Over the years, women have come to expect empty gestures around International Women’s Day. From cupcakes and flowers to invitations to 7am breakfasts in the CBD that are inaccessible for many working class women and mothers of small children, the day often encompasses a series of token stunts.
In the run-up to this year’s IWD, Fox Sports announced a pop-up channel, FoxW, which will be dedicated to broadcasting and celebrating women’s sport. It will air for the month of April, after which it will disappear. It is an improvement on the one week provided last year, but it feels particularly hollow given the channel’s online front page did not promote a single women’s sport story for much of Monday.
Since 2017, Fox Sports have been provided with $40m in government funding to boost women’s sport on television, so public scrutiny of the decisions they make with regard to women’s sport is inevitable. While some of this grant money reportedly went towards securing a landmark new broadcast deal for Super Netball from 2022, there have been plenty of question marks around the value and importance the broadcaster places on women’s sport – most notably due to the many bungles frustrated fans have dealt with throughout this W-League season.
The past year has been a particularly challenging one for women in sport, both on and off the field. Covid cancellations disproportionately affected women’s sport, while the nostalgic coverage of classic games that filled the gaps during shutdowns was predominantly by and about men. As Australian women’s sport begins to emerge from the Covid shadows, now is the time to make up for lost opportunities with increased visibility and promotion. A short-term, standalone channel that sits at the bottom of Fox Sports’ guide listing does not quite cut it in 2021.
The women’s sport that will be aired on this channel in April deserves to be celebrated and highlighted – from the AFLW and W-League finals, to coverage of the Australian women’s cricket team’s tour of New Zealand and new documentaries on netball and cricket – but it feels as if it is being hidden away. Instead of capitalising on an engaged audience watching an AFLM game on Fox Footy by moving swiftly into an AFLW finals game, or satisfying Australian fans’ autumn yearning for international cricket by putting the women’s games on Fox Cricket, they have created a safe place to tuck them away. That way, when the brigade of men who complain about the coverage women’s sport receives rear their heads, they can be quickly reassured that this increased coverage of women’s sport will not cause them even the mildest inconvenience of having to change the channel.
For hundreds of years, women in sport have been achieving incredible things against the tide. In the last 10 years in particular, that tide has lost some of its strength, but it has not stopped and it certainly has not turned. While elite female athletes in some sports are now paid for (some of) their time, the pathways to reach the top are increasingly competitive and often very costly, putting barriers in place for women from poorer backgrounds. The inequity in sport is most visible at the top, but these trickle down effects also have a huge impact. Without a serious, ongoing commitment to visibility for women’s sport – not hidden away or used as a brief novelty – the funding will continue to be insufficient at the elite level, let alone providing any kind of injection to the pathway programs to allow greater diversity to flourish.
It may seem that women in sport are never satisfied, but this attempt to appease is just the latest in a long string of unsatisfactory responses to the lack of coverage that women’s sport receives. When the response comes from an organisation that receives significant government funding for this very purpose, it becomes even more inflammatory.
The tide that women are swimming against will not be changed with small, token gestures. Structural change takes courage and bold ideas. If Cricket Australia had decided to attempt to sell out North Sydney Oval instead of the MCG for the T20 World Cup final last year, it would not have sparked changes to the status quo that we are now seeing with the plans for the first statue of a female cricketer in the works.
Change also requires fearless leadership, and it now falls on people in power – in the media, in sports organisations and in government – to choose to challenge the decisions that are being made and demand better for women in sport.