The aim of my research
No elite level women’s team sport has been successfully commercialised in Australia. Politicians and sports administrators tend to blame the media for that failure. Former Sports Minister Lundy calls it a vicious cycle, poor media coverage makes it almost impossible for women’s sport to attract sponsors, which limits the revenue available for developing a sports entertainment product, and prevents (most) women from earning a living wage as professional athletes. I don’t want to minimise that argument, but I wonder if it hides a problem with the way our National Sporting Organisations are governed. I researched Basketball Australia to find out.
The 1940s-1950s – it’s a man’s world!
In this period men were breadwinners, working to provide for their dependent wives and children. Women were housewives, dedicated to maintaining the family home and raising children. Not surprisingly, basketball was developed as a game for men, and controlled by men. Women, when they were eventually allowed to play sanctioned basketball, played ‘men’s rules basketball’. While Basketball Australia agreed that a women’s committee could organise competitions, it was men who controlled the high profile duties, deciding whether a women’s team would compete in the world championships, national team selections, organising state championships, and communicating with the international administrator FIBA, including the International Women’s Commission.
The 1980s-1990s – were sisters really doing it for themselves?
It looked like the women’s movement of the 1970s had changed things. Men and women were playing basketball in equal numbers, and Basketball Australia had approved an elite level women’s competition. The President of Basketball Australia was saying the right things too; “The Women’s National League…is equally important as the Men’s League” (1984 Annual Report) and, “our sport has to be progressed in the Women’s and Men’s sectors on an equal basis” (1985 Annual Report). But there was nothing equal about it. While the Men’s League (NBL) was promoted for its athleticism, sex appeal was used to market the Women’s League (WNBL). The athletes wore lycra bodysuits, and promotional material displayed the curved lines on a basketball as a female body. In exchange for decent venues and broadcasting equipment, the WNBL also became the opening act for the NBL. Women’s basketball skills were made invisible through distraction and comparison.
The Annual Reports explain the different motivations for establishing the elite leagues. The NBL was there to build a profitable and professional national sports entertainment product to showcase basketball (1984/85/88). While the WNBL was there as a feeder league to; “assist with the preparation of the Australian national teams” (1993). Basketball Australia was supporting Australian, rather than Women’s, basketball.
The 21st century – deja vu!
Contemporary feminism’s focus on gender diversity, to challenge traditional hierarchies of power, looked to have been embraced by Basketball Australia. Female directors, including as Chairperson, and a female CEO in 2012, were a good sign. When you look closely though, the value of that diversity has been constrained. In 2001, the WNBL was subordinated through an organisational restructure. It reported to the Competition Manager, who reported to a General Manager, who reported to the CEO, who reported to the Board, while the NBL Commissioner reported directly to the Board. A legal restructure during 2007-2009 also marginalised the WNBL. The constitution of Basketball Australia made the development of the NBL and WNBL a moral rather than legal obligation, so the ability to influence the Board became important. It defines the WNBL as a stakeholder, and the NBL and State Associations as voting members. That means that the NBL, and State Associations, can elect and appoint directors, and guide the strategy, priorities, and budgets of Basketball Australia. While the WNBL can exchange views with the directors once a year.
The implications of my research
This continuous culture of sexism within Basketball Australia makes it appropriate to consider its strategy and decisions in the context of gender. In 2009/10 the Chairperson said, “The key to progressing our sport is through commercialisation…the NBL has therefore been a priority as it is our showcase and our public barometer”. Basketball Australia has actively managed the NBL towards the sports entertainment market. It has worked with the NBL to generate revenue from corporate sponsors; broadcast rights; and merchandising. It manages the NBL on a self funding basis, so all of the revenue is used to develop the NBL’s sports entertainment product and to pay its players. In contrast, Basketball Australia has passively managed the WNBL towards the community market. It has focused on sponsorships that reduce the cost of running the WNBL rather than those that raise revenue; it encourages an amateur ethos, emphasising loyalty, and the prospect of lucrative overseas contracts, rather than paying players a living wage; and it depends on free media publicity rather than funding promotion. Basketball Australia has effectively gendered the sports market, to the detriment of the WNBL.
Change change change?
Focusing on the media’s discriminatory treatment of women’s sport is therefore unlikely to result in the successful commercialisation of the WNBL. Basketball Australia’s culture and governance also need to change. Maybe change is on the way – here’s what Basketball Australia said a few weeks ago about its plans for the WNBL. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
For the different techniques of domination and control experienced by women’s elite sport:
Hjelm, Jonny, and Eva Olofddom, ‘A breakthrough: Women’s football in Sweden,’ Soccer and Society, 4:2-3, (2003), pp.182-204.
Stronarch, Megan, and Daryl Adair, ‘‘Brave new world’ or ‘sticky wicket’? Women, management and organisational power in Cricket Australia,’ Sport in Society, (Vol.12, No.7, September, 2009), pp.910-932.
Taylor, Tracy, ‘Gendering Sport: The Development of Netball in Australia,’ Sporting Traditions, Vol. 18 No.1, (November, 2001), pp.57-74.
For an analysis of different kinds of sports market spaces:
Stewart and Aaron Smith, ‘Australian sport in a postmodern age,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, (17:2-3, 2000),pp.278-304.