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Mainstream media is dropping the ball on women's sport



2021 is set to be a big year for women’s sports — dependent on COVID, of course. Yet, if you looked to the Australian mainstream media’s reporting and coverage of sports, there’s a fair chance you’d get an idea that women’s sports are happening far less than they actually are.

A young Collingwood fan looks on during the 2020 AFLW Round 05 match. (Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Currently, on any given day in Australia, women’s sport seldom rises above 10 per cent of total sports coverage, and globally, that drops to 4 per cent. Yet there is no shortage of women’s sports to cover; Women’s International Cricket currently underway; the fifth ALFW season set to return in February; the Women’s Australian Open about to kick off; the delayed 2020 Olympics predicted for July and August; the 2022/23 FIBA and FIFA Women’s World Cups personal campaigns will get underway; and the 2021 Women’s Rugby League World Cup and Women’s Big Bash League will see the year out — and that’s just to note a few.

The common argument to justify the disparity between these sports and their men’s counter leagues is that people just don’t watch women’s sports or click on articles about women’s games as much as they do the men’s. For example, last year, Australian journalist Greg Davis tweeted, ‘I know from first-hand experience that stories on elite women’s sport don’t rate online (especially netty). And numbers totally rule the roost in the digital space.’

Yet, this argument falls short with the simple fact that interest in women’s sports and people willing and wanting to watch and take part in spectatorship — both in person and via platforms or TV — is there. And the numbers are growing. A survey by Nielsen across eight key sporting markets globally found that 66 per cent of the population are interested in at least one women’s sport and 84 per cent of sports enthusiasts are interested in women’s sports in general, which of those, 51 per cent are male — meaning it’s not just women who watch/want to watch women’s games either.

Deloitte predicts that in 2021, women’s sports will generate revenue well under a billion dollars, which is a significantly small fraction of all global sports revenue (which in 2018 reached US$481 billion). Yet, as the report entails, when given the opportunity, women’s sports has the ‘ability to generate substantial TV audiences, deliver value to sponsors, and draw tens of thousands of fans per event’, which, ‘has been demonstrated on multiple occasions over the past decade.’ Women’s sports can prove its commercial worth, it just needs continued support for the sporting world to do so. Just look at the AFLW, which up until this year charged free admission to games despite seeing large attendance, including more than 53,000 people at the 2019 grand final at Adelaide Oval, and this year when tickets went on a sale for the first round, Richmond Tigers and Brisbane Lions game sold out within hours.

Coverage is vital to this support as giving games and events substantial and sustained airtime allows for fandom to be nurtured and interest built. As a study on exposure to women’s sports published by The Sport Journal suggests, ‘Identification with a sports team is highly associated with intense emotional responses to the respective team competing… The emotional attachment to such a team and/or athlete will increase interest in watching the team or player’. Therefore, public access to regular coverage is vital for increasing emotional interest, which will, in turn, generate revenue through loyal sport following and passionate fandom. As the Nielsen survey also found, 46 per cent of the general population said they’d watch more women’s sports if games were accessible on free TV.


'By failing to cover women’s sport adequately, the mainstream media are doing a momentous disservice not only to the elite athletes themselves but also to the audiences of Australia.'


Just last year, we saw how women’s sport was regarded as dispensable when the 2020 AFLW season was called off, leaving the preliminary and grand finals never played, while extreme measures were taken to uphold the men’s league. Reporting in the mainstream media took the cancelled AFLW season as a necessary sacrifice while promoting the importance of safeguarding the men’s.

In Australia, many independent media have popped up to fill the gaps left by the mainstream media. As sports broadcaster Emma Race notes, ‘We have seen many athletes and female broadcasters start their own platforms to fill the gaps in coverage of women’s sport. The accessibility of digital platforms has given a megaphone to some of the most interesting and diverse sports broadcasters like Players Voice, Part Timers, The Female Athlete Project, Siren, Broad Radio, Ladies who League and of course the Outer Sanctum.’ However, big networks and broadcasters still need to follow suit and get on board women’s sports in a more significant way. As Race comments, ‘Unfortunately, many of the women who produce the content for these platforms have unstable income in the industry, therefore it’s not a sustainable solution looking to the future.’

Though what these independent media platforms have proved is that there are people who want in-depth and knowledgeable content around games and players, and when provided with it, deeply engaged with it. As Gemma Bastiani, co-founder of Siren, says, ‘Essentially, the idea that people are uninterested in women’s sport and therefore doesn’t warrant the inches is both incorrect and creates an endless loop. It doesn’t get covered, therefore you aren’t known for covering it, so people don’t go looking for that sort of coverage from your outlet, so if you do have a one-off piece of coverage it’s not going to attract an engaged women in sport audience.’ Instead, those interested in women’s sports go to places like Siren to find coverage where there is a sharper focus on engagement and quality content over number of clicks.

By failing to cover women’s sport adequately, the mainstream media are doing a momentous disservice not only to the elite athletes themselves but also to the audiences of Australia. Spectatorship of sport is a huge part of many Australian’s lives and deeply ingrained in our culture as a country. The representation of women’s sports matters for younger girls to find role models and know they too can play, whatever sport it is that takes their fancy. This benefits everyone, as just imagine if Ash Barty never picked up a tennis racket or Tayla Harris a football or boxing gloves. They have contributed to the bettering of our nation and have given us many moments to celebrate and cheer for.

Women’s sport is beginning to find its feet in Australia and the fandoms are growing by the day — the interest and the readiness to invest is there, the media just need to catch up and play along too.



Marnie VinallMarnie Vinall is a freelance writer and copywriter in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor of Beat Magazine and Concrete Playground, and has bylines in ABC News, Mumbrella, B&T and Globo Hobo. 

Main image: A young Collingwood fan looks on during the 2020 AFLW Round 05 match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Western Bulldogs at Morwell Recreation Reserve on March 08, 2020. (Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Topic tags: Marnie Vinall, women, sport, ALFW, media



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Existing comments

Can't wait for the recent spate of promos - particularly the footy ones that feature females imitating males behaving oafishly - to have run their course, and this sort of 'equality' can be called for what it really is: homogenisation.

John RD | 28 January 2021  

It is also clear that major codes and especially reflected in AFL PR strategy, have used the WAFL (+ short lived AFLX) to deflect interest from women's football (+ men's football) locally. However, they have a difficult battle ahead when Australian girls see the success of Australian women in international football and major leagues (boys too), which may inevitably lead to football becoming more popular, if not significant?

Andrew J. Smith | 29 January 2021  

Marnie you are so on the mark (excuse the pun) went to find last nights game on free to air tv and it wasn’t! I’m sure free to air was all over the AFLW before so unless you can afford Foxtel you’re out of luck.

Mark | 30 January 2021  

I think John RD has got the 'homogenisation' right. 'Elite sport' these days is primarily a money making business and I think we have relatively few balanced sporting role models either male or female. When I was at school we were encouraged to play sport for the health and social benefits. Elite sport these days is so competitive and so lucrative that we are presented with selfish 'heroes' like Serena Williams in meltdown. Sport is just part of life. For some in Australia it is a substitute religion. That shows a real unfulfilled need. We need to encourage more young people to play sport to be healthy, rather than to attempt to emulate elite sportspeople.

Edward Fido | 31 January 2021  

About a year ago ago I wrote to you opining that, for some inexplicable reasons, women seemed unable to play our own national football code at a level that justified media coverage, crowd attendance and general interest. In that far off time winning scores were ridiculously low, pack marks were infrequent and field kicking was aimless which made leading to space a waste of time. This new season has been a revelation. Contested marks are the norm. Forwards lead knowing that a well delivered pass will be offered. Tackles stick and handballing is creative. Whatever I thought based on evidence of what was is now reversed to a stunning degree. Well done to all concerned. Grebo

Grebo | 22 February 2021  

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