The Right to be Fierce: The Portrayal of Female Athletes

Growing up as an Aussie kid who loved her sport, I actively sought out female athletes to aspire to. As a netball devotee from age 8, posters of the Sydney Swifts - competing in the then Commonwealth Bank Trophy - adorned my walls, and my major goal in life was to become a Goal Defence as great as Liz Ellis. 

The Liz Ellis thing didn’t quite work out*, but fast forward to today and my passion for sport still permeates my personal and professional life. Which is why I have watched with keen interest as female sport, and the portrayal of its athletes, has significantly evolved - for the better.  

*Unfortunately my short legs didn’t agree with my ambition and I was relegated to the mid-court in Under 11s. But I’m not bitter. 

 

The Right to be Fierce

As a female who spent her life playing what has traditionally been known as a  ‘girl’s sport’ – I have long felt the need to justify the effort, skill and finesse of female athletes. I have also been hugely frustrated by the need to down play the aggression and competitive nature of my sporting heroes. Kathryn Harby-Williams – one of Australia’s best defenders and member of the Australian Netball Hall of Fame – was often critiqued as “dangerous” and “reckless” rather than “competitive” or “tough” (qualities that are heralded as some of the greatest attributes in male athletes). 

But a shift in perception is gaining momentum, and there is no greater example than the direction Netball Australia has taken with the launch of the Suncorp Super Netball. 

In May last year Netball Australia announced the dissolution of the Trans-Tasman Netball League (ANZ Championship) and in its place, a new premier national netball league. 

In November, Netball Australia introduced Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) and with it, a brand that was far removed from the friendly and safe tone of its predecessor. The SSN website launched with stark, gritty, extreme close-ups of the game’s marquee players and the phrase “all on the line”. 

Out with the old Image via Melbourne Vixens

Out with the old

Image via Melbourne Vixens

In with the new Image via Netball Australia

In with the new

Image via Netball Australia

With Round One yet to take place, Netball Australia has already made a powerful statement about the league and the quality and dedication of the athletes that will compete. 

Netball has always been played with this level of tenacity - the Diamonds of the 90s never took a backwards step – but this is the first time the national governing body has celebrated this competitive aggression in such a bold manner, and I for one, am rejoicing.

 

So how is this affecting the sponsorship landscape?

 

This changing perception of female athletes and growing interest in women’s sport is not isolated to the game I love – it is happening across codes and on a global scale – and savvy brands are both driving and celebrating the change.

P&G set the tone in June 2014, with its compelling Like a Girl campaign, that has since attracted over 80 million views and provided the foundation for an ongoing campaign encouraging young women to participate in sport and have confidence in their abilities. 

Since that time, P&G has also featured Ronda Rousey in a Pantene campaign titled Don’t Hate me Because I’m Strong with the MMA legend declaring that “strong is beautiful”. 

Ahead of the Australian Open, Berlei has launched another content piece with its ambassador Serena Williams, with the empowering phrase #doitforyourself, with Williams citing the campaign as  “Celebrating our female strength, power and beauty.  We need to take time for ourselves, invest in ourselves, and be strong.”

Closer to home, rebel, as Naming Rights partner of the WBBL, launched a content series titled rebel women aimed at inspiring young women to play cricket. The content features a player from each of the WBBL teams, profiling their unique journey, the challenges they have overcome as a female athlete and their passion for the game.

Image via rebel

Image via rebel

A New 'Normal'

A cynic could argue that the novelty of women’s sport and representing female athletes in this light will eventually wear off – as the fanfare that accompanies the launch of new leagues wanes and gives way to established competitions.  

But I like to think that we’re just getting started (we’ve still got a long way to go) and with any luck by the time my daughter is lacing up her netburners, she will be surrounded by campaigns putting fierce, confident, powerful female athletes at the forefront. 

Feature Image via Essentially Sports