- Consortium says women’s sport a ‘unique opportunity’ for public service broadcasters
- EBU produces handbook outlining practical measures for women’s sports coverage
- But BBC survey warns 21 per cent of female athletes might give up their sport this year due to Covid-19
Eurovision Sport, the sports arm of the European Broadcasting Union consortium of public service broadcasters, is urging its members to increase their coverage of women’s sport and not let the Covid-19 pandemic erode recent gains made in the sector.
A new handbook commissioned by the organisation to coincide with International Women’s Day – Reimagining Sport: Pathways to Gender-Balanced Media Coverage – argues that with interest in women’s sport on the rise, pre-pandemic, and rights fees still affordable, women’s events continue to represent ‘a unique commercial opportunity for public service media’.
In the foreword to the publication, Eurovision Sport executive director Glen Killane says: “Promoting women’s sport is perfectly aligned with our values. As public service media, it’s part of our mission to reflect all the communities we serve and some of the most inspiring work of our Members springs from this sense of responsibility. But we also see the women’s game as a solid business proposition, an area with tremendous growth potential.”
Authored by Elsa Arapi, senior sports project manager, summer sports, for Eurovision Sport and project manager for the Women In Sport charity, the handbook outlines practical measures for increasing the volume of women’s sport on television and includes a recommendation that EBU members set coverage targets.
The publication references a Unesco study from 2018 that found that women’s sport accounts for just 4 per cent of sports coverage worldwide, while a Statista study in 2019 claimed just 7 per cent of the global $30bn (€25bn) spent on sponsorship is directed at sportswomen and the female sports industry.
But the handbook argues that, with the right level of commitment, public service broadcasters can pay a positive role in increasing engagement and the commercial potential of the sector.
“In reality, the question of who is interested in women’s sport and what constitutes editorial merit is answered by those who decide the daily sports agenda, and it is their perceptions and opinions that ultimately shape the sports offering,” the publication says. “By looking at women’s sport without bias and putting the right amount of investment in it, the media can play a big part in the growth of women’s sport.”
Sweden’s SVT and Ireland’s RTÉ are both held as examples of broadcasters that have successfully introduced effective targets and measurement systems to make sure they meet their women’s sports coverage objectives. In the case of SVT, the broadcaster’s production and editorial teams have set a target to achieve 50-50 coverage of men’s and women’s sport across all platforms.
The handbook says one of the things that contributes to reduced interest in women’s sport is the low quality of the sports programming. It therefore recommends broadcasters devote the same talent, budget and production quality to women’s events to demonstrate that they consider women’s properties as valuable.
It also recommends broadcasters foster relationships with sponsors, federations, and other media outlets to share resources and work collectively to deliver content and broaden the appeal of the women’s events.
In the case of the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup, it argues that this sort of joined up approach created a virtuous circle, enabling Fifa to improve the underlying sports offering, which ultimately led EBU members to increase their live match coverage by five times and increase total hours viewed by 946 per cent.
“A free-to-air TV coverage policy, high-level event preparation, promotion and delivery, cutting-edge football technology, and 100-per-cent increase in prize money, were only a handful of ways in which Fifa broke new ground to propel the tournament onto the world stage,” the publication states.
A further success story was the seven-per-cent increase in hours viewed for the 2021 Biathlon World Championships, aired in over 50 European territories by EBU members and other broadcasters. In February, the EBU said the figures provide further evidence of the continuing rise of women’s sport, with six of the 11 broadcasters in the nine markets scoring their highest market share with coverage of women’s races at the Championships. The best figure across all broadcasting countries was reached in Norway for the Women’s Relay at the event, which achieved 85.3-per-cent live market share.
To achieve similar results, the handbook advocates broadcasters schedule women’s events in more visible prime-time slots to attract bigger audiences. A comparison made by Irish public-service broadcaster RTÉ of audience data of qualifier matches for the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 showed a 313-per-cent increase when matches were scheduled with evening kick-offs rather than day-time kick-offs.
But it also makes recommendations for bias-free representations of women in sports coverage. It quotes a language study conducted by Cambridge University which analysed multi-billion-word databases from an array of sports media sources and revealed how the language used to cover female athletes often focuses on body image, pregnancy, motherhood and gossip rather than their sporting achievements.
Asked what frustrated her the most about women’s sports coverage on television, Arapi told SportBusiness: “[It’s] the references to babies, outfits, star signs and the like – particularly the latest trend that puts motherhood at the centre of much of the conversation around female athletes. [Belarusian tennis player] Victoria Azarenka said it best when she said that ‘being a mum doesn’t win matches’. If we want to create interest in and respect for women’s sport, we need to change the way we tell the stories of female athletes.”
The handbook advocates broadcasters steer away from the gender stereotypes and opt for authentic, dynamic action shots which focus on their skills and competence rather than passive, non-athletic images that focus on femininity and appearance. To this end, photographic agency Getty Images, in partnership with UK charity Women’s Sport Trust, published a set of guidelines in 2016 to redefine the way female athletes are portrayed in imagery.
The agreement also sought to increase the visibility of female athletes, with the agency curating a dedicated collection of women’s sports photography that it made available to schools, universities and not-for profit organisations free of charge to promote the powerful depiction of women and girls in sports to the broadest audience possible.
Arapi said the handbook emerged out of a discussion of Eurovision’s Women’s Sport Expert Group, which gathers representatives from across the consortium’s membership to lead initiatives in women’s sports coverage.
She told SportBusiness: “I was very impressed with how well articulated their women’s sport strategies were and how successful they had been – not only in terms of audience reach but also brand positioning – achieving historic ‘firsts’ with their female talent and being recognised as gender and diversity champions within their countries and beyond. We felt very strongly that these strategies had to be shared and replicated.”
However, the report also highlighted the threat the Covid-19 pandemic posed to the progress being made in female sport. A BBC survey sent via sport governing bodies to female athletes found that 21 per cent said they might give up their sport this year due to issues relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked if she was concerned that the health crisis would erode the progress made in the industry, Arapi said: “I remain optimistic because women’s sport has shown the last few years that it can attract the big audiences when properly supported. There’s no doubt the pandemic has been a setback and exposed the many vulnerabilities of women’s sport, but it will regain its momentum. The future is bright for women’s sport; it’s an attractive product that is underexploited in an industry that desperately needs to innovate.”