Is TV’s coverage of female sport finally heading into the mainstream? Ross Biddiscombe canvasses opinion
In a year when women’s sports events will be at the forefront of many broadcasters’ schedules, it’s a legitimate time to ask if these sports are poised for a breakthrough.
More women are taking part in sport than ever before and there are more hours of women’s sport on TV, including significant numbers of live fixtures. But is the coverage better and is change happening fast enough?
Some observers would argue that, judged by audiences, commercial return on investment and scheduling, women’s sports on TV still lag woefully behind men’s.
A level playing field for coverage with men’s events is rare. The obvious exceptions are grand slam tennis tournaments, major track and field events and both winter and summer Olympics.
Everywhere else, the inequality remains a sensitive topic for participants, administrators, fans and viewers, as well as broadcasters.
There, it seems, is no shortage of goodwill for events such as the UEFA women’s European football tournament, the women’s cricket World Cup and Ashes series and golf’s Solheim Cup to succeed on screen, but question marks remain.
This month, Sky announced that it would show live domestic cricket for the first time on UK television, this summer, with eight matches from the Kia Super League.
Inevitably, the BBC has the longest history of broadcasting women’s sports. These days, however, the rights are spread around – Channel 4, for example, has outbid the Beeb for UK rights to the women’s Euros.
BBC head of sport Barbara Slater says the corporation remains as committed as ever to women’s sports.
She argues that it is not necessary to operate any kind of quota system because audiences are increasing.
“We have provided live TV coverage of women’s football since the mid-1990s and audience interest has grown considerably,” says Slater. “More people watched the 2015 Women’s World Cup on BBC TV than our live coverage of the men’s Open golf championship.”
For new women’s football broadcaster Channel 4 and Eurosport (the pan-European channel covering the women’s Euros), the national game is seen as one of the breakthrough sports for women.
Strong performances by either England or Scotland in the tournament would develop that trend.
Although Channel 4 is very selective in broadcasting any sporting event – male or female – its commissioning editor for sport, Stephen Lyle, wants to build on his channel’s reputation for innovation: “Our remit is always to go for programming that has an underdog quality, and this falls into that category.
“We’ll try and bring something new to the coverage, but the women also have to step up, entertain and show the audience what they can do.”
Eurosport CEO Peter Hutton argues that producers and broadcasters must not skimp on production quality, if they are to stop women’s competitions being regarded as secondary to the male equivalents.
“We judge all sports the same,” he says. “It’s about the potential audience, the brand that we have developed and the commercial reality. We welcome great women’s sport because what we really want is the best sporting stories, wherever they come from.”
Both the UK’s pay-TV sports channels, Sky Sports and BT Sports, are big supporters of women’s cricket. Sky Sports has been broadcasting the game for two decades and is showing this year’s women’s World Cup.
BT Sport, meanwhile, has just announced its coverage of the women’s Ashes series and the Big Bash league from Australia.
In addition, Sky Sports News launched the SportsWomen magazine show in 2012. It was one of the many initiatives that grew out of the success of the London Olympics.
We want to get to a point where we don’t have the term ‘women’s sport’
SportsWomen producer Anna Edwards believes women’s sports need to have their own identities. “We want to get to a point where we don’t have the term ‘women’s sport’,” she insists. “We actually have debates about this and, just to make the point that it’s all just sport, we dropped the word ‘women’ from the caption when referring to Mark Sampson, the England women’s manager.
“Those are small points, but changes like that make a difference. If we sat here in five years’ time and the situation was the same, then I’d be concerned.”
When BT Sport launched in 2013, one of its justifications for claiming to be a game changer in British TV sport was the signing of high-profile presenter Clare Balding.
She was given her own chat show, with a brief to focus on women guests. The channel has also heavily backed live women’s sport: BT Sport has a particularly high profile for tennis and hockey.
“There are nearly 1,000 hours of live WTA tennis on our channel and, in terms of hours, that’s more than the English Premier League or Champions League or MotoGP,” says Simon Green, head of BT Sport.
He adds: “We’re doing much of it with our own commentary teams and our own personalities on screen. It’s the same with the Women’s Super League in this country. We treat those OBs the same as we do men’s football.”
But Green also understands that there is plenty of catching up to do. He knows that high production values do not necessarily guarantee big audiences or enough commercial interest.
“Of course, we want to fold women’s sports into whatever else we do and have it be seen as part of the normal agenda of what we put to air, but it’s a sensitive subject,” he concedes.
“Where we can, we give marginal sports – and that means many women’s events – due exposure, while always maintaining a nod towards the main subscription drivers – which are men’s sports.”
One sport that is very much about women is netball, and this is receiving special treatment from Sky Sports. A four-year deal to broadcast the Netball Superleague was signed last November.
For once, there is no men’s game to compare it with. Head of multisport Georgina Faulkner says that a strong relationship with England Netball is what makes this kind of deal attractive to the channel.
“We’ve worked hard with the governing body to make the coverage more creative and we’ve even sold game tickets,” she says. “There are now 9,000 or 10,000 people coming to some of the games. They’re certainly not all women and nor are the viewers. A full stadium means more exciting TV.”
One strategy that both the federations and the broadcasters want to avoid is “ghettoisation” – in other words, gathering women’s sports in a separate part of the schedule.
Every broadcaster thinks this is inappropriate, especially given the efforts of female athletes to appeal to male viewers as well as female.
Instead, many sports are moving towards Olympic-style formats that allow men and women to perform at the same time and location, as with a grand slam tennis event.
The Boat Race on the BBC adopted this approach in 2015, with male and female crews racing on live TV on the same day over the same course.
It took three years of logistical discussions and the support of the event sponsors for this to happen.
“The viewing figures have been excellent,” says the BBC’s Slater, “and the programme is a far better proposition for having two high-quality races rather than just one.”
The British Darts Organisation world championships, covered by Channel 4 last month, adopted the same plan. Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union’s policy of staging England women’s test matches ahead of the men’s Six Nations games will benefit from live Sky Sports coverage this season.
“It is naive to think that only women watch women’s sports,” says Sky’s Edwards. “More awareness will breed more viewers, both men and women.”
None of the channels, it seems, are holding back on raising awareness. Sky Sports has held both a netball month and a women’s sport week (estimated to have reached almost 3 million viewers).
BT Sport has developed annual Action Woman Awards. And the BBC put six women on to the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist last December.
They were almost 40% of the finalists, a far higher proportion than if the list had been based on hours of coverage or size of audience.
Advocates of women’s sport believe that, over time, the equality issue will fade and women’s sport will not be discussed as a separate issue.
BT’s Green says the traditional macho culture of sports media is breaking down. He wants women’s sports organisations to work more coherently to help the broadcasters: “Women’s sports need to stop acting unilaterally and co-ordinate more across a calendar that has a narrative that the press can follow in a constructive way.
“That would make it easier for women’s sports to get attention and allow the involvement of broadcasters to be constructive and realistic.”