Female TV sports presenters in a league of their own

BBC Super League Show presenter Tanya Arnold. (Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe).
BBC Super League Show presenter Tanya Arnold. (Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe).
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Super League Show host Tanya Arnold talks to Chris Bond about the challenges facing female sports reporters on TV.

for Tanya Arnold Saturday afternoons when she was growing up meant one thing - Grandstand.

For many people, watching the BBC’s flagship sports show was as much a weekend tradition as Sunday roasts and going for a drive in the country. But while the likes of David Coleman, Des Lynam and later Steve Rider became household names to millions of viewers, female presenters were conspicuous by their absence.

Apart from trailblazers like the much-missed Helen Rollason, who became the first female presenter of Grandstand in 1990, there were few role models for sports fans like Tanya to look up to. “I knew I wanted to work in sport but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I could do and I don’t know whether that’s because there weren’t lots of women doing it, or because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says.

Role models or not, Tanya has become a familiar face on BBC’s Look North over the past 17 years and since 2012 she has hosted the popular Super League Show, which returns to our screens on Monday. She took over the reins from Harry Gration and admits that when she first started covering the sport she had to be a quick learner. “You can’t be up here [as a sports reporter] and not do rugby league. But the people who cover rugby league tend to have grown up with it and I hadn’t really, so it’s been a bit of a learning curve.”

But she says she was helped in those early days by people like Brian Noble, the former Bradford Bulls and Great Britain coach, and is hugely grateful for their support. “I’ve worked across a fair few sports now and I have to say I have found Rugby League an incredibly friendly environment to be in.” Some people might assume it’s quite a macho environment but she says that’s not the case. “It sells itself as a family sport and I think it’s a lot less macho than football.”

Today, the likes of Sue Barker, Clare Balding and Gabby Logan have helped pave the way for a new generation of female sports reporters, commentators and pundits. However, she feels there’s an onus to prove to other people that you’re up to the job and to yourself. “I interviewed Eleanor Oldroyd when I was doing my postgraduate training. We’re going back a few years and I doubt it matters to her now, but I remember her saying if she covered a football match for Five Live she would pick up the newspaper the next day to make sure she was right.

“You have to learn to trust yourself because maybe you’re more conscious of the ‘what do you know, you’re a woman,’ type of criticism. I think looking back there was a bit of that and also you have days when you don’t want to be the only woman in the room.”

One of her first roles after becoming a sports reporter was covering Leeds United as they returned to playing in Europe in the 90s, which she admits she found a daunting prospect initially. “The press pack that followed Leeds scared the living daylights out of me, but actually they were lovely and really supportive. Peter Lorimer was an absolute gentleman in terms of helping me out and just making me feel at home. So in that respect I think I was very lucky because if they’d had the knives out for me it would have been hard.”

But while the glass ceiling has been cracked it hasn’t yet been completely smashed. Jacqui Oatley, who cut her teeth as a Radio Leeds reporter, caused a bit of a rumpus in 2007 when she became the first female commentator on Match of the Day. It shouldn’t have done, but it did.

Female sports reporters can find themselves being questioned in a way their male counterparts don’t. “She [Oatley] did an interview with Arsène Wenger the other day and there were articles being written about the fact she was a woman asking these questions.” It’s something that understandably irritates Tanya. “I’ve been doing this a long time and Jacqui’s been doing this a long time and I think there’s an element now for a lot of us where we feel we just want to be allowed to do our job.”

She says that women are still being criticised for the way they look, the clothes they wear and even the way they talk. “I get abuse about the fact I’ve got a deep voice. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink vodka and I haven’t had a sex change. It’s just who I am and what I have - can we just move on?” she says, laughing almost out of exasperation.

But while she can shrug off taunts aimed at her, she’s more concerned about the effect it could have on her family. “Social media can be a cruel and nasty beast and what upsets me more is the idea that my son might read it, although he seems to be coping quite well,” she says.

This kind of casual sexism isn’t just confined to sport, though. “Whenever there’s a reshuffle of MPs they still discuss what the women are wearing when they walk into Downing Street. Really? Have we not moved on from that?”

Despite these frustrations does she regard herself as a role model to girls who might want a career in sports reporting? “I hope so. You might have to have a thicker skin at times and as a woman you have to deal with stuff that a bloke doesn’t have to deal with, but I think also there is a feeling now that we can do this.”

* The weekly Super League Show returns on Monday at 11.45pm on BBC One in the North of England, and is repeated across the UK on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 1pm.