Why we chose all-male shortlist for BBC award

Absence of female stars is explained by their sports' relative lack of popularity – not discrimination, writes Glenn Moore

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The Independent Online

Rebecca Adlington, Chrissie Wellington, Keri-Anne Payne, Sarah Stevenson and Kath Grainger each won world titles in 2011. None, however, mustered enough votes to make the shortlist for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, meaning the selection is a 10-man shortlist. That caused a degree of outrage yesterday with Wellington tweeting: "Disgraceful."

The BBC, while doubtless delighted at the publicity boost to an ailing flagship event, was quick to pass the buck, noting that the shortlist was drawn up by the sports departments of 27 newspapers and magazines. However, the corporation must bear some responsibility for the eclectic mix of publications, which includes lads' mags Nuts and Zoo (both supplied all-male lists) but not female-orientated magazines such as Zest. There was criticism, too, of the parochial nature of some shortlists with the Manchester Evening News managing to select two footballers apiece from Manchester City and Manchester United, two Lancashire cricketers, and a Mancunian swimmer.

That was Payne, who won gold at this year's world aquatic championships in the 10km open water category and was a more worthy suggestion than Dimitar Berbatov. However, does Payne deserve a place in the top 10? The Independent was one of the publications not to include a woman and Matt Gatward, the sports editor, said of Payne's success: "It is a fine achievement, but if a man won that event would we be saying he should be included? You shouldn't include a woman just for the sake of it."

Indeed, triathlete Wellington's failure to make the top 10 is matched by the absence of Alistair Brownlee, who won team gold and individual bronze at the world triathlon championships. While Grainger at least picked up votes, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase, who also won gold at the rowing world championships, did not get a mention. As for male world champions, Danny Hart (downhill mountain biking) Jamie Bestwick (BMX) and Paul Foster (bowls), or IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, they gained just one vote between them.

The reality is that only those in high-profile sports will be included and the most successful female athletes this year have been in less popular sports. Ironman, taekwondo, and – outside of the Olympics – swimming and rowing, are not major sports in Britain. Golf, tennis (in which Andy Murray is top four in a globally played sport), cricket, boxing and athletics are. Cycling is a more minority pursuit, but Mark Cavendish shone in the high-profile Tour de France.

In high-profile sports, English women were less prominent. In athletics, Hannah England and Jessica Ennis both won silver at the world championships, but the shortlisted Dai Greene and Mo Farah won gold.

Fifty-one athletes were nominated, 12 of them female. Only England's Ashes-winning cricketers made the top 10 from a team sport. England's women cricketers won a quadrangular one-day series, and have just completed a successful tour of South Africa, but they lost the Ashes in a one-off Test in Australia in January.

Of other team sports, England's female rugby players won nine of their 10 fixtures, retaining the Six Nations, but were unable to match the media profile of 2010 when they reached the final of the Women's Rugby World Cup. There were three English women golfers in Europe's successful Solheim Cup team, but none excelled individually. The footballers reached the World Cup quarter-finals, but probably needed to go further for individuals to penetrate deep into the national consciousness.

However, several female athletes will have had their profiles raised by the furore. How many readers could name the sports competed in by the four athletes named alongside Adlington in the opening sentence? Women's sport does not get much media attention because the public seemingly do not demand it. The Independent's sports desk receives more letters asking for increased coverage of lower league football than of women's sport.

Until women's sport attracts greater interest, coverage will remain sparse. Next year's Olympics should provide a significant lift to several female sports and it will be a surprise – maybe even a "disgrace" – if there are not strong contenders then.