Women's sport comprises only 15 per cent of total sports news coverage, new research shows

In an analysis of media coverage of 20 sports, a new report from the Office for Women in Sport & Recreation in Victoria found that only four had "gender-balanced" coverage across 2022-23.

It's no secret that the state of media coverage and interest in women's sport has a long way to go. The love for the Matildas was the first time many people had ever even paid attention to the skill and talent, often hidden away in women's sport. Now, I bet the average Australian can name more Matilda's than Socceroos. But if you wind back the clock even just a little bit, to before the Women's World Cup, in the winter of last year, what did the picture look like then? And how do we ensure we don't go back there?

Well, with a new report released today, the Victorian Government, specifically the Office for Women in Sport & Recreation, (OWSR) has investigated and revealed just that. And I'll be honest - the numbers show we were in, and could easily return to dire straits. The study shows that in 2022-23, only 15% of sports news coverage (across print, online, radio and television) in Victoria was focused on women’s sport. This is in stark contrast to the 81% that focused on male sport. Of the 20 sports chosen as case studies including everything from AFL to swimming and F1 among others, only 4 had at least gender-balanced coverage, listed as higher than 40%. They included swimming, athletics, hockey and netball, for obvious reasons.

For anyone wondering about the processes involved with getting those numbers, the study analysed 34,600 individual pieces of media. It's worth noting that that number excluded live broadcasts of sport, social media coverage, owned publications of sporting organisations, subscription TV news, and coverage relating to the racing of horses and other animals.

The data is pretty bleak but speaking to Sarah Styles, the Director of the Office for Women in Sport & Recreation, Missing Perspectives is happy to report there's hope for change on the horizon. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that the Matildas Effect is yet to be reflected. "Before the Matilda's stellar World Cup run, women’s soccer was the focus of 20% of all soccer-related news during the study period – a number I would anticipate would rise significantly in the 2023-24 data. I can’t wait to see what that looks like." Neither can I, Sarah.

But the burden of change can't rest solely on the shoulders of the Matildas nor can it be expected that in 2024, any female athletes still have to prove they're worthy of coverage. They always have been. The time for the onus to be on them has long passed and now rests solely with the media organisations who have a responsibility to treat these stories and their success as seriously as they do the men's.

In a specific section of the study dedicated to the portrayal and the exploration of common narratives for women in sport, it was found that their coverage overwhelmingly focused purely on scores and performance, whereas their male counterparts were subject to more nuanced analysis, space for their personalities to shine through and even given the opportunity to advocate for improvements to their experience. The top phrase used to describe female athletes across the media studied was 'quiet achiever' compared with 'well-liked and popular' for the men.

But that's only one part of investigating how the media treats women's sport It's also about who they send to cover it and whether the gender of a journalist plays into what's considered important to audiences. Female journalists were only 27% of sports bylines in total but 62% more likely to cover women's sport than men. In some contexts, the assigning of female journalists makes sense but in others, creates disengagement and shoehorns the situation into being a 'women's-only problem.

Sarah Styles firmly believes that "the gender of a journalist should have no bearing on the sport they choose to cover, or what they should find interesting. Anything that suggests otherwise is hitting straight back into the zones of limiting gender stereotypes of ‘who sport is for’ or ‘who is more important’ This is influencing who we, as a society, celebrate and hold up as heroes, leaders and experts, in sport and beyond.This is a system of people in positions of influence and positions of authority whose view of sport was shaped by growing up in a world where men’s sport was still the default."

So if that's the case what does OWSR suggest? For starters, measureable targets are implemented in media organisations including performance plans for journalists to break down the clear gender divide on who is covering women's sport and why. The other thing? Getting this kind of in-depth research pioneered by the Victorian Government, happening at a national level. A decade ago, Australia's coverage of women's sport as a whole, sat at a measly 6% according to the Australian Commission of Sport. So if we were to apply that kind of timeline to these new numbers, you're looking at not seeing something gender balanced news coverage until at least 2048.

Now, if you're like me, you've been reading al these facts and figures thinking But what can I do to help? As far as Sarah Styles sees it, the answer is simple. "Engage with women's sports content. Read it. Share it. Add your voice to calls for change. And let media companies and sporting organisations know you aren’t willing to accept women being hidden behind a default of men’s sport anymore."