Beyond Katie: sport's invisible women

 

The boxer Katie Taylor has become a national treasure, but women’s sports are struggling in Ireland. They can’t create a fan base or win sponsorship without better coverage – and can’t get on TV without fans and money

IN THE RUN-UP to the London Olympics, Ireland’s female athletes are excelling. Katie Taylor has become a national treasure, joining Roy Keane, Stephen Roche and Sonia O’Sullivan among the great Irish sports stars, and young women rush for her autograph wherever she goes. The swimmers Melanie Nocher and Sycerika McMahon also qualified for the games this week and were widely praised in newspapers and on TV. Yet it is rare to see sportswomen represented so well in the media.

“Katie Taylor was a footballer before she was a boxer, and she’s only getting the coverage and the recognition now,” says Sue Ronan, manager of the Irish women’s soccer team. “A male boxer would have got that from the outset. He wouldn’t have had to win four [World Championships] to get it.”

Women’s team sports remain largely invisible in the national press and struggle to build a following comparable to that of men’s games. And team sports struggle as a result. Fewer than a third of females who are playing team sports when they are 15 are still playing five years later, according to the 2008 Sporting Lives report by the Irish Sports Council and the ESRI. The figure for males is 75 per cent.

Nor do large numbers of players guarantee media interest. About 140,000 women play Gaelic football, including those playing in leagues overseas, and about 55,000 play camogie, yet they receive significant coverage only around All-Ireland finals.

David Ó Síocháin is an account director for Pembroke Communications, which represents a number of track and field athletes, paralympians and the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association. The latter organisation has stimulated increased coverage since it started working with Pembroke more than half a decade ago.

“It can be difficult for female team sports to get consistent coverage in national media,” says Ó Síocháin. “They are competing for space with the big three: GAA, soccer and rugby. These are the sports that sell papers and get people logging on to sports websites.

“Resources are another barrier for both media and sports associations. Media do not have the resources to cover all sports on a regular basis, and many sports associations have not dedicated the necessary resources to effectively promote their sports.”

Women’s football, he says, has developed a media service that provides national and local outlets with match reports, previews, fixtures, photos, interview opportunities and set-piece media events. “This sounds like a lot, but it is the minimum that is required to ensure regular coverage,” Ó Síocháin says.

“It can be a bit chicken and egg in that many female sports associations cannot dedicate the resources to provide such a media service, but increased coverage attracts sponsorship money, which in turn will benefit the profile of the sport.”

The teams maintain that, to build a fan base, they need coverage. The Irish women’s international soccer team know they need to present a quality product in order to increase coverage.

“We do have loads of leagues around the country in women’s football, but we didn’t have a particular product like a national league,” says Sue Ronan, whose Irish women’s soccer team plays Switzerland in a friendly today. So last August, the FAI formed the Women’s National League, with seven teams.

“This is the first year that we have had a league, and a big sponsor came on board in the form of Bus Éireann, who obviously have national recognition,” says Ronan. “So you create a profile with a product. People become more aware of women’s football, aware of the national squad, and aware of the national product because it’s there.”

But Ronan says it’s still hard to get coverage. Media outlets tell her a sport needs a profile before it can justify significant coverage. “I just think that’s an excuse, to be honest. You’ll see Gaelic results from a really low, local level – with all due respect to the sport – and those results are published in newspapers or on TV. When you talk about a national squad in any sport, they should get recognition over anything at a local level. A fan base creates interest in the media, but without that coverage in the media, you won’t get a fan base.”

Ronan praises the FAI for its support of women’s soccer. “We have our own communications office in the FAI, and they, equally in fairness, for the national squad send information out to the press as they do for the boys.”

But being part of a larger organisation can also create difficulties. In February, the Irish Rugby Football Union had an embarrassing PR slip-up after a series of missed flight connections, overnight trains and a lack of sleep in the Irish women’s rugby team before a match in Pau. The situation enraged current and former players. The IRFU took “some responsibility” for the debacle.

Since that incident, online petitions have accused the IRFU of undermining the women’s game. Although the schoolboys and under-20s men’s rugby games get plenty of airtime, the women’s rugby internationals seldom appear on camera, even though Ireland are ranked seventh in the world.

Gemma Crowley, team manager of the Irish women’s rugby team, says: “As you can see from the past year, it’s difficult enough [in terms of coverage]. The media has only jumped on the bandwagon when there’s been negative publicity about it. Following France, people zoned in on what happened off the pitch instead of on it. But for the remainder of the season, you have to try to turn the negatives into positives.”

When the IRFU streamed one of the women’s home games online this year, it was the organisation’s highest-viewed web stream ever.

“The girls are putting so much effort, time and commitment into playing at a national level, they deserve more media coverage,” says Crowley. “And by getting more media coverage it will definitely help to grow the game, especially at grassroots level.”

The IRFU has committed to fielding a women’s sevens team in an effort to qualify for next year’s Sevens World Cup in Moscow.

Some teams try to raise their profile in other ways. In 2009, Alison Donnelly – now head of communications at London Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers – set up scrumqueens.com, a women’s rugby website.

“I always say to people: you can moan about coverage you’re not getting, but you can’t moan about the coverage you’re not generating yourself,” she says.

“In the UK, they use Twitter and YouTube very well. The English [women’s rugby] team was the first team to put their Twitter handles on their shirts, and hundreds of thousands of people follow them.”

Indeed, the women’s rugby team here has started to put together impressive montages of match highlights on YouTube.

“When it comes to TV, [in the UK] Sky Sports broadcast a lot of England’s women’s games. They’re really hugely quality games, and if you speak to people at Sky, they do get a really good audience,” says Donnelly. “[But RTÉ] don’t know they’re going to get viewers. They’ve never even shown a full Irish international and it’s disappointing. You’d expect the national broadcaster [to show them].”

Ryle Nugent, group head of sport in RTÉ, points out that women have a growing role in RTÉ’s sports broadcasting. “There is no doubt that women’s sport has developed behind men’s sport in the last 30, 40 years, and that it is catching up,” he says.

“Even if you look at the RTÉ sports department and look at the structure of that, there are significant changes; the deputy head of sport is female, the general manager is female, the commissioning editor is female – we have a pool of female presenters in sport that we wouldn’t have had 20 years ago.”

Sports fans make up a huge portion of the readership of tabloid newspapers. Eoin Brannigan, the sports editor of the Irish Daily Star, says: “Over the last few years we sponsor the camogie leagues, we have a tie-in with ladies’ football along with Bord Gáis, we’d be very active when it comes to the soccer teams . . . We’d see it as an opportunity to appeal to a broader audience.”

Brannigan points out that while some newspapers published Leinster posters with editions this week, his department went with a Katie Taylor poster. “Different strokes for different folks. Newspapers chase readership, they chase buyers. If you’re looking at it in terms of how valuable it would be, they’re probably just thinking how many people are going to buy the paper to read about the women’s rugby team.”

Yet there are some sports where women’s teams dominate. In hockey, two thirds of the 30,000-40,000 of players are female, and it’s men who are on the margins. Miriam Gormally is a former Irish international indoor volleyball player and has also represented Ireland in beach volleyball. “In my sport, women get a higher profile than men,” she says.

After playing Gaelic games, Gormally gravitated towards a sport she felt had more gender equality. “I didn’t want to play a sport where I was a second-class citizen, where it was very much, ‘You girls train out the back’, or with a coach who wasn’t good enough for the men’s team. That certainly influenced my decision in sport. Even in school, those attitudes were there,” she says.

“On the other side of it, guys who play volleyball would feel aggrieved for not getting coverage. The men’s squad are like, ‘We’re national players here, and no one is meeting us at the airport!’ They’re off to Luxembourg next week, but nobody’s going to cover their story either.”

McIlroy and Harrington: Katie and Sonia

It’s not just a lack of coverage: the style of coverage can also change when it comes to women in sport.

Malachy Clerkin, Irish Times sports journalist and author, says, “One thing that you always notice when there’s an Irish sports star who becomes highly proficient in her field is that in headlines they’re always referred to by their first name. That never happens with men: Rory McIlroy is always McIlroy, Harrington is Harrington.”

Yet Taylor becomes Katie, O’Sullivan was usually Sonia, Smith was mostly Michelle.

“I think maybe when it is a woman, people are inclined to feel softer towards them,” Clerkin says. “I don’t know if it’s the difference between admiration for McIlroy and a warm ‘Go on ya girl ya’ feeling when it’s Taylor. There’s no good reason why that should exist: they are both wonderful sportspeople.

“Maybe that’s just human nature or how people relate to them. Maybe that’s why newspapers try to tap into that, to connect with their readers and make their readers think, We think what you think, we think Go on Sonia instead of Go on O’Sullivan.”

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