As she did with an oval ball, Honey Hireme-Smiler is leading the way for women behind the mike – this time with league – as Sky Sport strives to make their on-screen voices more reflective of their audiences. Merryn Anderson reports.
Honey Hireme-Smiler is primed to make history this weekend, believed to be the first woman to commentate an NRL game when she takes the mic for the Warriors’ first home match in almost three years.
Despite her vast knowledge of the game and expertise in front of a camera, the former Kiwi Ferns captain and NRLW player admits she’s still a little nervous.
“History tells us that within the industry, female commentators are often discriminated against and the credibility of females working in sports media is often questioned,” Hireme-Smiler says.
“Some believe ‘female commentators don’t know what they are talking about’ – especially in male dominated sports.”
But more and more female sports experts are proving that dubious assumption wrong on our television screens, with Sky pushing to include more women – especially Māori and Pacific Island – in their commentary and presenting teams.
Among the six-strong Sky crew covering the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next month are five expert wāhine – Courtney Tairi, Storm Purvis, Rikki Swannell, Ravinder Hunia and Kristina Eddy (Karl Te Nana is the odd man out).
The move is reflective not only of the current audience for sport in New Zealand, but also who we see out on the field.
Hireme-Smiler, who’s also represented New Zealand in rugby union and sevens, will give her view of the Warriors vs Wests Tigers game on Sunday, alongside former Warriors player Adam Blair and commentator Glen Larmer on Sunday afternoon.
Honey Hireme-Smiler (right) with Kiwi Ferns debutant Amy Turner after the Kiwi Ferns victory over Tonga.
Last weekend she was part of the commentary team at Mt Smart Stadium for the Kiwi Ferns’ decisive 50-12 victory over Mate Ma’a Tonga – her first time calling an international women’s league game.
Hireme-Smiler’s expertise in commentary comes from decades of experience – playing rugby league since the age of five in Pūtaruru, and going on to star in four Rugby League World Cups between 2003 and 2017. She also played for the St George Illawarra Dragons in the inaugural NRLW competition.
“For me I approach [commentary] the same way I would if I were playing in a test match,” she says ahead of this weekend.
“My preparation gives me the confidence to call what I see, to relay those messages so our viewers are interested, informed and hopefully excited and entertained.”
Having commentated on rugby and sevens, Hireme-Smiler hopes to bring her own spin to the league commentary box, balancing her passion for the game with her cool head.
“I think it’s important for passionate fans and viewers to remember that in the intensity of an 80 minute footy game, these athletes are human too and to expect plenty of good moments alongside the bad ones,” says Hireme-Smiler, who will be in the box for all of the Warriors’ home games this season.
“It’s my job as part of the commentary team to promote the game, the players and entertain our viewers.”
Sky Sport recently launched their ‘See the Possible’ campaign, a commitment to women in sport.
The campaign is not only to promote and showcase more women’s sport, but also to support the wāhine telling those stories – writers, commentators, producers and presenters.
For some of the Sky team, it’s a representation of the direction Sky is moving in, with a steadily growing number of women working both on screen and behind the scenes.
“It’s so cliche – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it – but it’s totally true,” says Taylah Johnson, one of Sky’s rugby commentators and presenters.
Johnson is one of the increasing number of Māori and Pacific Island women working for Sky, who grew up watching rugby but never really seeing people who looked like her on coverage.
“For a long time, sports media coverage around the world was really European. But we’re reflective of our audience, and of the playing teams as well. And I think that’s really important too,” she says.
“More people are wanting to see people like them on screen, and we’re really reflective of the population in New Zealand.”
All of Sky’s team are also highly qualified, with Johnson representing Samoa in rugby and sevens, and New Zealand in BMX.
Kirstie Stanway attended broadcasting school, and started an internship with Sky in 2015. She’s been told that when she was six months old, her uncle put her on a beanbag in front of an All Blacks test – and that was the start of her love of all things sport.
She works seven days a week, across television and radio (as host of SENZ’s drivetime show, The Run Home, with Stephen Donald) but stresses her work never feels like a job. “It’s pretty full-on but we get to go and watch sport,” she says.
“People pay to go and do that, we sit there and get paid to be on the sideline and talk to these athletes. It’s so amazing, it never feels like a chore. We’re so lucky at the end of the day to do what we do.”
Former Silver Fern and current Sky employee Courtney Tairi agrees, saying she looks forward to Mondays, when all her friends complain about the start of the work week.
Seeing women on screen has given a whole new group of people inspiration to pursue sports media, says Tairi, who joins fellow netballer Purvis in the Birmingham team.
“They can see it as an opportunity now, as an option for them,” Tairi, who’s also a netball coach, says. “I know a lot of netball girls will ask me how I got into it, and they’re starting to think about it.”
Johnson recalls a moment where a young woman approached her at a Super Rugby game she was working at.
“She said ‘Can I take a photo?’ and I thought she was talking about the players and she was like ‘No, with you Taylah’,” she recalls. “She said ‘I’ve been following you for ages and I really like what you’re doing. As a brown girl myself it’s really cool to see you guys in these spaces and thriving in the space as well’.”
Sky also ensures all presenters and commentators are in a space where they are comfortable and knowledgeable – Tairi joking she had to ask to work on netball, after starting out hosting league, another of her passions.
Johnson praises Sky for this, in line with her personal values.
“I wouldn’t want to be on something I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on, because that would devalue the product,” she says. “I’m not going to sit there and pretend I know netball and I don’t think someone would do that for rugby.”
The trio commend women who’ve been trailblazers for them: Melodie Robinson, Jenny-May Clarkson, April Ieremia, Bernadine Oliver-Kerby and Swannell; all role models to any women wanting to pursue a career in sports media.
Hireme-Smiler is also grateful to those who paved the way.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside and learn from some of the best female hosts and commentators in Aotearoa,” she says.
“Sky continues to give current and past female athletes opportunities to give it a go and I really enjoy sharing and supporting them too. I enjoy hearing a wide range of commentary, expertise and opinions on sport across all codes from other women.
“Sky is invested in changing the face of what sports commentary looks like by taking a more diverse approach – more female voices will attract a wider audience.”
There’s no lack of women waiting in the wings either, Johnson saying all it takes is someone giving them the chance.
“That’s the biggest thing, just actually opening the door,” she says. “We’ve all been ready and waiting, but now we’re actually making the effort to do it.”
* The Warriors v West Tigers game at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday is sold out, but coverage will be live on Sky Sport 4 from 3pm.