Improper media coverage and negative perceptions ail women’s athletes. Here’s why we perennially overlook them.
Cricket is one sport that is hugely popular in India. It never escapes the notice of print and TV news publishers. It’s perhaps the only game that has found a place in the hearts of the masses as well as the upper middle class.
The ‘gentleman’s game’ has a big following among Indian women too. Several Team India stars motivate our women on social media. There are some that are charmed by our male cricketers.
Women, who were conventionally thought of as ‘unsporty’ are now well acquainted with their hero’s activities. His personal life, paid partnerships and motivational quotes make him a social media icon in the eyes of lakhs of millennials.
Even when an Indian male cricketer is sent back to play domestic cricket to regain form, the journey is glorified. If someone like KL Rahul is dropped from the national team and posts a photo of him playing for Karnataka on social media, the country takes notice.
An aspirational woman who isn’t really a sports fan is automatically made aware of the lesser watched Ranji or Duleep Trophy.
But how many Indian male sports fans can claim that they follow women’s domestic cricket? That’s still a long shot.
Only a handful would tell you that they follow the women’s national team. It’s hardly their fault though.
No hits, media misses
A general worldwide trend suggests that women sports are sidelined by the sports media. Reporting and broadcasting the women’s game is of lower priority. Of course, there are exceptions and a spectacular event will get reported [India-Australia final of ICC Women’s World T20 2020].
TV news channels, printed news and online publications need operating cash flow to fund research and salaries. Sports is slotted into just another category. Like the entertainment industry, it isn’t placed in the same bracket of importance as say politics. Of course, a topic of controversy does not discriminate between professions.
To optimise for high readership, the media has to report what has already been generating buzz. The stuff that gets people talking and meme-ing on Twitter. In our country, men’s cricket can manage that.
Everybody and their advertisement is prompting us to make a purchase. For the media, advertisements are their primary revenue stream. In a scenario where quality content is produced to coexist with interruptive ads, hits assume greater significance. The media is trying to find what makes viewers stick around despite numerous ads vying for their attention.
Sports coverage is limited. You can’t go on and on debating about sports game. Not unless it has courted massive controversy.
So in that half hour bulletin or newspaper back page or a couple of web pages, is there a way that the women’s game could be explored?
The simple answer is, no. At this point in time, women’s cricket simply doesn’t get enough people talking. There is no demand
Experimenting with women’s sports content is not an option. Not unless you operate independently. In an era where multiple media channels are trying to acquire the same audience, they have little incentive to create awareness.
Female reporters missing
India continues to suffer from the negative perceptions about their sportswomen. Their appearance and child-bearing abilities are called into question. Sexism in sport is more disguised and manifests itself in the form of ignorant commentary.
Since the turn of the millennium, women in India are playing and following sports in unprecedented numbers. A BBC survey in the country says 29% of women respondents have played sport, which isn’t far behind than the men [42%]. Many Indians are also in favour of following Australia, UK, New Zealand and Brazil’s lead of equal pay towards female athletes.
A sports career for women is no more looked down upon. In fact, the sentiment to encourage sports for women has only risen with Bollywood films like Chak de India and Dangal.
The surge in Indian women playing competitive sport has been overwhelming in the last two decades. Since 2015, nine of the sixteen Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awards have been awarded to women. The women are winning us more Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medals than ever before. The evolution of sportswomen has been dramatic. The coverage, not so much.
Dr. Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of American studies at Purdue University said, “Mainstream sports media outlets are essentially ‘mediated man-caves.”
And therein lies the problem. Male reporters have grown up watching men’s sport. When they’re asked to present a story about the women, they may not ask the right questions and empathise with them. The result is – half-hearted, shoddy reporting.
A diverse staff of sports reporters could solve the problem. Hiring more female sports staff could add a sense of prestige to women’s sports coverage.
Is there demand?
Clearly, watching a Live telecast of a women’s sport isn’t quite fancied by the average Indian viewer. A fair number of people feel that it simply doesn’t generate the same entertainment value that men’s sport does.
In relative terms, women’s sport lacks a bit of intensity. They may never be able to replicate what the men do. There will be fewer fours, sixes, powerful shots on goal or powerful serves in the women’s game.
Many would argue that if a latent demand for women’s sports existed, media channels would have already known by now. After all, they’re the best at researching their audience. Channels like Star Sports would already be doing it if there was money to be made from covering the women’s game.
Maybe they haven’t experimented enough and completely utilized their resources yet. Star Sports’ broadcast of matches involving the Indian women’s cricket team is nothing more than contractual. Amateur sports presenters talk cricket from a script that desperately lacks sponsor integrations.
Demand can be created. Indian women’s showings in weightlifting, boxing, hockey and shooting is proof that they can compete well enough to capture your attention. Let me subtly remind you that these are conventionally ‘unsuitable’ sports for women.
It all comes down to how these athletes are being portrayed. Are the Khel Ratna Award winners like Vinesh Phogat and Rani Rampal being recognized as elite athletes? Are we portraying their achievements to the public in the same way we glorify our male cricketers?
Not marketed well
The International Cricket Council [ICC] has done some great work to stimulate women’s cricket in non-playing nations. The 100% Cricket campaign launched in March this year has brought a sense of inclusion and involvement to women lives. The campaign doesn’t stop at just propagating cricket. In countries like Rwanda, Germany, Mexico and Chile, the campaign has fostered a sense of belongingness. It has opened up their minds to embrace an alien sport.
However, a casual scroll through ICC’s feed on any of their social media accounts suggests otherwise. A plethora of posts are dedicated to men’s cricket but there are only a handful of posts covering women.
Why is an organization that has done so much to uplift women’s cricket levels, guilty of not marketing women cricketers?
There is a systematic gender bias which leads to unequal payment. It starts with how women are marketed by their own leagues and governing bodies.
Take the example of the Women’s T20 Challenge – a tournament founded by the BCCI in 2018. The objective was to invite the best players in the world and let them play alongside the Indian women.
Introducing a competition like this was a noble idea. But the fact remains that it was an afterthought to the cash-rich IPL. Sunil Gavaskar and Harmanpreet Kaur have called for the 4-team event to be made full-fledged like the Women’s BBL. The WBBL is a 59 match tournament, has a decent marketing budget and attracts the best overseas players. The competition is one of the reasons why the Australian women’s national team is dominant.
The length of the tournament and marketing budget allocated to the Women’s IPL makes it difficult to build a fanbase. But critics will still say, “Women’s sports don’t make any revenue.”
So, what now?
IPL franchises pull out all the stops to promote their players. They don’t distinguish between nationalities when they’re glorifying their performance. Can an Indian franchise form their own women’s team?
Can we expect the same hyped up, enthusiastic content on a Royal Challengers Bangalore Women’s account? It couldn’t be too difficult to take a cue and follow the BBL. Teams owners down under have spread their wings with a WBBL team.
Sports news outlets and publications have proliferated in the age of digital media. There are an increasing number of users seeking to engage with sports content. Content platforms prepared to take a punt on women’s sport are sending out a strong message, from a brand standpoint.
Publishers can have a crack at forming a niche for themselves. If there’s a willingness to serve it tastefully, there’s no reason why women’s sport cannot become popular.
To market an athlete is essentially providing them a foundation on which they can build on their talents. UEFA realized this and leveraged their existing sponsors by onboarding them for their women tournaments.
When corporations tie players up to sponsorship contracts, women players would have less to worry about and can focus on their game better.
We’re hurting the advancement of women’s sports by not marketing them. Sponsors will show no interest and therefore, revenues will not flow in.
Then, we’ll have another reason to say, ”See, women’s sports are not entertaining.”