It’s still all to play for

Volume 34 Number 1 March 2023

The number of female journalists in highly visible roles at the World Cup suggested that a corner had been turned in an industry previously dominated by men. The BBC and ITV had women in senior on-screen positions, presenting, reporting or working as pundits. FIFA says that of 8,474 accredited media in Qatar, around 10 per cent were women. Of the UK-accredited media, 16 per cent were women, behind Sweden (24 per cent), the USA (20 per cent), Ecuador and Mexico (both 18 per cent), but ahead of France (9 per cent) and Germany (12 per cent).

There are more women journalists in most sports, the Football Writers Association has had its first woman chair and women are now regular awards winners. But there are signs that the number of women training to become sports journalists has peaked. Figures from the National Council for the Training of Journalists show that numbers applying for sports journalism courses have dropped significantly. In 2021/22, of 207 students enrolled on sports journalism courses, only 14 (6 per cent) were women, and while there was a slight increase for 2022/23 (39 out of 286 students), this represented just over 13 per cent, which puts numbers back to where they were around 10 years ago.

Many had hoped that one of the legacies of the London Olympics in 2012 would be a boom in women’s sport, including in the number of female sports journalists. There’s been a huge increase in participation. A recent survey claimed 770,000 girls now play football, an increase of 100,000 in five years. Last summer’s Euros attracted record crowds, with 87,000 watching England beat Germany in the final. Attendances at Women’s Super League games are up 200 per cent. With interest in women’s sport growing, and interest in sport growing among women, why are fewer women applying to become sports journalists?

“There’s huge interest in sports journalism courses and when we hold open days, we see lots of girls. But it’s not translating into big numbers applying.” said Carole Watson, principal journalism lecturer at Sunderland University, which actively targets female students. Neil Farrington, a former sports journalist on the Newcastle Chronicle and Sunday Sun who leads the BA Sports Journalism course at Sunderland visits schools and colleges “There’s a feeling our course could be too football-dominated and that girls want to cover a broader range of sports. There seems to be an aspiration gap, a role model gap, particularly in the north east, where girls don’t see people like them covering sport.”

Jim Entwistle, a senior lecturer at Teesside University, agrees that female students often have a broader range of sporting interests than male colleagues, who favour football. “We need to re-badge and re-brand sports journalism. If we’re going to attract more women, we need to recognise that what was right for the industry in the past was right for its time but isn’t right for now or the future.”

Attracting students from economically disadvantaged areas is a challenge. “Very often, they have similar backgrounds to the athletes they’d be reporting on but, because they don’t have journalists in their network, they don’t know about pathways into the industry,” said Entwistle.

In 2015, the NCTJ set a target to increase the numbers of female sports journalism students from around 9 per cent to 25 per cent of those starting accredited courses. The following years saw significant increases, with many of those women now progressing within the industry, often in senior roles. One theory suggests that the very success of those women could be one of the reasons that girls are put off entering the profession.

“A lot of high-profile female sports journalists attract horrendous levels of vile abuse on social media,” said John Cafferkey, senior sports journalism lecturer at Lincoln University. “Quite understandably, girls don’t want a job that’s going to lead to them being abused online.”

Lincoln says that attracting more women on to its course is a priority. Cafferkey has led several schemes targeted at all-girl groups in schools and colleges. He also hosted a one-day session at the university that attracted 100 girls considering a sports journalism course. They had a chance to work across five different newsrooms through the day, covering TV, podcasts, outside broadcast, interviewing, and live press conferences with a British international athlete.

“We want our open days to make sure women see they can thrive in this industry,” said Cafferkey. “The girls-only day gave them a chance to shine without being intimidated by boys. We’re also shifting the emphasis of the courses, which may have been too football-heavy for female students interested in a broader range of sports.”

Lincoln has had record numbers applying for its sports journalism courses starting later this year. “Interest is mainly from boys, but around 25 per cent of those attending our open days were female. We need to help turn that interest into applications,” said Cafferkey.

A handful of institutions have already bucked the trend and seen increases in female students on their sports journalism courses. Liverpool John Moores University saw numbers rise on both its BA, which is up to 14 per cent female, and MA, which has risen to 27 per cent female. “It’s encouraging, but we’re not complacent and there’s still a long way to go,” said Fran Yeoman, who runs the journalism department. She says staff adopted a two-fold approach to attract more women by addressing both the culture, to make it more welcoming, and the course content, reviewing and revising what they taught and how they taught it.

Untrained presenters fill the gaps

“At open days, we make sure female staff are visible and show potential students that the course is about more than football,” said Yeoman. “On the course, we make sure female students are fully included, rather than being left in a corner covering niche sports. And our male students are becoming much more accepting. We believe one reason our numbers are up on the MA is that we interview all students. Questions are split 50/50 across men’s and women’s sport. It shows we care about women, demonstrates that they are very much part of the course, and that the industry is for them.

“When we ask female candidates who they admire in the industry, they nearly always name female writers or broadcasters. We also try to tackle online abuse. The course works hard to prepare all journalists for that and empower them with the techniques and resilience to deal with it.”

The industry appears keen to recruit more female sports journalists, with several big media organisations setting targets. “The problem with that,” said one senior broadcasting executive, “is that if there aren’t candidates with suitable qualifications, employers recruit people with no journalistic training or background. That gets numbers up but is unfair on women who take on those roles without any proper preparation. While some will thrive, many struggle to cover the basics. And it shows. And for those who want to criticise female sports journalists, they become easy targets. With the pace and demands of modern newsrooms, we feel a proven record and a journalism qualification are essential.”

Certainly the opportunities are opening for female sports journalists, with the national dailies all employing female writers, although the gender breakdown of media covering the World Cup shows that many of the national newspaper titles didn’t send any women to Qatar and the higher number of UK female journalists was largely down to broadcasters. By the time of the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, the landscape might have changed.

It’s already changed with women’s football. David Gerty has been head of women’s football communications at the FA for the last six years. He’s seen the game expand, the England team achieve growing success, and witnessed the increased media interest in the team. “There’s pretty much a 50/50 split between male and female reporters covering England,“ he says. “It’s stayed that way since six or seven years ago when we’d have a handful of reporters to the 100 or so covering the team now. It’s encouraging that the number of female journalists has kept pace.

“Press conferences are not dominated by male reporters and we are now seeing more critical coverage and greater scrutiny of performance. It feels like constructive rather than combative discussions. And it leads to respect both ways, between players and coaches and the media.” While courses are working hard to attract more female students, there remain challenges being a minority on a course. “We all need to make it less daunting,” said Fran Yeomans, from Liverpool John Moores. “This isn’t just about getting numbers up and improving gender-balance statistics. It’s about changing culture, and changing it for the better.”

Andy Cairns

Andy Cairns was head of Sky Sports News 1998-2019 and is a board member and trustee of the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

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