There has been an awful lot of discussion about women’s sport in the last week or so – starting last weekend with Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for culture, media and sport. (From whom we seem to have been hearing an awful lot lately. And, yes, ‘when I hear the word sport, I reach for my culture.’ Come to think of it, why are they two different things?)
Burnham was critical of the amount of coverage of women’s sport on TV – in particular the England women cricketers winning the World Cup to a blaze of no publicity at all. Nicole Cooke has complained in the past about the comparable disparity in the coverage of men’s and women’s cycling. And they both have a point.
The problem is that no one has worked out just what sport, and what coverage of sport, is supposed to be for. It might be as Burnham suggested, to provide inspirational role models. In his case he’s particularly concerned by teenage girls, who apparently give up sport so that they can chase boys. (I have to say that that never happened in my day. In my day, they gave up sport… and that was it.)
Alternatively, coverage might be a reward for a good performance – which sounds a little odd until you think about just how often complaints about sports coverage are framed in terms of ‘I think they deserved better.” It was also part of Burnham’s comments. But this is a non-starter, for the simple reason that the reward for a good performance is that you win your event. Press coverage is for the benefit of the reader or viewer, not the athlete. If you’re doing sport just so you get into the papers, you’ve got it way wrong.
The truth of it is that, at the moment, sports coverage is more or less governed by a free market. That means it’s straight entertainment. Papers and TV stations will cover what they can sell – last weekend it was pretty clear that the big selling sports were going to be rugby and football.
Unfortunately, no government minister in history ever succeeded in persuading, by simple exhortation, a commercial organisation to give up revenue for a greater good. If he wanted to produce legislation, I suppose he could – and he could start with the ‘Crown Jewels” list of sporting events required to be free-to-air on terrestrial TV. At the moment there are 10 events, and the only specific women’s event is the Wimbledon final.
If he wanted to be more radical, he could require that equal amounts of coverage be given to men’s and women’s sports – they did it for equal pay in the 1970s, and that was governed by a free market at the time too – but I really can’t see that happening.
The other problem is that it’s not really awfully clear that watching sport provides very much inspiration in the first place. Though a government minister is pretty unlikely to mention that doubt, since most of the justification for the London Olympic spending is that it’s going to make us a healthier nation.
It’s a great pity he’s so wrong. Because I entirely agree with him.