‘There’s transformation in women’s coverage’
Barbara Slater joined the BBC in 1983, 10 years after women were allowed to play on official football pitches after a 50-year ban and years before their matches were televised.
More than three decades later and the BBC’s first female head of sport is to announce that the corporation has won the rights to broadcast the 2019 Women’s World Cup, having seen off competition which has “never been tougher”.
Much of this is owing to the success of the England team, first in the 2012 Olympics when 80,000 people filled Wembley for the final and then in the 2015 World Cup. “The Lionesses were not just on the back pages but the front pages too,” says Slater. “No one is going to claim that it is yet a level playing field [with the men’s game] but if you look at the trajectory of audiences, it is on a spike.”
Within minutes of sitting down for this interview Slater, who is responsible for 20,000 hours of BBC sports programming, is flicking through charts on her iPad revealing that the UK audience for the Women’s World Cup more than doubled from 5.1 million in 2011 to 12.4 million in 2015.
Although small when compared with the men’s competition, which attracted 41.7 million viewers, more people watched the World Cup in which the home team reached the semi-final than watched the men’s Open Golf Championship when it was last shown live on the BBC. “And you would definitely consider that a crown jewel event,” Slater says of the golf, which is now shown on satellite rival Sky.
The comparison is apt, as the government is expected to table an amendment to the digital economy bill on the issue of listed events legislation which ensures that big national sporting events such as Wimbledon, the FA Cup and the Rugby World Cup remain on free-toair televisions.
Women’s football and national sporting moments governed by the listed events legislation are in many ways key to understanding how the BBC aims to survive in an increasingly competitive market for sports content, particularly at a time of dwindling budgets. Slater’s support for women’s football is not just about equality but the economics of broadcasting.
In a cafe near BBC headquarters in London, Slater laughs when asked whether the BBC can ever win back live Premier League games, admitting that the corporation is going to struggle to compete with “huge super inflation in sports rights”.
The BBC’s continued success in the area essentially consists of providing highlights packages of popular sports, more alternative sports and continued protection for showing major national sporting moments such as Wimbledon and other listed events.
As Mathew Horsman, director of the consultancy Mediatique, points out: “Listed events are important for the BBC. Without [them] it would be a pretty dire set up.”
Which is why Slater, head of the department since 2009, has written in support of changing the way listed events are defined. The BBC has urged the government to amend legislation that insists qualifying free-to-air broadcasters reach 95% of television audiences in order to be given priority to show listed events. Given the number of homes watching on devices other than their TV is increasing, even the BBC is likely to struggle to meet the 95% by the end of the current parliament.
Unless the government reduces this statistic, Slater believes listed events will “die by default” with the major ones going behind paywalls operated by rivals such as BT and Sky. The BBC would like to see that “effectively the reach that you achieve is considered”, a statement likely to annoy commercial rivals such as Sky.
If the government wants major sports to reach a broad audience it has to act, she says, citing the fact that 7% of TV coverage of sport shown by traditional broadcasters attracts 60% of the audience, largely because of listed events.
Women’s football is a perfect example of this, she says. When the English team did well in 2015 it attracted a new audience. The statistic she returns to again and again during our interview is that 48% of the 12.4 million audience in 2015 had not previously watched any women’s sport.
Each new convert to the game “changes the status quo”, she says. “If you look at the transformation that has happened in women’s football I think it’s an emblem of the way women’s sport has been covered more generally.”
Asked about continued sexism in sport, she says: “I would always go to the positive. I would go straight to those governing bodies that are doing a tremendous job in this space, such as the [authorities] rallying behind women’s football.”
If positivity were an Olympic sport, Slater would be in with a chance to win gold. She rattles through a whole list of sports - from cycling to the boat race to tennis - where women are cheered as much as men.
How about continued pay inequality or even examples such as Premier League club West Ham refusing to pay for the women’s team kit? “There is genuinely change in the air on this. Those sorts of things are less tolerated … I am not for a minute pretending that we have got a level playing field but it shows the momentum that is being made.”
What about BBC commentator John Inverdale referring to Marion Bartoli as “not a looker” three years ago, when Slater was in charge? “He apologised at the time. It’s live broadcasting.”
Surely she has suffered herself as a rare senior woman in sports broadcasting? “I’ve been in the industry a long time. It is transformed. If you said when I first joined as an assistant producer that there would have ever have been a woman in my position I would have laughed at you.”
Greg Dyke, former director general of the BBC who dealt with Slater, is full of praise having worked opposite her when he headed the FA. “Certain people wouldn’t have liked the idea of having a women heading sport and she has proved them wrong,” he says.
Her father was a professional footballer and Slater admits she was taken more seriously as a broadcaster because she had “earned international stripes” as a gymnast - she competed in the 1976 Olympics something that she does not believe would be necessary now. “The doors are open now. There isn’t anything that would stop someone with the commitment, the talent and the hard work getting to any position. In my view.”
Really? “That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be hurdles,” she adds in a voice which still has a trace of her Birmingham childhood.
The campaign group Women in Sport launched a campaign before the International Women’s Day that called for more women in board and executive positions in sports’ national governing bodies. Slater says women already makes up a third of its new board in sport and a third of its staff. She did once reportedly describe Gary Lineker as an example of a great female presenter to MPs.
Responsible for moving the BBC department to Salford since staring the job 2009, Slater is also relentlessly upbeat about the future of sport on the BBC describing the roster of games as “a pretty impressive portfolio ... given the super inflation we’ve seen in [sports] rights”. The BBC will show the Olympics and Wimbledon until 2024, and the World Cup until 2022.
From women’s football to the Olympics, the BBC increasingly realises that it cannot provide blanket coverage. Women’s football is split between the BBC, BT Sport and British Eurosport in the UK with subscriber-based BT Sport owning the rights to show the FA Women’s Super League on TV.
The BBC also had to subcontract the rights to the Olympic Games from 2022 onwards after the US broadcasting giant Discovery, owner of Eurosport, signed a £920m exclusive pan-European deal.
“There are many rights we would love to have but can’t afford everything and it’s as simple as that. We’ve got to be realistic.”
“Partnerships, creative rights deals are the way forward. You can’t just put your head in the sand and look backwards.”
Slater is realistic about the BBC winning back live Premier League games, pointing to the ‘huge super inflation in sports rights’. Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Logo of the 2019 Women’s World Cup