieran Read as a boy, but will happily describe the Silver Ferns as “amazing girls”.

There’s no harm intended. But the issue isn’t intent – it’s whether harm is done. And it almost certainly is. If we minimise the status of the athletes, we can’t help but minimise the status of their achievements.

Truth is, clumsy linguistics is just one of the many pitfalls when it comes to accurately capturing and reflecting what is happening with female sport.

On that topic, a recent Stuff article by Olivia Caldwell posited the theory that a global trend towards increased awareness, interest, celebration and professionalisation of female sport might, in fact, be a mere fad.

The article raised issues with the quantity and nature of journalism in women’s sports, presenting this as evidence that a snowballing global movement was doomed to be simply a repetition of a cycle that ultimately leads nowhere.

“Research shows this could be a fad if the type of coverage doesn't change,” Caldwell suggested.

Loath as this column is to have a pop at one of the precious few female sports journalists in this country, I simply can’t agree with that conclusion, nor the evidence it is drawn from.

In the article, former journalist and now University of Auckland professor Toni Bruce said international research found that “women's sport was often compared with men's sport, often sexualised, can be based on non-sport related aspects, such as a woman's family or her job outside of sport.”

This is true. But female athletes being prepared to engage with the media on aspects of their lives outside the painted lines is hardly a negative. Media coverage of female athletes tends to be considerably more interesting precisely because they are, as a rule, prepared to reveal more of themselves than male counterparts, who are often smothered by the PR machines that come hand-in-glove with professionalism.

Yes, many female athletes face gender-specific challenges, such as childbirth, juggling employment with primary childcare (not to mention a lack of facilities, funding and support), but reporting these issues is hardly misguided or harmful.

"In many cases the coverage of women's sport has gone up, but the coverage itself is not about the game, it is about 'oh look at women's sport it is taking off'. Or 'look at all the interest in women's rugby'. So it is almost about social issues around the women's sport,” Bruce is quoted as saying in the article.

The irony of that comment appearing in an article focused on social issues surrounding women’s sport is quite tremendous. It is also, again, highly debatable whether a negative is being described.

For starters, very little sports coverage these days is about the ‘game itself’. In a world of live blogs, cable sports and (ahem) sports streaming, match reporting has become increasingly redundant. At LockerRoom – a site dedicated entirely to female sport – rare attempts to provide match reports for big events have attracted little readership (particularly in comparison to in-depth profiles and issues pieces).

As for the notion that articles that focus on social issues and gender equity in sport are somehow a negative, that’s just a little crackers. A key function of journalism is to shed light on social issues. And a consistent, strong focus on what is being achieved - and what still remains to be achieved - is vital to the continued pursuit of equity for female sport.

Bruce's research reveals that, internationally, women's sport receives about five percent of the sports bulletin in broadcast news, while in newspaper and online statistics, numbers reach about 10 percent.

Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done there. But it is a major stretch to present that as evidence of a “blip” of interest that will fade.

Dame Valerie Adams prepares to throw at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where she won shot put silver. Photo: Getty Images.

And the research here feels incomplete and off-target. It would be very interesting to know, for instance, how much coverage Tom Walsh’s world championship shot put triumph achieved, in comparison to the same achievement by Dame Valerie Adams? Or how much coverage was dedicated to the achievements of the Evers-Swindell sisters’ gold medal exploits in comparison to very similar achievements by Eric Murray and Hamish Bond?

It would also be particularly interesting to know how much golf coverage is dedicated to Lydia Ko, in comparison to Ryan Fox.

That type of “apples with apples” analysis would surely reveal more about gender bias in coverage than assessing the gender make-up of all coverage – a figure sure to be skewed by the amount of total sports content in the market.

In any case, there is plenty of other evidence around to suggest that an increase in interest in women’s sport is not simply a fad, or some weird guilt-driven offshoot of the #metoo movement.

The recent women’s Fifa World Cup purportedly reached an audience of a billion people. Female professional leagues have been established at various parts of the globe in football, cricket, AFL, rugby and rugby league – joining well-established sports such as golf and tennis - and are becoming increasingly successfully commercialised.

Many of the UFC’s marquee stars – and highest earners - are female.

In many, if not all, cases, an increased commitment to female sport has required a substantial investment from sports entities. This investment hasn’t been made because it is a trendy, feel-good thing to do. Pro sport doesn’t work like that. Sports bodies have invested because they’ve recognised there is a vast, largely untapped market consisting of over 50 percent of the species.

Sports may have been slow on the uptake on this front, but for many the penny has dropped. Literally.

This year, for instance, the world surf league began offering equal prizemoney for male and female surfers. It did so with the backing of a suite of major global sponsors, such as Samsung, Target, Swatch, Jeep and Airbnb.

Closer to home – my home, in fact – there are plenty of examples that the commitment to increasing the prominence and value of women’s sport is significant and sustained.

I have recently taken on a contract role working on the delivery of the 2021 ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup. When the event was last held here in 2000, all of the matches were played at Bert Sutcliffe Oval in Lincoln, the players were all housed in university dormitories and only the final was televised.

Planning for 2021 is based on a fully-broadcast, eight-nation tournament played at New Zealand’s premier cricket grounds. The cost of delivering an event of that scale will be many millions of dollars. It is not an undertaking the ICC is entering half-heartedly. Their commitment to growing the women’s game globally is genuine, and wholehearted.

Increased interest in elite women’s sport isn’t a fad. And it isn’t about to fade away.

Another hat I wear is that of a boxing promoter. Rival Sports, the company I have formed in partnership with veteran promoter Bruce Glozier, is presenting an international boxing card featuring four professional female bouts and just one male contest on Friday night.

There are a few reasons for that, including that professional female fighters are easier to match as they are more willing to risk a defeat in the pursuit of victory than their male counterparts. Female boxers are also more consistently, dependably entertaining – a fact that becomes evident to people when they engage with the sport.

The risks and costs associated with an event such as a WBO world title fight are significant, so it is not a venture I entered into lightly. Happily, the event is on track to sell out SKY City’s convention centre, which will make it the best-attended boxing show in New Zealand this year. The show will be screened live by SKY TV – which is investing a significant amount of resource into production – and has attracted enough sponsorship (thanks Monster and Go Rentals) to ensure that, while not a staggering commercial success, it is at least viable.

I’m not convinced that would have been the case even two years ago.

Then, of course, there is LockerRoom – a venture launched by Newsroom in March 2018 with the intent of providing dedicated coverage to the under-served area that is female sport.

From the outset, things were encouraging for LockerRoom, with articles produced by the section’s editor Suzanne McFadden and her band of contributors achieving excellent readership.

Frustratingly, that success did not translate to commercial backing to the degree that would provide genuine sustainability. While there was no shortage of corporate goodwill, it didn’t extend as far as companies putting their money where their heartfelt best wishes were, leaving Newsroom’s owners to carry the can.

To their credit, those owners stuck to their guns, believing that the cause was worthy and that the business rationale strong. Soon enough, that judgment will be proved correct – so watch this space.

If there is a common theme to the work that I’m doing across LockerRoom, international cricket and boxing promotion, it is that women’s sport is viewed as an area of massive opportunity.

A 2018 study by market research company Nielsen that examined markets in New Zealand, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia found the number of women’s sports sponsorship deals had grown 37 percent between 2013 and 2017, and that the monetary value of those deals had increased by 47 percent.

Another interesting stat: at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris the level of female participation was 1.8 percent. That figure fluctuated for a time, but has increased with every Olympic cycle since 1948. By 1984, the figure was 23 percent. In 2004 it was 41 percent. At the last Olympics in 2016, female athletes comprised 45 percent of the field.

The IOC's commitment to gender equality will see an unprecedented 48.8 percent female participation in Tokyo 2020.

Increased interest in elite women’s sport isn’t a fad. And it isn’t about to fade away.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still massive challenges to overcome before the hallowed ground of genuine gender equity is arrived at.

The New Zealand government through Sport New Zealand is pushing for better media coverage of women's sport. Last October, it committed to investing at least $10 million over the next three years on initiatives to enable more women and girls to “realise their potential in, and through, sport and active recreation”.

A good chunk of that $10 million was to be spent on increasing the 'value and visibility' of women and girls in sport, including increasing media coverage.

Bizarrely, so far not a single dollar of that money has been earmarked for organisations that actually cover sport.

Newsroom petitioned Sports Minister Grant Robertson for funding to cover the employment of a graduate female sports journalist to work on LockerRoom. That initiative was rejected.

“It is not the role of government to invest in media companies to achieve an outcome they should be able to realise on their own,” Robertson has stated.

If ever a statement demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the challenges facing media companies that have been locked in a death spiral for well over a decade, that is it.

Exactly where the money will go is unclear, however you can bet dollars to doughnuts a good chunk of it will be filtered to marketing agencies to produce a slick campaign telling people that women’s sport is now cool and that they should engage with it – never mind that much of the media coverage that folks could be engaging with won’t actually exist.

Sadly, helping to effect meaningful long-term change is apparently not the government’s role.

The Great Britain women's hockey team celebrate winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

The provision of free-to-air television coverage of women’s sport is the other area where government investment would have a real effect. Free-to-air TV has been credited as a key driver in the booming interest in Britain in women’s sport.

The 2016 Olympic gold medal match featuring Britain’s women’s hockey team reached an audience of 5.5 million people via the BBC, proving a catalyst for an upturn in interest, profile and commercial returns for a fairly niche sport.

The following year, 500,000 people watched the England women’s cricket team’s World Cup final victory over India – making it the most watched cricket broadcast by pay service SKY TV UK that year.

Earlier this year, that figure was dwarfed by the 11.7 million people who tuned in for England’s World Cup semifinal defeat by USA on free-to-air TV.

"We've had these boom times before and everyone got really excited and people that supported women's sport were thinking 'Yay this is the moment, we've finally found our place and we are accepted'. And then it all just sort of died,” Bruce rather glumly noted in Caldwell’s piece.

That may be true. But there is no shortage of evidence outside of that gloomy research to suggest that is different this time. Very different. Audiences are growing. Investment is increasing. New doors are opening.

Yes, media coverage might well be lagging along behind those trends. But that reveals more about the state of the media industry than what the future holds for female sport.

The future is bright. Truly.

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