A week ago, to much fanfare and national intrigue, BT Sport released landmark research illuminating the true depths to which elite female athletes feel body confidence issues effect their day-to-day lives. Vital, insightful and depressing, it opened the public’s eyes to what many had surely suspected – that astoundingly talented female athletes feel that in the spotlight talent alone is rarely enough. Moreover, it stood as clear testament to BT’s avowed commitment to women’s sport.
However earlier this week, to far less herald, BT Sport also announced a one-off replacement in their co-commentary team for one of the weekend’s FA Cup ties. No big deal, under ordinary circumstances. But in this case, the co-commentator in question was Andy Gray. And so, yesterday evening, Gray lined up in the commentary box for Everton’s 4-0 victory away to Stevenage. Gray, for his part, was erudite, insightful, informed and a world away from the trademark banality that usual commentator Michael Owen has made such a usual part of the BT broadcast.
But Gray is also the elite commentator banished, along with fellow commentator Richard Keys, from the Sky airwaves in 2011 having been caught making horrifically sexist remarks against linesman Sian Massey and ‘First Lady of Football’ Karren Brady. And this is where, for all that Gray is expert at his job and a natural person to whom a sport broadcaster might turn, BT Sport have erred horribly if their commitment to women’s sport is to be more than mere lip service.
It has been convincingly suggested that forces beyond punditry alone are at play. Since last year and subsequent to his very public humiliation in the UK, Gray and his similarly banished commentary partner Richard Keys, have been stationed in Qatar fronting Al Jazeera’s Premier League coverage (funny, no, that they’d decamp to a country with no danger whatsoever of bringing women into the world of sport?). Since their departure from Sky – at a time where the corporation was the undisputed champion of football broadcast in the UK – the media landscape has altered drastically. Sky, suddenly, don’t own the monopoly over the country’s most commercially valuable sport broadcast. Everything is up for grabs.
Under these circumstances, the notion of a partnership – no matter how informal or nascent – between BT and Al Jazeera begins to make serious economic sense. Just months after blowing Sky out of the water with a mammoth bid for the Champions League broadcast rights, the potential (in no way, and at no point, even suggested by either broadcaster) of a shared bid or broadcast partnership for the largest Premier League rights packages at the next tender would be a serious statement of intent for both corporations. While Gray’s appearance yesterday may be only the smallest of steps towards such an ultimate goal, it is a step nonetheless.
This, sadly, is where BT Sport’s stance on women’s sport finds itself caught. There is little doubt that the broadcaster’s commitment to championing women’s sport is real, nor that it has put in place significant investment to bring LTA, the FA WSL and other aspects of women’s sport to a wider audience. But cut to the heart of BT Sport and you won’t find a sport broadcaster – you’ll find a global telecommunications corporation with bottom line results the lifeblood that sustains it. Considered in these simple terms, what chance does a strong moral stance or commitment to equality have?
This, though, is another discussion. For now, the simple fact is that BT Sport’s stance on women’s sport is contradictory at best. At worst, it is vaguely sinister. And while the broadcaster should rightly receive plaudits when it demonstrates positive intent, it deserves to be held firmly to account when it blunders. And make no mistake, economic factors or otherwise, BT Sport has blundered. We await their next steps with interest.
Image from theguardian.com – thanks!