Why did no women make the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 shortlist?

By Cressida Smart

Upon reading the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, many were shocked.  No women had been included.  However, in all honesty, how many can name the sports that women have excelled in this year, let alone any of their names?  I doubt they roll off the tongue.  It would be foolish to demand women be included or suggest a quota for the fairer sex. Instead, it would make better sense to identify the reasons why this situation has arisen.  Two spring to mind – the lack of media coverage awarded to women and the apparent cross-section of magazines and newspapers who submitted shortlists.

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award is given to the individual whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination in 2011. Going by this criteria, it is understandable that women have struggled to make the shortlist.  The public are incredibly ill-informed of the achievements by of women in sport and appear to have little interest.  That lack of interest may be true, but it’s encouraged by a culture that doesn’t value or promote female sporting achievement. The line often bandied around that “next year will be different” because it’s an Olympic year is simply ridiculous, because it emphasises the point that women’s sport gets such a limited amount of media coverage as a general rule.

The media coverage of women’s sport is simply appalling. Only 2% goes to women, with 5% in a good year, according to the annual study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. Did you know that English rugby players beat the Kiwis recently? Perhaps you were aware that England had reached the finals of the last three World Cups? Unsurprisingly the answer would most likely be no, given that women’s rugby tends not to make the news.

Those in charge of sports TV and news coverage might argue that they are simply feeding a demand for a constant stream of male team sports such as football, rugby and cricket. However, this simply isn’t true. England Women’s World Cup quarter final against France was watched by a peak audience of 3.2m in the UK and the final between USA and Japan was the most tweeted-about sporting event in history.

Research carried out in 2010 also shows that 61% of sports fans would like to see more women’s sports. So why aren’t they being covered? Money doesn’t help. A report from the Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport shows that only 0.5% of all sponsorship in the UK goes to women’s sport. The most recent example is the British Women’s volleyball team which is struggling to secure a major sponsor. Furthermore, less than 10% of sports journalists in Britain – writers, subs, photographers and broadcasters – are women, according to Sports Journalists Association research, a lower proportion than in any other area of journalism.

Aside from the coverage and positive publicity our sportswomen deserve, the benefits beyond are numerable. Much is made of the apparent battle to identify role models for girls and yet sport has them in copious amounts. Yet culturally, this nation appears to have a block; the dropout rate for girls in sport when they hit adolescence is huge. In the United States, sporty girls get their college education paid for and female sports stars grace Vogue and appear regularly in other magazines and on TV shows. Sporty girls are cool, not freaks or geeks and are figures to aspire towards.

Evidence suggests it does just that – 61% of girls surveyed by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation agreed that watching successful sports stars inspired them to get involved. Currently, just one in 10 14-year-old girls do enough exercise to maintain their health, compared with one in five boys. So when the sports minister Hugh Robertson promises a “legacy” of greater participation in sports he could actually score a direct hit by showing girls that women compete in sport and win sometimes, too.

What of the 27 “experts” contacted by the BBC to nominate the Personality of the Year?  The BBC, while doubtless delighted at the publicity boost to an ailing flagship event, was quick to elude blame, noting the shortlist was drawn up by the sports departments of 27 newspapers and magazines. However, they must bear some responsibility for the diverse 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, Dimitar Berbatov and the retired Manchester City midfielder Patrick Vieira, two Lancashire cricketers, and a Mancunian swimmer.

Finally, having looked at the media coverage given to women and the judges tasked with nominating a shortlist, a brief mention of those sportsmen who secured a place. Every man on the list is a success, that point is undeniable. However, glancing down the list, Amir Khan and Andy Murray’s inclusion seems at odds with the other contenders. Both have had consistent, but rather unspectacular years and yet there is no place for the world champion rower Kath Grainger or the world champion swimmers Keri-Anne Payne and Rebecca Adlington or even any of the British rugby team, who certainly fared better than their male counterparts. There is naturally room for the argument that only those in high profile sports will be included and the most successful female athletes this year have been in less popular sports. In other less known and publicised sports, men have made tremendous achievements yet have not made the list.

Ultimately, the issues at stake are the lack of media coverage and therefore the public’s perception that has prevented no woman appearing on the shortlist this year. We should be celebrating the accomplishments of our sportswomen and looking to them as role models for young girls. As we approach the 2012 Olympics, never has there been a better time to accept and embrace further the successes of our women. Failing to would make a mockery of the 2012 legacy and challenge the notion of the UK as a great sporting nation.

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