If women’s sport struggles for coverage it’s not because of sexism - it’s because you can’t make people care
When Ireland’s World Cup adventure is over, people will just keep watching the sport they always watch
A man can tie himself up in all sorts of knots with this stuff. This column was going to begin with a story about Lynne Cantwell and two members of The Irish Times sports department upstairs in the Oxford Street Debenhams in London. On the working theory that no land bank of life experience can be allowed to go unfarmed for anecdotal purposes, the fact that she helped the pair of us buy ties back in January was going to be cultivated till the ground ran bare.
It was going to be a wry tale wherein we were rescued from our general male uselessness by the endless patience of the Ireland centre who helped us pick out appropriate neckwear at short notice for a function that night, thereby not disgracing the newspaper.
In time, it would have broadened out into a general piece about coverage of women’s’ sport – the overarching gist of which would have been that we can all do better (but with the gentle reminder that this is the kind of paper where we pal around with Irish sportswomen in London so, y’know, don’t blame us and so on).
Mild panicYet halfway through it, mild panic set in. If that was one of the men’s rugby team we were with in London that night and if he had been the one to show us to the menswear department, would it have been similarly used as column fodder?
Chances are it would (see aforementioned working theory) but, equally, chances are that the tone would have been different.
Would that be fair? Would that be right? If not, would it earn me a page the next volume of Everyday Sexism? Would I be hashtagged to within an inch of my pathetic male life once the column went up on Twitter? Shouldn’t I be?
So it can be complicated, attempting to plot a well-meaning course through how to engage with and cover women’s sport. That’s okay though. It’s a big area and it should be complicated. On the fringes lie the people who see no sexism whatsoever in modern life and just as many who seek it out in every offhand remark. In the middle stand the vast majority of us, trying to be decent.
Women’s sport’s most basic problem when it comes to media coverage is that you can’t force people to care. It’s the same problem with all areas of sport that don’t get as much attention as they would like. You can’t make people care about the League of Ireland, you can’t make them care about the Paralympics. People will engage or they won’t and all the marketing and media backing in the world will lead only so many horses to water.
You can’t make them care about the Cork women’s football team no matter how many times you tell them that Irish sport has never and will never again see a team like them. In all honesty, it took the best part of a decade to drum up genuine interest and affection for Katie Taylor. Annalise Murphy, Steph Meadow, Aileen Reid – we could run daily pieces on their whereabouts and their whatabouts and they would still be little more than curiosities to the general public.
From time to time a media student or a lobby group will go through the day’s newspapers and hold up, as proof of bias, the fact that only, say, 13 per cent of the articles that day pertained to women’s sport. You always feel like ringing them up and asking what they think we missed. Or what we should have dropped.
Due recognitionEamonn Ryan, manager/guru/sensée of that great Cork team, knows the complexities of this better than anyone. When he’s asked if he thinks his team have got the recognition they’re due over the years, his answer is always no; but not for the reasons you might think.
The support base for his team is overwhelmingly male. Some of it is dads with daughters, some of it is clubmen, some of it is that cussed type of Cork fan who happily toddles along anywhere to see the red flag fly.
But – and he has no simple explanation for this – women don’t generally come out to support them. Certainly not in the numbers that men do.
This week, as Lynne Cantwell and her band of merry women sweat it out in the Stade Jean Bouin with a shot at the World Cup in their hands, there’s a simple joy in being able to sit back and enjoy it for what it is.
Their bona fides are impeccable after the win over New Zealand, and there can’t be any ‘Ah-but-what’s-the-standard- really?’ arguments to cheapen their progress. The semi-final against England on Wednesday deserves to pull in a big TV audience and if they make the final at teatime next Sunday the whole country should clear the decks for them.
But again, you can’t make people care. Next Sunday is also Cork v Tipp and the first SuperSunday of the new soccer season. The people who choose to watch those events rather than the Women’s Rugby World Cup aren’t rampant sexists. They’re just sports fans.
It can be a complicated area. But some things are pretty simple.