Tuesday 6 December 2011

SPOTY - It's not about the BBC

There's been a lot of furore over the lack of women featured on the nominations list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).
Twitter has been virtually ablaze with fiery emails from female sports pundits and personalities, while others have branded the BBC as disgraceful and called on women to boycott the show.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed at the sight of an all-male shortlist, especially given that some of the men listed, eg Andy Murray have never won a major tournament, while the likes of four time World Ironman Triathlon champion Chrissie Wellington did not get a look in. True also that Sarah Stevenson should have been given credit for her inspirational victory, winning the World Tae Kwon Do championships shortly after losing both her parents to cancer a short time before (maybe she will honoured with the Helen Rollasson award). I could go on....

But let's look more closely at the situation. In its 58 year history BBC SPOTY has had 13 female winners (including ice dancer Jayne Torvill). Swimmer Anita Lonsbrough was the first woman to win this accolade in 1962, and Zara Phillips was the last female to win the award, back in 2006.

Every year there have been female nominees. I am therefore not in a rush to brand this award scheme as sexist when women have had a history of being recognised and celebrated in the BBC SPOTY awards. This year is the first time ever that no female sports star has been nominated under the current voting system. This year is showing as the anomaly.

Of the panel of editors from 27 publications 10 (The Independent, The People, The Irish Times, Metro, Evening Standard, Nuts, Daily Post, Western Mail, Daily Star Sunday, and Zoo) did not vote for a single woman. The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Voice fared best by each voting for 3 women.
Rebecca Adlington received 6 votes, Keri Anne Payne had 5 and Chrissie Wellington got 3. After that there was a spread of various names mentioned - Jessica Ennis, Sarah Stevenson, Victoria Pendleton, Kath Grainger, Shanaze Reade, Hannah England, Stef Reid and Nicola Adams.

People have been outraged that the nomination panel included editors from Nuts and Zoo magazine. According to a spokesperson from the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation a woman would definitely have been among the nominations if these strongly male dominated publications had not been on the panel, and women's sport magazine Sportsister had been included.

She may have a point. Boxer, Amir Khan, who is among the shortlist of nominees received just one vote more than Rebecca Adlington. But then again, why should we be worried about such and such a publication. Is it not a question of attitudes and awareness?

In the past, people like Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes, Liz McColgan, Princess Anne and Fatima Whitbread have all been presented with the famous television camera shaped trophy.

What else do these women have in common? They all took part in sports which already had a high profile (apart from Princess Anne, who is high profile). So when the editors of the various publications have to submit their nominations they will automatically think of women in high profile sports - names that are already in the public consciousness.

Sports like triathlon and tae kwon do not quite fit that bill, let alone the names of the people who take part - still less the folks in these sports who could be dubbed sports personalities! Note that no male athletes from these sports made it onto the shortlist either.

The work to nominate a sportstar for the SPOTYs needs to be done a long time beforehand - at least before the request for nominations reaches the editor's desk. The role of the sports federations, governing bodies and sports marketing PR companies needs to be called into question here.

Nominations are made on the basis of the diet the editors and public opinion has been fed over several months - even years.
Cyclist Mark Cavendish appears to be a favourite among the nominees this year. It is only really this year that he has become a household name - despite claiming many victories in the Tour de France and in other major cycle races over the last 3 years. In fact it has only been in the last 4 years that the general public have renewed their interest in cycling as a sport.

In short, the most notable achievements by women sports stars this year have either been in minority sports or sports that do not have such a high profile.

Furthermore, the athletes in question have not been backed by a significant publicity machine.

Without these key elements athletes like Keri Anne Payne, Rebecca Adlington or Chrissie Wellington would not be absorbed so readily into the public consciousness.

So, let's look at those high profile sports that the general public follow - tennis, athletics, cycling, football, cricket, rugby, motorsport, golf, boxing. Have there been any outstanding performances by British women on the world stage in these sports this year? Tennis? absolutely not! Motorsport? Golf? Cricket? Cycling? Victoria Pendleton failed to keep her sprint title at the World Track Cycling Championships despite being the favourite. Nicole Cooke finished outside of the medals at the World Road Race Championships. Football? The England ladies made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup this year. A little disappointing considering they had high hopes - speaking of which, Hope Powell must surely deserve manager of the year for being the longest serving manager of a national football team in the Britain. Boxing? Interestingly Nicola Adams received one vote from the panel of editors. Athletics? Jessica Ennis literally threw away all hopes during the heptathlon. But hey, Hannah England won silver in the 1500m. The England women's rugby team, under their impressive captain Maggie Alphonsi beat the All-Blacks twice this year - a feat that their male counterparts can only dream of, and would have filled column feet of the back pages. But the public barely heard a peep out of the sports writers regarding the achievements of the rugby girls.

So, women's versions of these sports do exist. But there's just not that much coverage of it.

Which leads to another very important point - investment in women's sport. A recent report by the Commission on the Future of Women's Sport revealed that between Janary 2010 and August 2011 UK Sponsorship of women's elite sport was a paltry 0.5% of the total sports sponsorship market. Small wonder that public awareness of women's sport is low.
According to the BBC, the SPOTY award goes to the sports person "whose actions have most captured the public's imagination." It's hard to capture the public imagination if the public is unaware of the actions!

So, if this is the landscape in which women's sport exists, how can you expect to reap a healthy crop of female SPOTY nominations when it is ultimately down to a handful of esoterics and experts on minority sports to come up with some names?

It is not wholely down to the BBC to change prevailing attitudes. There needs to be a concerted policy across all quarters to shift public opinion of women's sport in general. Investment, sponsorship, greater support from sports federations, and a joined up communications plan.

Meanwhile, the BBC stands to gain out of this polemic. As a result of the countless comments and analyses on SPOTY, this award ceremony which was previously perceived as a dreary, cringeworthy display of mutual back-slapping has instantly become a cool, must-be-seen-at gig!

Who knows, as a result of all this talk we may see a change in the nomination patterns. Or might we see something new borne out of this along the lines of the Edinburgh Fringe? An alternative women's SPOTY could be set up which becomes bigger and more coveted than the stuffy bland original! And maybe that would change perceptions.


Bobthebikeman said...

Very well considered piece. I remember going to a sports seminar back in the 1990s when we counted the number of national newspaper sports articles featuring women - very few. Now twenty years on and nothing changes!

2Wheel Chick said...

Well, that doesn't sound encouraging. It's difficult to know what it will take for the powers that be to give greater recognition to women's sport.

Anonymous said...

Super article and it's such a shame that women hardly register at all despite an active pro scene. Communication channels reporting on cycle racing, or covering it on a daily basis, devote very little space to women and there's not even a World Tour for women. Cycling as a word has no gender yet for some reason only 50% of the gender split gets regularly reported.

Promoting, reporting and regularly featuring women's cycling is a golden opportunity for everyone just waiting to happen.