Female athletes shine

There is a myth that the relative lack of media exposure of women’s sporting events is due to a gender gap in ability, writes Alex Chapman.

When Brea Sutton first donned the blue and red for the Melbourne Cricket Club’s first female squad, she anticipated walking onto the pitch to applause and cheers.

As she made her march to the middle of the field at Albert Park Cricket Oval, Sutton says she felt as proud as she had ever been. She was surprised by the smattering of claps from less than a dozen parents.

The MCC introduced two women’s teams in 2012 and a third in 2015. Sutton is proud of their achievements.

“Me and the girls are like a family, I’ve travelled with them and I’ve been on the pitch with them, we’re really tight,” Sutton says.

There is a myth that the relative lack of exposure of women’s sporting events in Australia is due to a gap in quality between male and female athletes.

But that’s all it is: a myth.

While sport has evolved into a mass of events that test physical, mental and strategic skill regardless of gender, the male-dominated games still draw the largest crowds.

Cheltenham Baseball Club ran an advertisement headlined “A sport where it’s OK to throw like a girl,” in an effort to inspire potential players to take up the sport. Club secretary Dave Holland said the message was in place to “encourage girls to pick it up, not to single them out as a minority group”.

This might not be needed, judging by the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that 64 per cent of women participated in sport as a recreation.

Despite this interest, female athletes put up with ignorant comment and cricketer Brea Sutton says she has been told “you throw like a girl”.

“You get pretty sick of it,” she says. “it’s a stupid cliché. “I know that gender is besides the point. I throw better than my brother, just like he does other things better than I do.”

In a significant development for female sports in Australia announced recently, the Australian netball ANZ Championship is due to expand next year with more free-to-air airtime for Australian teams and, most importantly, says junior netballer Christy Hosking, involvement with local sporting academies.

Hosking, 18, has been studying for two years at SEDA, a tertiary institution that takes students doing their VCE studies and offers connections with employers in the health and sporting areas.

She is hoping to achieve success in Australian netball, having been given the opportunity to train alongside the Melbourne Vixens netball team.

“I’ve been honored to meet real netballers and idols of mine that made me get into sport in the first place,” says Hosking who  hopes to study physiotherapy after completing a diploma at SEDA.

“I think girls aren’t really encouraged to play sports, you see on TV male sports have more air time than female sports, and with that it makes girls believe sport is a male thing and that only males get praised for their efforts and achievements.”

Netball Australia recently announced a TV deal with Channel Nine which will ensure netball is seen live and in primetime on Australian free-to-air TV from next year.

Hosking says that media perception has a big impact. “Every little girl needs someone to look up to. I was lucky that my mum used to play and take me to her games. But if you don’t have that idol, it’s just going to be so hard to get kids, boys and girls alike, getting into sports.”

Female sport has recently been in the limelight with the achievements of the gold medal-winning Women’s Rugby Sevens team at the Rio Olympics.

Hosking’s teammate, Sam Van Haaster, said parental involvement is also an important factor. “Younger girls do a lot more all rounder sports with boys like footy and cricket and that, but as they get older I think the parents become more worried that the girls are going to get hurt or sexualised so they get pulled out of those types of sports,” says.

“It’s the same with netball and stereotypically female sports. I know my dad didn’t want me to play netball because of the uniforms we had to wear, he thought guys would perve. I think this is a major thing with protective parents.”

Van Haaster persisted with her sporting and now plays netball for Baxter Netball Club, while studying a bachelor of health science full time at Victoria University.

“I couldn’t imagine not playing,” she says. “I’ve gotten hurt, which could be another reason girls shy away from sport, but I’ve never gone a week without looking forward to getting on the court. Even when I’m so busy with work and uni I’ve got to find time for sport because it’s going to be my priority.”