Sports documentaries and films are on the rise and there seems to be more of an appetite for this type of visual content than ever before.
With on-demand streaming services making it all the easier to consume sports documentaries one after the other, and the COVID-19 pandemic starving people from attending live sport, the acceleration in the popularity of factual sports films has been rapid over the past couple of years.
Amazon’s video streaming service, Prime Video, has been leading the way with sports docuseries recently. Their ‘All or Nothing’ series have given sports fans unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall access into the action behind the scenes at some of the world’s best sports teams, from the training sessions to the half-time dressing room team talks.
So far, the All or Nothing series have focused on ten different teams, including Manchester City, Philadelphia Eagles and the New Zealand All Blacks. They also have three more in the pipeline for release later in 2021.
Yet not one of these 13 series has included a women’s sports team at its epicentre.
The closest to the All or Nothing concept covering a women’s team is the popular BBC series revolving around West Ham United Women. It detailed the trials and tribulations of a women’s football team in England, giving exposure to the players and their personal lives. But the main pull of the show was its title: Britain’s Youngest Football Boss.
And you guessed it, Britain’s youngest football boss wasn’t a woman. The primary focus of the series was not women’s football – it was Jack Sullivan, the 19-year-old son of the billionaire and joint-chairman of West Ham, David Sullivan.
The premise of the show is that an inexperienced teenager, helped by nepotism, is given the reigns of a professional women’s football team. Apparently, undermining women athletes makes for good TV.
Looking past Prime’s All or Nothing docuseries, there isn’t much more to celebrate in regards to Amazon’s women’s sport content in terms of quantity. It wouldn’t be hard to squeeze all of their documentaries on female athletes or women’s teams into one day of watching.
That isn’t to say that the quality of these documentaries is lacking.
Serena, for instance, gives viewers unparalleled insight into one of Serena Williams’ most important seasons in 2015. It follows her for a year through the highs of winning the first three majors to crashing out of the US Open and ending her chances of the elusive calendar slam.
The layers behind the player are peeled back as we see the intensity of her training regime, the dedication of her team and an emotive discussion around the racial abuse experienced throughout her career.
Williams is certainly one of the greatest athletes to have ever graced the sporting landscape and rightly deserves to have documentaries made about her, as do all the greats of sport – regardless of gender.
Yet when you scroll through the lists of sports documentaries and films, the majority of the titles include the names of male athletes. And with the greatest respect, when you consider the sheer amount of these types of documentaries, there’s not enough room for all of these male athletes to be thought of as the best.
They might all have interesting stories to share, but so do women – where are their voices?
Of Netflix’s 37 ‘Original’ titles under the ‘Sports Documentaries’ category, only four focus solely on women in sport. You could perhaps add Cheer, a series about the female-dominated sport of cheerleading, and the mini-series Losers where two of its seven episodes centre upon women.
When these Netflix Originals are examined further, it isn’t only the scarcity of content that is worrying. The shortage of footage within them is also a concern.
Athlete A is the only one that reaches the hour mark in duration. Ladies First – a film about Deepika Kumari, a female archer – does well to get slightly more than 30 minutes. Ultramarathon runner Lorena Ramírez is the subject of a 28-minute video, while Little Miss Sumo gets a mere 19 minutes of air time.
Diving even deeper, all four of those titles focus on one of two things. It is either the barriers they have to overcome due to their own country’s culture, in the instance of Lorena: Light-Footed Woman, Ladies First and Little Miss Sumo. Or in the case of Athlete A, a documentary which investigates abuse in USA gymnastics, it is the culture existing within the sport.
These documentaries are important to highlight the issues in women’s sport, and the additional hurdles that women athletes have to jump over to achieve success should be recognised. But where is the celebration of female athletes for just their sporting accomplishments? Why are their stories only deemed worthy if they have to conquer obstacles which are external to the sport itself?
This narrative is epitomised in the names of these films. Bar Athlete A, the other three Netflix Originals illustrate perfectly the patronising tendencies of filmmakers to use gendered terminology to drive the story. It is something we see across the board when it comes to women’s sports documentaries. Girls, Women, Ladies – it’s almost like we have to be reminded of their gender, that they are already a peculiarity in sport.
There are very few that celebrate the individual. Serena and Venus Williams have been deemed iconic enough to have more than one documentary. It seems there is also a space for films about women in combat sports, with the likes of Katie Taylor and Ronda Rousey adding to their filmography section on Wikipedia.
But all too often the sport’s category on online streaming platforms is dominated by men. Even finding one that isn’t male-orientated can be difficult – you have to deliberately search for films on women’s sport. They don’t tend to be front and centre of the home page and you end up scrolling to the depths of the site to find films featuring the female sporting experience.
It isn’t as if there are not as many successful women in sport, or that they don’t have interesting stories to tell. As alluded to previously, women do generally have more barriers to overcome when they are trying to make it in sport – this should give filmmakers more of an incentive to bring their experiences to life.
The crux of the problem is, like most things, money. Sport is controlled by money and the majority of it is possessed on the men’s side of things.
As women have traditionally always struggled for funding and publicity in sport, men’s sport and male athletes have been given precedent and the male side of sport drives the revenue that these film production companies want, leaving women’s sport as a second-best product struggling to catch up.