In the last fortnight, while the eyes of sports fans and writers were focused on the Rio Olympics, management at SBS quietly shelved SBS Zela, the site focused on women’s sport, which was launched in January this year.

The decision was a huge blow to fans of women’s sport. Zela is one of the few sports media outlets in Australia that puts women at the centre. As a contributor to the site, I’m disappointed that I’ll no longer be able to write some of the stories Zela is so great for, introducing us to women who are thriving in parts of sport you may not have known about. But as a sports fan, I’m devastated: in seven months, Zela has become an irreplaceable part of my sport media diet.

The site isn’t perfect, and it is still finding its voice. But it filled an important gap in the Australian sports media landscape. Given the tremendous support the dominant male sports have enjoyed from public media over the years, the decision to cut one of the few projects attempting to, in a small way, address that imbalance is unconscionable.

There is often a tendency to treat our sporting culture — dominated by the men’s team sports of rugby league, rugby union, AFL, soccer and cricket — as somehow a working-out of the natural order, as though those games are inherently better. But the history of sport tells a very different story. It is exceptionally difficult for sports or leagues to break into new markets. Our dominant sporting culture was established more than 100 years ago, and while the makeup of the leagues has changed, essentially the same institutions are in operation.

These institutions have benefited, and continue to benefit, from substantial public support. The major sporting codes receive substantial direct and indirect funding from all levels of government, whether it’s through direct funding for programs or indirect funding for stadiums and training facilities. Broadcasting sporting events can both directly fund sport (through TV deals) and indirectly offer support (through coverage). In deciding to cut women’s sport coverage, public media helps to perpetuate Australia’s overwhelmingly male sporting culture.

The one sport that isn’t a legacy sport that has been able to establish a mainstream presence, soccer, has done so with substantial support from public media coverage. SBS has devoted valuable resources over decades to covering the sport (though mostly the men’s game), even while it remained on the margins of Australia’s sporting culture.

The only way for women’s sport to thrive is with the same kinds of support, especially from public media.

[Media waltz right past Matildas, showering loser Socceroos with love]

In a year when women’s sport made huge leaps — the unexpected success of the women’s Big Bash League, the announcement of the women’s AFL league, and the success of the Matildas — traditional media has been slow to keep up. If there’s one clear takeaway from the response to Eddie McGuire’s “joke” about drowning Caroline Wilson earlier this year, it’s that our sports media still has a long way to go before it treats women with respect. Our sports media and sports culture remain a haven for sexism and exclusion. SBS Zela not only challenges that culture but also lends its power and platform to those who do as well. While it doesn’t level the playing field entirely, it at least reduces the gradient.

Zela doesn’t just challenge the centrality of men’s sport in Australian sporting culture: it also broadens the types women who get the spotlight. Dispensing with the idea that only conventionally attractive, straight, white women attract attention, Zela has routinely told the stories of athletes who don’t fit in that box, and those stories have been some of their most popular. By putting diversity at its core, Zela has done something no other sports media outlet in Australia is doing.

Freya Logan is the co-host of the Follow Sports Like a Girl podcast, and late last week she started a petition to save SBS Zela.

“I thought it was important both to show that people actually cared about SBS Zela and that cared about its continuance and the continuance of funding,” she told Crikey. “It’s also as a way to get people to notice that it was being wound back.”

Like many others who were disappointed with the decision, Logan sees supporting women’s sport as the responsibility of publicly funded media.

[Why are female athletes paid so little?]

“I really think that if our public broadcasters aren’t going to lead the way when it comes to discussing women’s sport, and other aspects of sport, who’s going to? There’s not as much of a commercial imperative to do so, because everyone says ‘oh, women’s sport makes less’,” Logan said.

“Overall, that’s probably true. There is less money in it. But that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable. And with coverage comes more sponsorship and more interest. I just think the public broadcasters have a real responsibility to actually do that, because they’re the only ones who can at the moment, or would want to.”

The role of public media isn’t just to replicate commercial media, it’s to do things that commercial media can’t or won’t.

For roughly the cost of airing a single English Premier League game, SBS could choose to keep Zela going. And only one of those things clearly fits within the remit of a public broadcaster. The other, I’m sure, would happily be assumed by one of the commercial networks. After all, after enjoying the support of public media what it was in its growth phase, soccer has now cemented its place in our sporting culture.

If only women’s sport could enjoy the same opportunity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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