Big events have helped boost coverage of women’s sport in New Zealand media to an all-time high of 25 percent, but can that be maintained? Suzanne McFadden asks.

For the first time, one in four stories across sports media in New Zealand are now about female athletes and issues involving women’s sport.

It’s the latest leap in women’s coverage that a decade ago, had languished at 11 percent. But women in sport here and globally say the challenge still remains to achieve equal coverage – and the issue of TV scheduling (like we witnessed during the Rugby World Cup) remains one of the biggest hurdles for women’s sport.

The new update from the Sport NZ-Isentia study, part of the government’s women and girls in sport and active recreation strategy, shows women’s sport coverage has risen to 25 percent in the six months from January to June this year.

In the past 18 months, the percentage of women’s sports coverage has surged by 10 percent – growing from 15 percent in December 2020, to 21 percent at the end of last year.  

Media content has been elevated by big events on New Zealand’s sporting calendar in the first half of this year – the Cricket World Cup at home, and the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, where Zoi Sadowski-Synnott had an historic haul of gold and silver medals.

Phil Clark, who leads the ongoing study for Sport NZ, says a leap of four percent in the last six months is “extremely encouraging” and much stronger growth than had been expected.

“It reflects a lot of great work across the sector from sports and media. I think we have more to come in the second half of the year, too,” he says.

The next six months of statistics will include New Zealand’s coverage of the Black Ferns’ triumph at a home Rugby World Cup over the past six weeks, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, where Kiwi women won 23 medals of 49, and seven were gold.

“We’ve seen how strongly New Zealand media got behind the Rugby World Cup, so all indications are that it will continue on an impressive and exciting trajectory,” Clark says.

Michelle Hooper, fresh from her role as tournament director of the Rugby World Cup 2021, was impressed with the media coverage the tournament garnered.  

“In the context of the rest of the world being at around 4.5 percent, and New Zealand now at 25 percent, I think that’s showing incredible growth. We’ve been through a period of amazing events and I think the challenge is still to just keep driving it up,” she says.

“I think we can be better… and we can be the best in the world.”

It’s difficult to compare where New Zealand ranks in global terms, with few nations carrying out similar media studies in recent years. But we’re often dubbed ‘world leading’.

At the IWG Women & Sport world conference in Auckland this week, we asked women heavily involved in sport what they thought of the latest media figure. 

South Africa’s golden woman of sports administration, Muditambi Ravele. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

Muditambi Ravele, from the South African Women and Sport Foundation, says women’s sports coverage in her country is “still very low”, but hosting two major women’s World Cup events next year brings the opportunity for more media attention.

“We are now negotiating with our broadcasters for pay TV to have more women’s sports channels and also have a woman’s magazine programme,” she says. “We’ve achieved a lot with our broadcaster, so that now during a football game we can have a full team of women producing the coverage,” she says.  

“Next year when we have the T20 Cricket World Cup and the Netball World Cup, they have promised us they’ll bring in a women’s team to cover that.  It’s not enough [coverage yet]; we still have to see more women on television.”

But Ravele, regarded as the “golden woman of sports administration” in South Africa, is surprised by New Zealand’s landmark 25 percent. “I thought it would be more than that,” she says.

“Your netball team is doing quite well, and your rugby team did very well. I wish that from now onwards we will see those numbers improving,” she says.

Free-to-air, 1.2 million Kiwis watched the Black Ferns beat England in the RWC21 final last weekend. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/World Rugby

Through a young lens, Troy Han – a founder of the NXT Gen Network, young professionals interested in the sports sector in Aotearoa – sees this increase as just the beginning.

“I think we can exceed the 25 percent of media coverage currently in New Zealand because we have such amazing young women coming through the industry who are super passionate about women’s sport, and who are going to ensure we get as much coverage for the women’s game as possible,” she says.

“[Women’s coverage] definitely can’t be centred around our major events. We need to do more to make sure we profile and tell the stories of our amazing young athletes.”

Former sports journalist now media coverage researcher Professor Toni Bruce says it’s almost unbelievable how quickly the increase in coverage has come over the last few years.

“It shows the importance of working with media, talking to them, showing what they can do. The investment the government has put into having this annual media survey is the reason, in large part, we’re getting these changes,” she says.

“There’s something to be said about the blips you get from major events like the women’s Cricket World Cup and the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, but you don’t get to 25 percent with just blips. They generate excitement, but there’s got to be something deeper going on.”

Professor Sarah Leberman, co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa, says she wants to see a day when improving coverage of women’s sport become normalised not celebrated.

“For me the key thing is when we get past the next World Cup [the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year], whether that momentum and that traction keeps going. [Coverage] always goes up during the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and big events, but for me it’s about normalising this,” she says.

Kiwi sports photographer Alisha Lovrich has shot at Olympics and World Cups. Photo: supplied. 

Speakers at this week’s women and sport conference have outlined the major barriers they see for women’s sport becoming more visible.

Former Olympic media operations official, Englishman Anthony Edgar, says a lack of women working in sports media is one of the main hurdles. Women represent only 12 to 20 percent of the press accreditations allocated at major sports events like the Olympics and World Cups.

“I know cases of major events where top 10 countries have gone to the Olympic Games without one member of the written press as a woman and without one photographer who’s a woman,” Edgar says.  

“If 90 percent of the photographers at sports events are male, might it not have a significant impact on how sport is covered? It is something that needs to be addressed.”

China is “by far the most equal” nation in terms of gender equality in sports media, he says: “In part because the West has too much baggage that they’re still taking with them”.

But he believes scheduling has the most significant impact on the visibility of women’s sport. And that was only too evident when the Black Ferns’ quarterfinal at the Rugby World Cup was played at almost the same time as the All Blacks friendly with Japan.

Former Black Fern captain and NZ Rugby Board member Farah Palmer says while NZ Rugby apologised for the oversight, there was a positive that came from it.

“In the [Black Ferns] quarterfinal, there was 673,000 viewers, while the All Blacks only had 439,500,” she says. “That was a nice comparison to show we definitely do have a market for the Black Ferns.”

Free-to-air viewing of the World Cup final last Saturday showed 73 percent of all New Zealanders aged over five watched the game – a record prime-time audience for Three.

“We will try to avoid clashes in the future,” Palmer says. “But there’s definitely a television market for women in sport.”

Former Football Fern now women’s sport director Rebecca Sowden says there’s also been confusion around where to put women’s sport – free-to-air or pay TV, primetime or off-peak, even what position it gets in the news bulletin.

“We recently saw the final of the women’s national soccer league in the US moved from an off-peak afternoon slot to an evening peak-time slot. What do you know? It resulted in record viewership of over 900,000 people tuning in. And a massive 71 percent increase in viewership year on year,” she says.

Changes are already being made in scheduling at the Olympics, which will be 50-50 female and male athletes in Paris in 2024.

“Ten years ago, the scheduling at the Olympic Games was significantly biased towards male athletes… especially male medal events,” Edgar says. “Women’s finals were usually in the morning, men’s were in prime-time evenings. Women’s finals often doubled with other sports at exactly the same schedule.”

The International Olympic Committee has been working on ensuring the marquee events are now treated equally. “In Tokyo [2021], the women’s 100m was the last event of the competition, the night before the men’s at exactly the same time,” Edgar says. “In Paris 2024, the women’s marathon is going to be held on the final day.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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