Whose sport is it anyway?

Debbie Spillane Columnist

By Debbie Spillane, Debbie Spillane is a Roar Expert


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    It’s been an extraordinary week for me where the pieces of a puzzle have fallen in to place in a fashion I never imagined possible.

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the mantle of ‘crusader for women’s sport’ because quite simply I’ve never seen myself as having a special affinity for women’s sport.

    What can I say? I was never the female athlete.

    I was the pathetic, unhealthy kid in primary school that the nuns thought they’d need to call an ambulance for if I ran around too much. In those days I suffered acute exercise-induced asthma.

    Also I was unco, slow and prone to sunstroke. Apart from that though I went alright!

    Despite this lack of physical prowess, my weekends were filled with sport. Every Saturday in winter I went with dad and his family to watch rugby league at the SCG.

    In summer dad played cricket and I often went along, or I stayed home and listened to the races. My mum’s father started taking me to the races when I was 10 or 11 and I loved it.

    I was the kind of kid who carried a form guide around with me on Saturday then cut out the photos of my favourite horses from the Sunday papers and put them on the cover of my school books.

    In short, I was reared on the traditional ‘male’ sports. Loved them, learned them, lived them.

    When I got my dream job in the media many years later, I was gobsmacked to find some women thought I should be a flag bearer for women’s sport.

    What did I know about women’s sport? I’d worked assiduously at building my sports credentials. I was umpiring men’s cricket from the age of 16, getting my entry level rugby league coaching qualifications when I was 19, even running an SP bookie operation on Melbourne Cup day at my high school – telling the nuns I’d figured out how to run a sweep where everyone got the horse of their choice.

    For the first several years I worked as a sports journalist I felt a sense of ‘otherness’ – akin to that which besets the offspring of immigrants.

    I was not universally welcomed by the group I sought to join, those who reported on established male sports. And I was seen as a sell out, and sometimes berated, by women who were increasingly militant about their sporting endeavours getting the short end of the media coverage stick.

    For a long time I went out of my way to avoid women’s sport and those lobbying for it.

    I didn’t want to focus on covering what they were doing or pushing because I didn’t relate to it. Besides, it wasn’t what an ambitious sports journalist aspired to do. Those at the top of the sports media tree covered the sports I’d cut my teeth on and I wanted a piece of that action. I wanted to prove a woman could do it.

    Over the years, ups and downs notwithstanding, I’ve had enough success to carve out a career covering, and occasionally working within, traditionally male sports. I’ve been very lucky.

    But as the years have passed I’ve also mellowed.

    I’ve met some wonderful female athletes, watched some inspiring women’s sport, been embraced rather than upbraided by some female sport activists and learned enough to feel I’ve got the basic knowledge to talk about women playing sport – something that didn’t come naturally to me.

    Some years ago I decided that female sports journalists and female athletes were fighting a parallel battle rather than the same one. They share many challenges and obstacles and can learn from each other. But neither is the solution to the other’s problems.

    In recent years, I’ve felt the camaraderie between women sports journalists and sportswomen more keenly. The opportunity to do a program like Hens FC on ABC Grandstand has consolidated that.

    I started it as a forum for women who work in sports media, marketing and administration to chat on air and show they understand, appreciate and have opinions on sport. It seemed a natural counter to the plethora of sports talk panels loaded with men, who in moments of great generosity would allow one representative of the female gender a seat at their table.

    Gradually a selection of current and former sportswomen showed interest in appearing on the Hens FC panel – Lisa Sthalekar, Alyssa Healy, Julie Dolan and Katherine Bates to name a few. Bringing together female sports reporters and communications people with female sports stars was great because we all met on fertile common ground we loved, talking about sport.

    It’s such a ridiculously straightforward concept it almost seems a fraud to claim it as innovative, but that’s how it’s been treated. Through it, I’ve met so many women I didn’t previously know who are involved some way or another in sport. It’s been invaluable, and some of us jokingly refer on occasion to “the Hen’s network”. But it’s not really a joke.

    Which brings me to the events of the past week.

    On Tuesday night I was the MC for a Women’s Sport NSW showcase event in Sydney where administrators of sports and representatives of local councils (who control most suburban sporting facilities) discussed ways of achieving more gender equity in sports participation and administration.

    Seems a dry old topic, but during the evening politicians and academics talked about the need for more women to be on boards of sports controlling bodies. Councillors talked about the difficulty of sharing limited facilities around when men, who’d had sole use of some sports grounds and stadiums for many years, felt they were permanently entitled to have primary access to those facilities.

    Sports women discussed ways they could build spectator interest in their events and competitions and proposed solutions for stemming the drop out rate of girls in their teens from organised sport.

    But most significant for me were the comments from Cricket NSW CEO, Andrew Jones, who admitted the “male skew” of cricket fans (live at the ground and via TV) was something his sport was keen to address.

    Getting more girls playing cricket he said was a one strategy for addressing that problem because he felt playing the game promoted understanding and appreciation of the sport.

    At the very least, more women playing was likely to lead to more women equipped for managerial positions and coaching roles in the sport. Not to mention the likely long term benefit of encouraging their own children to play and understand the game.

    And this was the point where it all came together for me.

    Just a couple of days before I’d been flattered to see Phil Rothfield go in to bat for me in the Sunday Telegraph, saying the SCG Trust had erred in not inducting at least one female sports journalist into it’s new Media Hall of Fame and suggesting me as the woman they should have included.

    The Internet wave of support for that proposition stunned me with the recurring theme being “sport belongs to women too”.

    It resonated more clearly when I heard the speakers on Tuesday night.

    It’s not just that a lot of women want to be involved in and recognised in sport. Sports are actually realising they need women. Why? Well, bottom line, all sports need numbers — be they in the ranks of players or supporters. And there’s more potential females ripe for recruitment because they’re relatively untapped compared to men

    That’s why women on sports boards, on sports show, in sports sections and on sporting arenas and, yes, in damned Media Halls of Fame matter. Because those appointments, those voices and those images all break down the message that sport belongs primarily to men, and that women are interlopers or outsiders.

    And that’s how it hit me. I am a crusader for women’s sport. I can see now ‘women’s sport’ is a term that doesn’t just denote a specific gender playing sport, it’s a reference to ownership of sport.

    It’s ours too. And most sports have now realised they need it to be that way.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • August 29th 2014 @ 8:16am
      Bondy said | August 29th 2014 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      The sport my family and I most struggled with in participation was infact Cricket its an incredibly hard sport to sustain patience dedication and devotion too for what felt mundane hours standing in the sun sweating without moving, its an incredibly popular sport to play out the back or front yard or cul de sac but getting people to wear creams is where you lose them .

      People should not forget also its male sports and major sports companies that help keep womens sports down across most civilized worlds, Why ?. Because they drain money, tv rights ,sponsorships and commercial endorsements etc away from male sports that is half the battle of women’s sports in Australia …

    • August 29th 2014 @ 9:21am
      Anthony said | August 29th 2014 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      Looking forward to Debbie getting involved in AFL Women’s Leagues 😉

    • August 29th 2014 @ 9:41am
      Matthew Skellett said | August 29th 2014 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      Good for you Ms Spillane , the fight is getting easier and easier these days , gradually but surely Women’s sport in this country is getting the recognition it deserves -huge strides are being made in Football , Netball Cricket -which along with Australian Women’s traditional strengths in Swimming Hockey and Basketball are slowly reaching the critical mass where popularity , sponsorship and MSM airtime collide 🙂

    • August 29th 2014 @ 9:52am
      nordster said | August 29th 2014 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      I can understand the reluctance. The whole gender equity debate is a little lost on me tbh, and being from the queer side of the fence im more sensitive to the boofy male, hetero normative sports land than most.

      While i love that women’s sport can be noticed it doesnt automatically mean it should be.

      I dont watch a sport because its right thing to do, but because it connects with me as its an elite expression of that sport or i have some emotional link with a local team.

      I guess the thing that excites me about women in sport (rather than women’s sport) is the possibility of women on the same pitch as men. In football/soccer its a possibility one day who knows. Until then i am but a well wisher and not much else:(

      • Columnist

        August 29th 2014 @ 1:07pm
        Debbie Spillane said | August 29th 2014 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

        This article isn’t about women’s sport being noticed, nordster. You’ve missed the point.

        It’s about the many, many ways the message can be delivered and reinforced that sport isn’t primarily a male thing.

        They include women being encouraged to play sport, to stay in sport when they reach their teens, about having more sports open to them, getting equal access to facilities, being represented at board level on sporting bodies, having roles in coaching, administration, commentary, reporting and — and this is the bit important to even the well-established sports — having women boost their tv ratings, buy tickets to their events, spend money on their merchandise and perhaps take their kids to watch and play that sport.

        There are numbers and dollars to be had from engaging more with the female half of the population.

        So this is not an article about “come on, why don’t you watch women’s sport ” it’s about sport continuing to present the message that it’s mainly something that guys play, watch, understand and control.

        • September 2nd 2014 @ 9:23pm
          Amanda Spalding said | September 2nd 2014 @ 9:23pm | ! Report

          Thanks for being the MC at our Womensport NSW Showcase, and thanks for your comments since. So glad it was an epiphany for you. There is still a long way to go!

          Amanda Spalding,
          Vice President
          Womensport NSW

    • August 29th 2014 @ 10:13am
      Hilly said | August 29th 2014 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      I really enjoy listening to Hens FC. Keep up the great work Deb.

    • August 29th 2014 @ 10:26am
      Winston said | August 29th 2014 @ 10:26am | ! Report

      Deb – Is your role just to promote female sports, or do you also get involved in increasing female participation in all sports, eg watching football? I get the feeling the 2 are linked because if you have lots of females watching sports, then clearly there’ll be more demand for female sports too. Or are the 2 streams quite different and so it’s difficult (and probably given lack of resources too) to promote both?

      I like Nordster’s idea, and I have to say, on a personal level, I really like golf because that’s one sport where I can play with my wife properly. There are probably other sports too, like darts, lawn bowls, rifle shooting, archery, I’m sure there are more I can’t think of. It’s just that anything which relies on strength becomes untenable. The more a sport can be played by everyone together, surely the more popular it has to be, even if only at an amateur level.

      • Columnist

        August 29th 2014 @ 1:26pm
        Debbie Spillane said | August 29th 2014 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

        Winston, my role isn’t to promote any sport. I’m not a marketing manager or a PR person, I’m a journalist.

        My role is to broadcast sport and report sports stories and cover sporting events that are of interest to our audience.

        Women who like to watch sport aren’t necessarily the ones who have played, or still play sport, but women who understand sport are far more likely to take an interest than women who don’t.

        Playing sport is one way to get a good understanding of it. There are others, of course, as my story illustrates.

        I don’t think men and women competing against each other is a realistic answer — although there are mixed competitions and a few sports where they can go head to head, like the ones you mention plus equestrian sports (including horse racing).

        But integrating the sports more so that women, for instance, might play at the same venue on the same day as men is something worth exploring more. Already happens, of course, in sports like athletics, swimming, rowing, and tennis, to name a few.

        At the elite level, this also gives spectators the chance to see the best women do their stuff as well.

        • August 29th 2014 @ 2:20pm
          Winston said | August 29th 2014 @ 2:20pm | ! Report

          I see. Maybe I wasn’t clear, but I mean, even as a journalist, there would surely be things you want to write about more than others. And when you write something, unless it’s purely summarising what happened in a match, there would be some message you want to deliver. So I guess my question was whether you write more about female sports, or female PARTICIPATION in sport, which is more general and involves not just females playing, but also watching, being part of the supporter group, etc. It’s really a question about what do you want to write about.

          When I said having men and women play together, I don’t necessarily mean at the elite level. It was a more general comment about how I like those sports because it means I can play with females together, and if there were more sports like that, female participation would increase because it gets more females involves.

          • Columnist

            August 29th 2014 @ 10:06pm
            Debbie Spillane said | August 29th 2014 @ 10:06pm | ! Report

            Winston, I don’t write a lot about female sports, that’s the point I was making in this article.

            I actually don’t even write that much these days. I’m a radio broadcaster, and chiefly I’m involved in covering men’s sports. I work within a framework of a whatever program I’m asked to present.

            When I’m hosting NRL coverage on ABC Grandstand, then I’m talking rugby league topics. When I’m doing sports updates on TV or radio I’m covering scores and details of the major sports stories of the day. When I host HensFC I’m interested in exploring what women involved in sport as journalists, administrators or competitors think about what’s happening in sport.

            What I was saying in this article is I don’t have a history of covering women’s sport but I’ve suggested that female participation in sport is linked to female interest in sport. Only as one factor though. What I’m proposing here is that there are many ways women can be made feel sport is not something that belongs to men.

            But the main point I’m making is that sports, major and minor, elite and social are better off if they find some way to involve the half of the population who aren’t blokes.