Is the media letting our sportswomen down?

Holly Wade

In 2018 there are more sportswomen in the public eye than ever, yet a woman hasn’t won the BBC’s coveted Sports Personality of the Year award since 2006. Holly Wade asks what it will take for us to recognise the talent of our British sportswomen. 

At the 2017 Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) presentation, four sportswomen were nominated for the award; speed skater Elise Christie, taekwondo’s Bianca Walkden, tennis player Johanna Konta and cricketer Anya Shrubsole.

All four of these accomplished women finished in the last four positions in the public vote, but did sexism from the voters play a factor in this or have the women been done a disservice by the media? 

Speed skater Elsie Christie 

Christie is a well-known name in the world of speed skating but if you’ve never heard of her you could be forgiven. In 2017 she won two gold medals and a bronze to take the overall world championship, making her the first in Europe to win this title. So how is it that Christie finished at the bottom of the heap?

Lack of media coverage is a possible explanation with many winter sports hidden from view in schedules until events like the Olympic Games; quite often fans will seek out programming but the average person cannot engage with a sport that they’ve never seen.

Taekwondo is another minority sport that is rarely broadcast on mainstream television and although Walkden is the only Briton to ever defend a world title it doesn’t necessarily mean that the generic voting public will be familiar with her or her successes.

Johanna Konta at the 2018 Australian Open

Konta is the British number one, the 2017 Miami Open champion, a semi-finalist in the Australian Open and Wimbledon and a Rio Olympics quarterfinalist. Gender aside, 2017 was never going to be Konta’s year to take the SPOTY crown as she is yet to win a major title but if she can secure one in the future, particularly Wimbledon, it would certainly be interesting to compare her amount of votes if she were to be nominated for SPOTY again. 

The World Cup-winning women’s cricket team won Team of the Year at SPOTY but the history of the awards shows how rare it is to see a solo cricketer such as Shrubsole do well, the last cricketer to place being Andrew Flintoff in 2004. The ICC Women’s World Cup was broadcast live for the first time last year with Sky Sports holding the rights, a great step forward, although not entirely mainstream.

News also recently broke that Shrubsole will become the first woman to appear on the cover of the annual of the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack, often referred to as the Bible of Cricket. Perhaps as the media catch up to speed with these progressions the public will begin to follow suit.

Anya Shrubsole appeals with success for the wicket of Punam Raut during the ICC Women's World Cup 2017

As SPOTY is awarded to the biggest personality in sport it doesn’t always relate directly to the person with the biggest achievement, and the media can hold influence in other ways aside from the broadcasting of particular sports.

With Mo Farah retiring mere months before the awards he was always the likely winner and appearances on non-sporting programmes such as The Graham Norton Show have given him an extra platform.

Athlete Jonnie Peacock, the face of Paralympic sport, appeared on Strictly Come Dancing as the first ever disabled contestant. It is surely no coincidence then that he finished in third place at the ceremony, having garnered more fans from the popular entertainment show, although his achievements on the track are definitely worthy of public votes regardless.

Jonnie Peacock appears on Strictly Come Dancing

The media can also hold the key to minimising chances with Lewis Hamilton and Chris Froome finishing in sixth and seventh place, the awards held amid tax evasion and doping rumours respectively. More was probably expected from a four-time Formula One world champion and a four-time winner of the Tour de France, especially as they garner large viewing figures. Both men did still position higher than the women though, none of whom had any unsavoury rumours circulating about them.

So can we deduce whether or not the SPOTY award outcome was a result of voting sexism or the fault of the media for their underrepresentation of females in sport on mainstream television? It’s hard to say for definite, but no matter your opinion, we would all benefit from seeing more females on the sporting screen as well as a wider range of sports themselves. 

The media still has a long way to go in terms of addressing this complex issue and giving females the credit they deserve for their sporting achievements but for now, it seems understandable that the British public would not vote for female sporting stars when they have not been made eligible for star status by the media.

Moving forward we can only hope for a level playing field with women, and minority sports, given the coverage that allows the public to vote on a fairer basis, a concept hopefully not too far into the distant future.


Feature image: Bianca Walkden (L) and Jade Jones of Great Britain pose with their medals before a Rio 2016 Victory Parade for the British Olympic and Paralympic teams