news

2016 was the year we finally woke up to women's sport.

Can you see it?

The tide, turning?

The swell of fierce, strong, gutsy women? Tall and short, wiry and wide, all different backgrounds, and all kinds of socio-economic statuses, all showing us what their bodies can do, more than what their bodies look like?

They’ve always been there, of course. Except now, the blinkers are off.

Welcome to 2016. And the year that Australia finally woke up to women’s sport.

Cricketer Danielle Wyatt signs autographs after the Women's Big Bash League match. (Getty)

2016 was the perfect storm

For decades, women's sports coverage has been a chicken and egg situation. Was women's sport in Australia neglected because it couldn't get decent commercial media coverage? Or would the media not cover it because it was seen to be neglected? It wasn't for lack of brilliant athletes - world class competitors were there, they were just buried in the very back pages or on the ABC at weekends.

It was only last year that the state of women's sport in Australia was considered a 'tragedy'. An Australian Sports Commission report found horseracing got more airtime that women in sport. Women featured in only seven percent of sports programming, even less than a decade ago, and some of the Matildas — our world class soccer team — scrubbed toilets to pay the bills.

But something finally clicked in 2016. The battle that women had fought for coverage and legitimacy, finally started to turn.

Perhaps we have Netball Australia to thank. When no one would broadcast women's sport, they took the bull by the horns in an expensive and risky marketing move which saw them paying TV broadcasters' production costs themselves, just to show the sport on television. It paid off, and in May this year they signed a five-year deal with Channel Nine that will see Saturday night live double-headers broadcast on free-to-air TV.

Netball Australia nailed it with this inspiring ad, too. (Post continues after video.)

But I think the huge upsurge in women's sport in 2016 has one major factor:

The male-dominated sports of Football and Cricket have swung their enormous cultural and financial weight behind women's leagues. Both are cultural gatekeepers for a nation obsessed with sport. And through their actions, they've lifted the perception of the women's game in the minds of the public, of the media, and of the corporates who sponsor it.

It started with the Women's Cricket on Channel Ten in January. Interestingly, it wasn't scheduled to be on there initially. The exciting BBL games started out on digital channel, One, but big ratings, and big hitting women, saw the network move it to prime time.

ADVERTISEMENT
Meg Lanning leads the Stars out to field during the Women's Big Bash League. (Getty)

Meanwhile, over at the AFL, the wheels were turning on a landmark decision: a women's league for the most revered sport in the country.

Six years ago, the AFL commissioned a report into the state of women's football around the country. It recommended a women's league; not one that stood alone, but one that was joined at the hip with the men's clubs. The men's clubs, they reasoned, had the infrastructure, resources and branding. They had an industry worth half a billion dollars. They had the power to engage across a very broad community in Australia.

So in 2013 they started building the women's league, slowly.

Early exhibition matches proved wildly popular.  The AFL saw "spectacular growth". And so CEO Gillion McGlaughlin seized the opportunity and they fast-tracked the league, bringing it forward by three whole years. And that was big.

AFL player Katie Brennan leads the pack during Western Bulldogs training session. (Getty)

Because a male dominated sport, a monolith at the coalface of Australian culture, lifted the perceived status of women's sport to their level.

Listen to Monique Bowley and Alicia Sometimes from the Outer Sanctum AFL podcast discuss the significance, here:

And you know what this fast-tracking AFL move towards women almost perfectly coincided with?

The Olympics.

An Olympics where the women ruled. Where an insane thirst by the media for positive, feel-good, heroic sporting models elevated women to be the chosen ones.

They were the flag bearers (Anna Meares). They were the first gold medallists (Catherine Skinner). They were the first Australian team to ever win the Rugby Seven's gold medal. Outside of our national scope, they were Katy Ledecky, the fastest swimmer on the planet, Simon Biles, the adopted gymnast who can jump twice her height, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S woman to compete in a hijab.

The Australian Rugby Sevens. (Getty)

Then straight off the back of Rio came was the televised AFL Womens' All Star Game.

In which any detractors of the idea were quickly silenced by a television audience of 1.05 million viewers.

Now, there's the whiff of a competitive atmosphere among sports fighting for a share of the women's market. Alongside this, is the visible increase in female sports reporters.

At The Age newspaper in Melbourne, there's as many women as men on the sports pages. We've had Emma Quayle, Samantha Lane and Caroline Wilson consistently report brilliantly on the game. Kelli Underwood, who became the first woman to call an AFL match on television in 2009 will spearhead Fox Footy's coverage.  From the NRL Footy Show's co-host Erin Molan, Rebecca Maddern joining the AFL footy show in Melbourne, and Mel McLaughlin anchoring Channel 7's sports news, the playing field is starting to level.

ADVERTISEMENT

My favourite moment of the year, though, was at Wimbledon in July when Serena Williams corrected a reporter who asked about her being one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Her response:

My boss Mia Freedman always says 'you can't be what you can't see'.

But here we are. Seeing women playing sport on prime time TV. Positive, kick-arse role models for a generation of girls whose eyes fall towards models Karlie Kloss and Gigi Hadid, or try to emulate Kylie Jenner's lips.

And yes, I sound desperately grateful for a movement which has already exposed pay disputes and dodgy contract conditions. There will be more battles to fight.

But the blinkers are off. The momentum is here. 2017 will bring The BBL on Channel Ten, the Netball on Channel Nine, the AFL on Channel Seven. Even the women's basketball, which has languished without a major sponsor or a broadcast deal this season, secured two games to be broadcast on Channel Seven in WA.

Can you see it? Yes. Just turn on the TV and watch the tide.

Monique Bowley is a former WNBL basketballer and the host of Mamamia Out Loud, the weekly podcast with what women are talking about. To see all our podcasts in one place, go here, where you'll find all of our shows.  

00:00 / ???