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Women celebrating after a game of netball

Attack proves the best form of defence for netball in the battle for gender equality

321 days after the New South Wales Swifts defeated the Sunshine Coast Lightning to become the 2019 premiers, the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season was finally underway and, by any measure, things could scarcely feel any different.

When the first centre-pass came, there was a limited, physically distanced crowd inside Nissan Arena to watch a determined Queensland Firebirds challenge the Sunshine Coast Lightning, currently the dominant force in Queensland netball, in the first game of a season that looks likely be played exclusively in the sunshine state.

There were rolling subs for the first time, which injected further excitement, talent and youth into the competition, whilst the controversial Suncorp Super Shot also made its debut.

In keeping with the nature of the sport, netball’s leaders and administrators had moved quickly and dynamically; they had pivoted and adapted to ensure elite netball could resume its rightful spot in the Australian sporting landscape.

However, a preview in The Age’s TV guide in the immediate lead-up to the season had many rolling their eyes and feeling like ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

That The Age had predetermined netball, and its broadcast on Channel 9, worthy of a two and a half star rating was somehow the least concerning of a preview which included the line: ‘Once just for schoolgirls and workplace bonding, this is now a full glamour sport for many.’

One of Australia’s leading experts on gender in media, sport, and popular culture, Dr Kim Toffoletti, Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University and member of Deakin’s Centre for Sport Research, is uniquely positioned to see comments like these in their broader context.

‘This is another example of a sustained and long-standing history of devaluing women’s sport in the media,’ says Dr Toffoletti, who is also an integral part of an extraordinary group of female academics that make up Deakin’s Women in Sport and Exercise (WISE) hub.

‘There are many quantitative studies that demonstrate how much less coverage women’s sport gets than men’s sport – often less than ten percent – and even when it is covered, the quality is often poor.’

What struck many about the seemingly throw-away line in a television guide, in particular, was the language – the way women’s sport was being talked about was extremely uncomfortable.

'This is another example of a sustained and long-standing history of devaluing women’s sport in the media.'

Dr Kim Toffoletti,
Associate Professor of Sociology, Deakin University

But what exactly created that reaction and sense of discomfort?

‘There are a range of strategies that we see time and time again, which the media uses to maintain a particular view of men’s sport as legitimate sport and women’s sport as somehow inferior,’ says Dr Toffoletti.

‘More adults in Australia play netball than cricket or Australian rules football (AusPlay, Sport Australia) yet, before a pass had been made or a shot had been taken in the world’s best domestic competition, the sport had been ascribed less value – just two and a half stars. We’re effectively being told that it’s not worth watching.’

‘This is a classic example of women’s sport being marginalised, but in the copy that follows, it is trivialised and sexualised too. It’s rare that someone manages to do all three in one short sentence. It’s astonishing, really.’

When it comes to gender equality in sport, Australia has taken huge strides in recent years, with the 2020 ICC Women’s T20 World Cup the standout success of this year. So, when faced with challenges like this, it can be easy to feel downhearted.

However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we should work hard to identify the silver lining.

In this case, it came in the form of a brilliant rebuttal from Puma, a sponsor of the Melbourne Vixens, and a powerful season preview from Channel 9’s Wide World of Sport. Assertive content that emphasised women’s athletic qualities, skills and capabilities.

‘It was a weekend to celebrate the players, who have been incredible ambassadors for Australian sport in a year of previously unimaginable challenges. So, as well as seeing the teams back competing, it was amazing to see netball reclaiming its place at the centre of Australian life through dynamic, engaging content and robust dialogue,’ says Dr Toffoletti.

There’s no doubt that it’s time for the Australian media to change the game when it comes to its coverage of women’s sport. Netball has certainly proven capable of standing its ground and owning the narrative.

So let’s hope, as the soundtrack to the Wide World of Sport season opener suggested, the dog days are over.

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Dr. Kim Toffoletti
Dr. Kim Toffoletti

Associate Professor of Sociology, Deakin University

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