Female sports presenters are in a league of their own

With the Super League Show returning to our screens next week, Tanya Arnold talks to Chris Bond about her passion for sport and the challenges facing female sports reporters on TV.

BBC Super League Show presenter Tanya Arnold. (Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.)

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.

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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. For the past seven of these she’s also been part of BBC Sport’s rugby league team and since 2012 has hosted the popular Super League Show, which returns on Monday as Leeds Rhinos and co do battle once again.

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.” She points out there’s also a growing band of female rugby league reporters. “There are several female journalists that have been around for a while, there’s Angela Powers and Julie Stott, so it’s not an entirely male-dominated world and it doesn’t feel like that in a way that football certainly did for many years.”

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, as Tanya points out, for a long time female sports journalists often had to plough a lonely furrow. “It was lonely when I started and not just in television. For many, many years at any Press conference I was at I was the only woman there.”

She says there’s an onus to prove to other people that you’re up to the job, but perhaps more importantly there’s a need to prove it to yourself. “I interviewed Eleanor Oldroyd when I was doing my post-graduate 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.

“So it’s almost like 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, even if it doesn’t come at you. 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. Tanya knows Oatley and is full of praise for her. “She schlepped around non-league football learning how to do the job and I have a huge amount of respect for her, I think she’s great.”

Even so, female sports reporters can find themselves being questioned in a way their male counterparts don’t. “She [Oatley] did an interview with Arsene 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 she feels there’s a lot to be optimistic about. “Women’s sport is getting more of a profile, finally, and that is really good for girls growing up. When I was a kid you won’t be surprised to hear that I was a bit of a tomboy and I loved playing cricket, but you had to play with the boys until you reached the age when you couldn’t. If you were a girl wanting to play cricket or football there wasn’t an obvious way to do it and now there is.”

So 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 I still contend that 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.