By Scott Harding
Australia’s male-dominated sports broadcasters have to realise that there is only one large frontier left to conquer.
First of all, let me confess. I have a natural bias towards this subject, as I have a strong, confident pre-teen daughter that enjoys a range of sports. As a long-time soccer coach also, I have seen first-hand the enthusiasm that young girls have for a sport that not only provides an easily translated universal appeal, but actually celebrates the idea of freedom and self-expression.
A few weeks ago, what I have seen at grassroots level, with my own eyes, exploded into the national consciousness with the advent (finally) of the Women’s AFL competition. For those of you living under a rock, such was its impact in its debut season, viewing figures were off the hook and a brand new demographic was opened up for broadcasters, like Aladdin’s cave.
It’s funny, in a way, that a code like AFL, hardly celebrated in past times for its commitment to sexual equality in sport, should be the one to push through a barrier where others could not, or would not. Not only did AFL have the influence, through Gillon McLachlan’s active championing of the female game, it also ensured the interest of TV broadcasters. For that alone, McLachlan deserves great credit, as a leading sports administrator in a prominent code. We even saw, at an awards ceremony that for once didn’t include a vacuous parade of arm candy, AFL’s first openly gay couple celebrating in public. Erin Phillips, with wife Tracy Gahan, is surely the new face of modern Australian sport, as a woman who has not only succeeded in the most shamelessly macho of Australia’s football codes (sorry, rugby league), but has done so on her own terms. Vive la revolution indeed!
Where is all this going, you might well ask? The answer is no one really knows, except for Australia’s broadcast networks. AFL has kicked down a door and now other codes, including my beloved soccer, have to follow. What is stopping Foxtel, Channel 9, Channel 10 or any other network that prides itself on sports coverage from conquering Australian sport’s final frontier, namely the dedicated female fan? Demographically, absolutely nothing. The declining participation rates of young girls in sport is not only a hot topic in today’s climate, but an essential one. What better role models could these girls have than women who are not only taking male bastions of “pale, male and stale” orthodoxy on, but winning with class and dignity?
The Big Bash is a good case in point here. When Chris Gayle so infamously propositioned Mel McLaughlin on the sidelines of a cricket pitch, he inadvertently sent shockwaves through Australian sport, specifically through a sport that for too long had held on to outdated views about women. I love Chris Gayle, I love what he has to offer and I understand his cultural background may have had a part to play in what he saw as a harmless interaction, but I hold him far less accountable than the BBL commentators initially sniggering, on air, before quickly retracting their amusuement and making public (and forced) noises of disapproval. In that instant. Australian cricket’s mask slipped. It was clear that you could have as many Pink Stumps Days as you liked, but die-hard attitudes about women in cricket were still there. To Cricket Australia’s immense credit, since that time, the Women’s Big Bash has gained real traction in the nation’s sporting consciousness and commentators such as Lisa Sthalekar are now more prominent on networks such as Foxtel. Coincidence? I think not, but it is an instructive lesson about how you leverage antiquated organisations into changing, even if it is against their will.
There is also the small matter of public pressure. Gillon Machlachlan, in his 2015 address at the annual AFL lunch for women’s industry, all but conceded that AFL’s first female commissioner, Sam Mostyn, had pursued the agenda of female participation so relentlessly that the entire sport had to change its mindset. Perhaps if those Victorian culture warriors who are so offended about gender-based pronouns and traffic lights could keep lobbying, but this time for causes that actually matter like respect for women’s sport, Australia’s athletic culture would really be the envy of the world. Soft targets aren’t going to cut it anymore; we have to create a world where our daughters, our wives, our sisters are going to be valued as equals. The shameless gurning of the Footy Show is the last roar of a dinosaur that can’t even acknowledge the comet is going to hit the Earth, let alone adapt to survive when it actually does.
We all know, deep down, that the days of saying “don’t blush, baby” to female reporters are over. We all know that the days of patronisingly referring to wives and girlfriends as accessories at the Brownlow Medal or the Dally M are over. Women’s sport in this country stands on the threshold of something glorious, but it is going to take male-dominated broadcasting networks to seize an opportunity to benefit everyone. The real question is, do they have the balls to step up and play their part?
Sleeping Beauty has woken up. Now all she needs is a prince (or a princess) to kiss her.