The evolving role of women in footy media

The AFL code had been notorious for its lack of women in every level of the sport; other leagues have trampled on the AFL in regards to women involvement.

Soccer introduced the Women’s National Soccer League (WNSL) in 1996 until its end with the men’s NSL competition in 2004. The W-League was introduced in 2008, just four years after the men’s A-League competition.

Neroli Meadows stands amongst the sea of suits that make up the Fox Footy AFL team.

Women’s professional basketball in the form of the Women’s National Basketball League was introduced in 1981, only two years after its male counterpart.

The Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) inauguration was seen in 2015 with the men’s competition (Big Bash League) starting in 2011.

In comparison, the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) began in 1981 with the men’s competition formed in 1897. That’s an 84-year wait for those playing at home.

The AFLW began in 2016 with the AFL’s inaugural season commencing in 1990.

Aside from athlete representation of all genders, media representation is seriously lacking.

Women in the media landscape are few and far between in all sports, but it’s becoming clearer that Australian rules football is falling behind.

Prominent journalist for The Age, Caroline Wilson wrote a piece underlining how the National Rugby League (NRL) is steadily overtaking the AFL in terms of women in broadcast.

Wilson mentioned the newly announced AFL team for Fox Footy. Wilson used an image from the 2016 team which “Boasts two women- Sarah Jones and Neroli Meadows. Jones is now absent on maternity leave and only journalist and host Meadows remains among the sea of an albeit well-credentialed otherwise all-male cast,” Wilson wrote.

She went on to mention, “Every male executive in power at the network for the past five years has been saying they are aware of the problem and are working to readdress it.

“But nothing has changed. It is anathema to the women who work in the football industry that Fox has been unable to go any way to redressing a balance it has been vowing to do for years.”

Merryn Sherwood, a prolific previous sports journalist and now Doctor of Sports Management and Sports Media agrees with this sentiment.

“It does seem like other sports have been leading the way in terms of having more women in media and particularly broadcast roles,” Sherwood said.

“If you look at the general makeup of broadcasting, women are not well represented but a lot has changed in the past couple years.”

It would be wrong to say that women are badly represented in sports broadcast because that would diminish the success and hard-work of industry established female sports journalists.

However, it would be fair to say that roles in sports media, AFL coverage in particular, are somewhat tokenistic.

Revisiting the work of Kanter (1993, 2003) is useful to see the previous and current landscapes of gender in sports media and tokenism.

Kanter identified the problematic nature of tokenism and how that affects women entering the work space, “Because they are highly visible within their organisations, tokens are under intense levels of performance pressure.”

This can still ring true in today’s media climate. Being one of the few female faces of an entire sport creates challenges for the women and futuristic career goals.

Marissa Lordanic, having written for the likes of SBS Zela, Fox Sports and running social media for Unusual Efforts, a site aiming to amplify the voice of non-male writers, has seen the trend of the token woman as well.

“In sports media particularly the token woman at worst, or the lone woman at best, is the recurring theme,” Lordanic said.

“I have no doubts that all the women hired are exceptionally qualified for the roles they hold, but the issue is there’s only ever one of them at any given time, and they’re usually not there to provide opinions or actively participate in the discussions.”

“We’re incredibly well represented in hosting roles where women facilitate the conversation for men.

“You look at the TV and radio networks showing off their commentary and analyst teams for an upcoming season and it’s typically a group of white men.”

Another SBS Zela writer and Masters student of Women in Sports History, Danielle Croci identified challenges to fit into the industry.

“It can be extremely difficult for women in media who feel that they are competing for a very small number of places in sport media to fit a ‘quota’”, Croci said.

There’s definite merit in these two points. The lone woman pops about in every sport and to somewhat fill a quota.

Countless executives seem to say ‘we need more women!’ but then nothing happens. They find a lone woman which is detrimental to progress, particularly because women are then seen fighting and overdoing themselves on work to get that one availability.

When that role is filled, it’s a hosting gig where, as Lordanic said, women are not there to create opinion, debate or analysis.

Another trend identified by Croci is the sportsman connection, which we see in men’s broadcasting and sport as well.

“Having played the sport for a long time or being part of the sport already in other ways … it makes for very interesting and insightful work, but it does make it difficult for women working outside of those parameters to get a look in”, Croci explained.

The token woman and the trends identified leave an important discussion to be had.

Sherwood believes in sports media, “We’ve moved past the token women and gone past being super blokey. I don’t think a lot of women in broadcast are there because of the token women role.

Fortunately, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom for women broadcasters.

Kate Seear, a member of The Outer Sanctum Podcast, said “Having organisations that are supportive of women and prepared to give women opportunities is obviously crucial.

“In 2016, we interviewed Sam Lane for The Outer Sanctum podcast and she spoke of how supported she felt at The Age and how many women have been given opportunities there.”

It’s a changing landscape, albeit slowly, a forever fluctuating progression which is exciting in the face of the AFLW competition.

A new competition generally equates to new broadcasters. Faces such as Mel Jones, Kelli Underwood, Neroli Meadows and players Daisy Pearce, Katie Brennan, Lauren Arnell and Kate Sheahan have been given an opportunity which they’ve seized and succeeded in.

As Lordanic identified, “When you consider the influx of new competitions and the general excitement and the sense of what is going on, what will hopefully grow form this is momentous and historic.”

The roles of women in sports media have a chance to mould for the better.

Sherwood discussed the dangers of limited genders to their respective competition.

“It’s an interesting one and one of those things that is tricky and important to talk about.

“Just because its women’s footy doesn’t mean it should only be women covering it.

“It’ll be really disappointing if there’s really interesting women that can only talk about women’s footy,” Sherwood said.

It’s important to have a blend in every sport, as Croci pointed out about rumours of Paul Roos coaching a women’s side.

“I remember hearing the rumours that Paul Roos could potentially coach the Melbourne’s women’s team and feeling the excitement that a senior professional men’s team coach could provide some extra prestige and a reminder to the public of the importance and talent of the women’s league,” she said.

The opening of the AFLW has huge potential for women broadcasters through traditional media and already existing conglomerates, but also through non-traditional and niche platforms.

The second tier footy landscape is buzzing and hugely successful. With a number of footy fans tiring of the common broadcasters and writers, there’s a significant market for podcasts, niche radio and online bloggers.

Seear identified this working on her own podcast, The Outer Sanctum.

“We are also seeing analysis in the print media and through a number of podcasts.

“Women make up a sizeable proportion of AFL fans and members, and have an enormous amount to contribute to the game.”

These platforms give women a huge chance to become part of the conversation, even if traditional means won’t necessarily get them there.

Lordanic added, “There won’t be just traditional spots that open up [because of the AFLW] nor will there just be roles within clubs’ media teams or the league’s media team.

“The online and unofficial presence of bloggers, fan sites and things of that nature mean there will be opportunities available as well as the chance to create your own.”

Women will find more media roles within the second tier landscape, as all these interviewees have.

There is an immediate problem, however.

“There are women that haven’t had a positive experience,” Sherwood pointed out.

“Getting trolled online for being a woman in sport, having to cope with online is a different level.

“We’ve moved on from being banned in the locker room and now we have to deal with that.”

The next progression has to be normalisation.

“Women in media is important in the same way the competition is,” Lordanic said.

“Seeing women in sport is important. It normalises women’s place in various sports related endeavours and it hopefully creates a culture that doesn’t see women as intruders or tokens or sex objects.”

The amount of benefit to the game, society and broadcast is incredible.

“When we have diversity, the likelihood of hearing a range of perspective and stories increases, and that enriches the social fabric,” Seear said.

“In Australia, sports journalists have an important social role, in that they’re perfectly placed to report and opine on these issues.

“The benefits of this kind of messaging and normalisation are significant and well known.”

The roles of women in every level of sports, especially in the AFL code, need to be altered and set.

It’s vital for not only the game’s survival, but for its thriving presence.

As perfectly put by Croci, “[AFLW] will also serve as a general reminder of cementing women’s place in sport – we can play, we can commentate, we can spectate, we belong here.”

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