Andy Burnham: Why is women's sport treated as a sideshow?

I spent my first 35 years looking at sport from a very male perspective

Monday 23 March 2009 01:00 GMT

Yesterday got off to a bad start. I woke up and assumed England's women cricketers had lost. That's because I turned on the radio and, for 20 minutes at least, could hear no mention of events in Australia.

I got a pleasant surprise when the headlines finally came round. But the absence of celebratory voices on the airwaves reinforced a point I have been making since Beijing: that coverage of women's sport is woefully absent from our television screens, radios and newspapers.

I feel more strongly than ever that this needs to change – urgently. With 2012 approaching, we have a moment in time when we can change sport for good. Getting more girls and women playing sport would constitute a genuine legacy. But I am worried that we are in danger of missing the moment by conducting business as usual.

Of course, sports governing bodies and the Government have big responsibilities here. But so too does the media. If anyone doubts whether media coverage can drive participation in sport, just think about what Wimbledon fortnight does to the nation's tennis courts.

To be fair, Sky's coverage of the women's World Cup has been good. I have noticed too that netball is now a regular part of its schedule. But subscription sports channels are not available in every home. So we look to our public service broadcasters to redress the balance – and yet, with some exceptions, the fare on offer is very traditional.

I readily acknowledge that, like many others, I am guilty of being slow to acknowledge this issue. As the middle of three brothers, I spent my first 35 years looking at sport from a very male perspective and seeing women's sport as a sideshow. It is only as my two girls have got older that my re-education has gathered pace and I have been able to see just how wide the sporting gap is.

My two daughters just don't have positive images of women's sport put before them in the same way as my son sees male sporting role models. When women's sport is on the TV, I make a point of bringing it to their attention. But it is frustratingly rare. Luckily, our football club, Everton, has a highly successful women's team. Yet it's hard to find any mention of them in national newspapers beyond a mention in a small weekly round-up. Is it stating the obvious to say that side columns on page 85 are less noticeable to young girls than colour photos on the front or back?

I did hope Beijing would bring a turning-point. Stars like Rebecca Romero and Nicole Cooke captured the nation's attention. But sadly, as the excitement of Beijing has tailed off, so has the media's interest in our sportswomen. Rebecca Adlington's first outing at the British Swimming Championships this week wasn't given live coverage. Star cyclist Victoria Pendleton has been reported as saying she now feels like she is living in the shadow of her male counterparts.

One of the arguments that comes back from the media is that the interest in women's sport is simply not there. I don't buy this. It's a self-serving argument. There will be no interest if broadcasters do not work to build it. History shows that the British public have the appetite to become absorbed in any sport if it is promoted in the right way. It wasn't long since we were all fascinated by curling. Activity at the grassroots shows there is real interest out there.

Despite its lack of publicity, women's cricket is thriving. There's been a 50 per cent increase in participation in 2008. The same in women's football. Nearly one million girls play organised football every week.

Perhaps the answer to this problem is to bypass the traditional media altogether. I have asked my department to look at developing a School Leagues website where results and footage could be uploaded by schools and all young people – boys and girls – would have a showcase for their achievements. But this is no real substitute. In the multi-channel era, it doesn't seem to me to be too much to ask to see a start with regular coverage of the Women's Premier League football, at the very least.

I accept it is no good Government handing out lectures on this subject if we haven't got our own house in order. The new funding plans we are soon to sign off with every major sport governing body for the period 2009-13 ask for much greater ambition on girls' and women's participation. With governing bodies under greater pressure, this may change the nature of the conversation they have with broadcasters.

There are signs of hope. This summer, the England and Wales Cricket Board will break new ground by staging women's and men's matches together at World 2020. But progress is way too slow. Half of the population is not being adequately served. We need culture change in sport and broadcasting. And I will only be happy when the High School Musical posters in our house are coming down and the Charlotte Edwards one is going up.

The author is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

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