There will be more women than ever before broadcasting to British homes from Russia
In 2007, when Jacqui Oatley became Match of the Day’s first female commentator, one tabloid newspaper greeted the news with the headline “From Motty to Totty”, which the paper’s own football writer called “an insult”. The fact that a journalist had got a new job, in a field she had worked in for years, was suddenly front-page news.
However, 11 years on, when Oatley appears pitchside on Thursday for the opening game of the World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia, her presence won’t merely be unsurprising – it will barely be remarkable.
Oatley is just one of many female presenters, pundits and commentators who will ensure that more female voices are heard in the UK from this World Cup than ever before. On the team with Oatley at ITV the reporter Seema Jaswal and the England striker-turned pundit Eniola Aluko.
On the BBC, Gabby Logan – a longtime occasional presenter of Match of the Day – Gary Lineker, while former England and Arsenal defender Alex Scott is among the pundits and the experienced football reporter Vicki Sparks will become the first woman to commentate at the World Cup.
Meanwhile, the former England striker Kelly Smith features again for Fox Sports as a “soccer analyst”, and the Argentinian journalist Viviana Vila will cover the competition for the Spanish-speaking US sports network Telemundo Deportes.
Does any of this matter? Hugely, argues Anna Kessel, the co-founder of Women in Football, which recently persuaded Twitter to create an emoji for the #WomeninFootball hashtag to raise the visibility of women in the game. “It’s absolutely massive,” she says. “One of the biggest barriers to women in football is this archaic idea that women don’t understand the game, but viewers are going to see these incredible, talented women who are knowledgable and natural.
“When boys and girls watch this World Cup and they see these amazing women on their screens, that totally changes their expectations of what women can and can’t do. Blimey, that’s huge.”
Oatley agrees, although believes that a cultural shift has resulted in more women in football broadcasting roles, rather than the other way round. “Why would you not tap into that experience, expertise and insight that those women have, especially when you are thinking about the diversity of your audience,” she says. “They are not all white males sitting on sofas back home. Its a case of TV companies and radio reflecting that, it’s not rocket science.”
Which is not to say everyone in the audience will be appreciative. Threats and abuse are depressingly common – police were forced to investigate threatening letters sent to Oatley. But the casual sexism she regularly receives is more often batted away with sanguine smarts.
While covering Euro 2016, a Twitter user suggested she should be at home cooking the dinner, rather than presenting football. She responded: “Sorry – bit busy doing my dream job but I’ll make you a custard pie when I get home, pet.”
This year she tweeted a pithy response to Ken Tomlinson, who had written to the Sheffield Star to complain about the number of women – “by at least, on some occasions, as many as six women reporters” – on the BBC show Final Score.
Oatley responded: “Dear Ken, terribly sorry to ruin your afternoon but there will be 4 female reporters out of 20 on Final Score today (incl @suesmith8 with 93 England caps) but, thankfully for you, none in the studio. So enjoy Radio Sheffield. Love, Jacqui x PS most of your facts are incorrect.”
But the environment for women and girls in football is improving all the time, says Final Score and Match of the Day regular Robyn Cowen. “Jacqui took a bullet for us,” she says. “I think the BBC learned from that, and they have been nothing but supportive to me – and hopefully the generation coming after me will have it even better.”
Anyway, such critics are swimming against the tide, argues Oatley. “In another 10 years it will just be the norm, and we won’t be having this conversation,” she says. “You’ll have men working in the women’s game and women working in the men’s and that’s all it will be: just football.”