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Big leap for New Zealand women’s sports coverage

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A rise in women’s sport in New Zealand’s media but a decline in female headlines underscores the latest study from Sport NZ – which also shows where LockerRoom comes out on top.

Women’s sport is finally gaining a foothold in New Zealand’s media, with coverage rising to 21 per cent last year – a leap that puts the country well ahead of the rest of the world.

The latest figures from an ongoing study released today by Sport New Zealand show a significant increase in coverage since sports news was last reported in 2020.

And even back then, when coverage of women’s sport was at 15 per cent (a four per cent increase from the dismal statistic of 2011), New Zealand was considered a ‘world leader’ in terms of gender balance in sports coverage.

Sure, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games – where our female athletes once again stood out – inflated the numbers in mid-2021. But if coverage of the Games were removed from the study, women’s sport’s share of media coverage last year would still be 19 percent.

According to a 2018 UNESCO report, global coverage of women’s sport averages just 4 percent. A recent study found that coverage of women’s sports in the United States was just over 5 percent – meaning there hasn’t been any growth in three decades.

LockerRoom’s commitment to raising the profile of women in sport in New Zealand is also recognized in the latest study, which highlights the diversity in the subjects and issues we cover and the deep stories we produce.

When the study examined how LockerRoom portrayed women in sport, the issues that set us apart were athlete’s life balance and personal lives, sponsorship and investment, and advocacy for women’s sport.

But this is where the New Zealand media is lagging behind:

  • Newsrooms across the country remain heavily male-dominated. Women in sports coverage are still severely underrepresented, with the number of female writers falling in 2021.
  • And while the top three codes in New Zealand sports coverage – rugby, cricket and football – grab 60 per cent of the spotlight, just 11 per cent of that coverage is devoted to women’s football.

The three women’s world cups in these sports, which will be held here this year and next, are likely to increase these numbers. But the trick then is to maintain that heightened interest.

A separate case study of this year’s Cricket World Cup showed that coverage of women’s sport in New Zealand more than doubled during the tournament. Photo: ICC Media.

The Sport NZ-Isentia study is part of the Government’s Strategy for Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation in 2018. It is based on a human analysis of around a third of all sports news in New Zealand and looked at 46 sports covered online in print , on radio and television.

Phil Clark, who led the study for Sport NZ, sees the 6 percentage point growth in coverage as “extremely positive”.

“There is a concerted effort in the media to improve coverage of women’s sport. They try new things,” he says.

“Sport works harder. There are changes to the events being held – more teams in female leagues, like the Phoenix Women; Double header showing men’s matches in cricket.

“Gender balance has grown across the board – in the three biggest sports, in all media companies and in all media segments. So, everywhere you look, it’s a lot better than last year.”

Clark claims compiling the research is only half of the study.

“The other half concerns the conversations that arise from research, with the media and with sport. You can’t change what you can’t measure.”

And these conversations seem to be leading to positive change.

The World Cup Effect

Women in Sport Rachel Froggatt, CEO of Aotearoa, calls progress in media coverage of women “outstanding” – but says there is still work to be done.

“It shows what happens when there is a dedicated commitment to reporting on women’s sport,” she says.

The Big Four events in New Zealand in 2022 and 23 – three women’s World Cups and the world’s largest conference on gender equality in sport – will see a surge in coverage of women’s sport.

“But the challenge now is to maintain and increase that momentum. If you lose sight of the ball, it slides backwards,” says Froggatt.

A case study of this year’s Cricket World Cup being held here showed that coverage of women’s sport more than doubled – to 33 per cent during the month-long tournament. But it still made up less than half of all cricket coverage (that month also featured the Black Caps series against the Netherlands and the death of the game’s Australian legend, Shane Warne).

“It was really great to see all of the coverage, but it still had a lot of focus on the home team and very little on the overseas teams,” says Froggatt. “That wouldn’t happen in a men’s tournament.”

The Rugby World Cup, to be played in New Zealand in October, should provide another boost in coverage of women’s sport. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Clark optimistically believes the three World Cups – the cricket event earlier this year, rugby in October and football next July – will grow and keep audiences.

“Mega-events provide a short-term boost in coverage of women’s sport that actually changes the gamut of overall gender balance,” he says. “But having teams in regular leagues in cricket, football, rugby and basketball will provide week-to-week coverage that will also increase numbers over time.”

The biggest spikes in women’s stories came around the Tokyo Games last year — up to 42 percent during the Olympics and 29 percent at the Paralympics.

“What we see in this study are the beginnings of sustained growth. There were peaks, but even the lower months are higher than last year,” says Clark.

Netball still dominates with 20 per cent of all women’s coverage, but other sports are catching up – cricket now accounts for up to 16 per cent.

For the first time, the study looked at the top 10 teams that garnered media attention in New Zealand. Predictably, the All Blacks and Black Caps dominate, with only two women’s teams appearing on the list – the Silver Ferns at No. 6 and the White Ferns at No. 9.

women at the front

More and more women’s voices are heard on the news. For years there has been valid criticism that male coaches, administrators and even partners have spoken for female athletes.

Six out of 10 sources commenting on women athletes were the athletes themselves – the Tokyo Games played an important role in that jump (out of four out of 10).

And the proportion of women cited in stories has increased, albeit slowly, from 14 percent to 17 percent.

But the women reporting these stories are not gaining weight. Female authors accounted for only 10 percent in our media in 2021 – and that too has fallen by one percent.

“LockerRoom continues to tell stories no one else tells” – Philip Clark, Sport NZ.

The number of female radio and television presenters, on the other hand, has risen – from 35 percent in 2020 to 43 percent last year. (The study did not include Sky and SparkSport, which have a high percentage of female presenters and commentators).

“There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement when it comes to attracting women to sportswriting and giving those who work there greater visibility,” Clark says.

Froggatt believes that newsrooms should not only think about increasing the number of women in their sports departments, but also give more opportunities to female reporters.

“The best stories still go to male reporters, and their writers are still way ahead. They could consider a policy where the best sports stories are split more evenly,” she says.

How we portray women in sport

Since Newsroom.co.nz launched LockerRoom, dedicated exclusively to women in sport, just over four years ago, total media coverage nationwide has increased by about 10 percentage points.

“LockerRoom came at just the right time with a really strong statement on the importance of promoting women’s sport,” says Clark.

“And LockerRoom continues to tell stories no one else tells. Over the past year it has led the way in reporting on women’s health and well-being, which we are now increasingly seeing in sports media.”

The study shows that LockerRoom stories are more than twice the online average for women’s stories (2000 words vs. 885), and the “presentation markers” in our content revealed more varied discussion by athletes outside of results and preparation .

“What we’re seeing at LockerRoom, which wasn’t unexpected, is that the issues and issues that are coming up in the coverage are far broader than they are for women’s sport in general,” says Clark.

“LockerRoom touches on topics that other media outlets may not cover as the coverage is broader rather than focused on match reports.”

Other independent news organizations making notable inroads into reporting women in sport include Waatea News (40 percent of their stories are about women’s sport), The Spinoff (34 percent) and Māori TV (33 percent).

* You can read the full Sports Media and Gender report here.

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