On Saturday, confirmation of Ireland’s qualification to the semi-final round of the IRB Women’s Rugby World Cup was followed by this tweet from RTÉ’s 2FM:
While increased coverage in Irish media of women’s sport is welcome, is it really satisfactory for the state broadcaster to announce radio-only coverage half-way through a major international tournament?
Could we even imagine a world where this would be the kind of coverage given to the senior men’s rugby team?
I’ll try to respond to Damien in this post, since 140 characters isn’t nearly enough.
To give credit where it is due: RTÉ News’ sport bulletins have improved over the couple of last years – to go so far as leading with reports on the women’s squad, even before the recent New Zealand win; and there has been consistent coverage and reporting of the Irish women’s rugby squad’s achievements from the likes of Damien O’Meara and Game On 2FM, RTÉ’s Michael Corcoran, Mary White of The Irish Examiner, Gavin Cummiskey of The Irish Times, Dan Sheridan and Billy Strickland of Inpho, the photojournalists of Sportsfile, and precious few other Irish journalists.
Indeed, reporters are more often than not present at fixtures and events.
The question is whether or not Irish eyes can fix on moving images of women on a playing pitch: through the medium of television. Will a report or footage end up on the cutting floor; and if a piece is published or broadcast, just what treatment will it get?
We can only judge on what has gone before, so let’s work back from this latest tournament.
In total there have been six matches broadcast live on Irish television channels. Ever. (Seven, if we include the Sky Sports 5 broadcast of England v Ireland in the 2010 World Cup. That will rise to a dizzying eight once the Ireland v England World Cup semi-final goes to air this Wednesday.)
This year’s IRB Women’s Rugby World Cup campaign follows Ireland’s third-place ranking in the Six Nations competition earlier in the year, and involves many of the players and staff who are the 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam Champions.
Following Ireland’s qualification for the World Cup, the IRB draw for Pool placings took place in October 2013. The draw, broadcast live online from Paris, revealed the tough task that Ireland would face the following August: their Pool, Pool B, was quickly named The Pool of Death.
Did the draw receive coverage on Irish broadcast media? It did not.
When the match schedule was announced in April of this year, did this receive coverage? No. Or was the fact that one of the referees appointed to officiate at the tournament, Helen O’Reilly, is from Ireland deemed newsworthy? Even though all of this information was being press released by both the IRB and the IRFU? No again.
It was only in late July – 17th July – that TG4 announced that it would be broadcasting World Cup fixtures (albeit only Ireland’s pool fixtures, plus the semi-finals and final):
The IRB’s official broadcast schedule was published on 25th July, six days before the start of the tournament.
After Ireland’s historic triumph over New Zealand, TG4 reported a viewership of 250,000, peaking at 122,000 as people got home. This compares to 1.5m people in France tuning in for the hosts’ game against Wales.
Why is it only now that RTÉ are talking about (radio) coverage? Did RTÉ even bid for the rights to broadcast the IRB Women’s World Cup?
As with previous tournaments, during the 2014 Six Nations – where senior men, senior women and under 20s boys fixtures are all played around the same time – each one of the senior men’s fixtures were broadcast by RTÉ. Each of these received pre-match build-up, and half-time and post-match analyses.
Also as in previous years, of the boys’ fixtures, all home games were broadcast live on RTÉ television.
The IRFU’s live stream of Ireland v Wales was also carried on rte.ie. Only two of the women’s games were broadcast live on television: England v Ireland from Twickenham, and Ireland v Italy from the Aviva.
Attending the men’s and women’s games against Italy, I also noticed the stark differences at the venue. No pyrotechnics for the women. No Garda or Army band to accompany the national anthems, but rather a recording which played out over the PA system. All of the steadicams had vanished, leaving only the fixed cameras (down by the sideline at the half-way point and up above from the stand) and hand-held cameras along the sidelines.
The advertising around the Six Nations competition featured only imagery of the senior men’s side, and only made mention of the television broadcast of the senior men’s fixtures. Information on the matches of their counterparts in the senior women’s side were omitted entirely, including the Ireland v Italy fixture at the Aviva and the England v Ireland fixture from Twickenham.
With the assistance of a media student friend, members of the Ireland women squad had to make their own video to promote their fixture in the Aviva.
The Aviva fixture attracted a crowd of at least 5,500, while the number of viewers of the game on RTÉ News Now are not known.
The 2013 Six Nations followed a strong performance from Ireland the previous year. As it transpired, the team made history, winning the Triple Crown, the Championship and ultimately the Grand Slam.
Some footage of the women’s fixtures it ended up on RTÉ’s Against the Head, the regular Monday night round-up. Invariably, however, the programme focuses on the senior men’s fixtures. Time and again, the roughly two-and-a-half minute summary of the women’s games is tacked on after the U20s boys.
The IRFU provided live streaming of home fixtures from Ashbourne RFC, where the quality was patchy. On the morning of Ireland v Wales, the RTÉ Rugby Twitter account announced that the stream would also be carried on rte.ie.
The following week (half-way through the tournament), shortly before midnight on 10th February, the same Twitter account announced that Ireland’s remaining three fixtures would be broadcast on RTÉ’s 24-hour news channel and online.
Three days later, this was changed to say that the England v Ireland fixture would be shown on RTÉ Two (again with a Twitter announcement).
After the team won the Championship at home against France on International Women’s Day, in front of a crowd that included President Michael D. Higgins, the possibility that Ireland might secure a Grand Slam victory in Italy on St Patrick’s Day was tantalising.
It was only after this, that RTÉ again scrambled to televise (on a flagship channel) the Italy 3-6 Ireland fixture which saw the visitors slog through mucky and icy conditions in a suburb of Milan to seal their historic win. Less than four days before the Grand Slam decider, RTÉ announced that it would show the game on RTÉ Two. The announcement boasted that this would be “the first time ever that an Irish Women’s rugby match has been broadcast live on Irish television.”
Viewing figures for that broadcast are not known.
Apart from the stalwarts mentioned at the beginning of this piece, not that many people were aware of Ireland’s exploits until Gavin Cummiskey reported a major cock-up in organising the travel arrangements to France for the Six Nations away fixture in the town of Pau. That morning on TV3, Shane Byrne made clear his feelings on the matter, and all hell broke loose.
Online petitions were set up. Members of the squad suddenly started appearing on national television, trying their best to shift the focus away from overnight train journeys and onto their sport.
Having sought and obtained media accreditation to cover Ireland’s home games in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, I was suprised that I was very much not alone. Despite the near-zero coverage in the media, there were cameras from Sky Sports News preparing packages for the evening’s bulletins; RTÉ had an outside broadcast van and camera at each of the games; and I was competing with professional photojournalists for space.
Where was all this information going? All that video, audio, stills, words. Where is it now?
When I walked into a well-known Dublin sports bar one Tuesday evening, gaggle of friends in tow, and asked for the Rugby World Cup to be put on the blank TV screens, the patient barman expressed a look that seemed to say, “Bless her. She’s a year early, poor thing.”
To his uncontainable surprise there was indeed a rugby world cup being shown on Sky Sports: “Oh, women’s rugby!”
He was not alone in his surprise that evening.
In my efforts to give some coverage to women’s sport – in this case, rugby – for Gaelick.com (and with no resources, never mind any institutional support from a media organisation), I literally had to scour the internet for any little nuggets of information. Bios? Nothing. Stats? There were none. Players’ caps? No information. Player physiques, pack details, play-by-plays, comparisons with previous team encounters? Forget about it.
Writing two lines of information on a player could have been the product of a couple of hours of research. It was invisibility made real.
A note: You may have noticed that, other than the 2010 and 2014 World Cup events, the timeline here refers only to Six Nations competitions. That is because, until July of this year and unlike the senior men, the senior women’s team has not had any test fixtures outside of international tournaments.
Prior to the current World Cup, Ireland had two warm-up fixtures in Malahide, one against Wales and one against Spain.