Not too long ago, talking about professional women’s sports would be the same as talking about professional hide-and-seek today. It was something that people did for fun, but that was trying to fit in somewhere it just didn’t fit in. Now there are emerging women’s professional leagues in football, basketball and hockey, to name only a few sports.
Not too long ago, thinking of a woman anchoring a sports news show, or having a woman in a men’s locker room was laughable. Now, not only are they hosting shows or in the locker rooms, they are even on the sidelines and in the announcer’s booth.
Things are improving for women in sports. Athletes and reporters alike are seeing their lives change for the better. Whether it is more access for the reporter to get her story done, or an extra article about the star player of a women’s team, things are steadily improving but there is still an issue. And, most likely there will always be some issues about the place of women in what is a male-dominated industry. The world of sports.
On the air
Andie Bennett is the only female reporter at The Team 990, the only all-sports radio station in Montreal, one of the cities, if not the city in the world that loves its hockey the most. She was hired after Cathy Newton left her post on the drive-home show Melnick in the Afternoon.
“I was always a sports fan, but I was never the person to keep track of statistics or who won the championship in this year or that year,” she said. “I played baseball and softball as a kid so sports interested me.”
“I was lucky in the sense that there were already women in this business,” Bennett said. “And sometimes it’s an advantage because players will tell you things and open up to you instead of a crusty and bitter old man who could have been critical about him or the team before,” she said.
She said that being a woman in sports journalism makes it easier to make a name for yourself.
“There is a smaller pool of women,” she said. “Knowledgeable and smart women are few and far between so if you are that, it’s easier to be known.”
She also talked about the increased efforts to hire women at sports stations.
“Especially on television, you never see unattractive women,” she said. “Sideline reporters wear some pretty revealing things sometimes, so by just hiring women you are setting yourself up to possibly be exploited because there is definitely more emphasis on looks for women as compared to men,” she continued.
Bennett said that most of her problems with fellow reporters comes more from being a rookie than being a woman.
“This is a really competitive business,” she said. “So when you have scrums, there is a lot of elbowing,” Bennett said.
On the ice
Lisa-Marie Breton and Les Lawton are two of the three coaches of the Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team. Breton is also Concordia’s strength and conditioning coach. She works with every team whether it is men’s or women’s. She also plays for the Montreal Axion in the National Women’s Hockey League and played for Lawton as a Stinger. She was named to the QSSF all-star team in 1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2001-02 and is a former captain of the team. She was also named Fittest Female Athlete at the Concordia Athletics award banquet in 2001-02.
Theresa Humes was instrumental in bringing women’s sports to the forefront at Concordia. The former athletics director and member of the Concordia Hall of Fame forced the administration to make sure the women athletes at Concordia had the same opportunities as the male athletes. She made major changes to the university’s program in the mid-1970s until the early 80’s. Every year, Concordia holds a women’s hockey tournament right before the start of the Winter semester that bears her name.
Breton thinks that the physical aspect and the level of commitment is what has changed the most since she started playing hockey.
“There is definitely more money involved in women’s sports at all levels,” she said. “The girls also train harder, work harder and are taller,” Breton continued. “The coaching and refereeing has also developed to the point where there are almost exclusively female referees.”
The fact that women athletes have taken training to a new level is in the annual Concordia Athletics awards. In the 15 years that the Fittest Female Athlete award has been given out, it has always gone to a women’s hockey player. Lawton said that until recently, the women’s hockey team was the only team to train together off-field. All teams now have training for conditioning purposes.
What has been done and what needs to be done
One of the major problems with the media’s coverage of women’s sports is the ‘sex sells’ philosophy in order to promote their games. The example of a certain Russian former tennis player is one that shows that the media would rather ogle at the looks of a female athlete to promote the sport than to focus on an athlete that actually won something.
“The media really lucked out with Maria Sharapova because she actually is a great tennis player,” Bennett said. Sharapova is another Russian tennis player who had several hundred sponsors at her door, but only after she won the prestigious Wimbledon major. “Athletes work very hard and have the same training programs whether they are hot or not,” she said commenting on how looks shouldn’t be the first criteria for the type of female athlete the media focuses on.
“I think the coverage the media gives women athletes is unfair, because men don’t have to take off their clothes to get more attention,” she said.
Lawton, who has just started his 24th season as Concordia’s women’s hockey coach can attest more than anyone the changes in women’s sports.
“The biggest change is the way that people look at women’s sports,” he said. “It used to be looked at as a social thing but it has since gotten more competitive and the athletes are more serious about it,” he said.
“I’ve seen a change in the amount of media coverage we get,” Breton said. “Our attendance is also increasing,” she added. The Axion are drawing close to 150 people a game, which is the largest audience the team has had.
“The most important thing is knowledge, to get people to know that there is a team, get them to watch it and get to enjoy it,” Breton added.
“I feel that women’s sports are not treated well by fans,” Bennett said. “Both men and women don’t watch women’s sports for whatever reason. Men’s and women’s sports are marketed differently right now,” she said.
Lawton felt that it will take some more time.
“Women’s sports are younger than men’s sports right now,” he said. “Women’s sports has already gotten to the point where there is more excitement, more commitment and a higher skill level, but the skill level isn’t to the point where the general fan would be attracted to it,” he said.
Having more female coaches would also be an important step. In the United States, most women’s sports coaches are female, but at Concordia, for example, every women’s team has a male head coach.
Both Breton and Lawton think that is something that is changing before our eyes.
“There is still room for male coaches in women’s sports,” Breton said. “But there is definitely a need for more female coaches,” she said.
Lawton was more assured.
“I would almost guarantee there will be more women coaches of women’s teams in the next five to 10 years, maybe even female coaches of men’s teams,” he said. “But it goes farther then just hiring someone because they are female. They will need certification, and they will need some experience,” he said.
Lawton added that Hockey Canada is trying to convince former Team Canada players to think about coaching once they retire from playing. Something Breton has also thought about.
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll be a head coach one day,” she said with a smile.