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Sport and the media

Edward Trickett challenges Joseph Sadler for the world championship

Shallard & Co Gibbs, Sculling match on the Thames, June 27 1876, Joseph Henry Sadler, champion of the world, versus Edward Trickett, of New South Wales, 1876, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Sport has been a central part of the Australian experience since the country was first colonised. Press reports of the endeavours of sportsmen and sportswomen played a fundamental role in the way that the developing country viewed and understood itself, and the influence of the sporting media continues to this day.

The early days

When Australian Edward 'Ned' Trickett won the world sculling championship on London's Thames River in 1876, he became Australia's first sporting star. Historian Richard Cashman recounts that:

The news took three weeks to reach Sydney. It was first transmitted by mail steamer to Port Adelaide and was then relayed by telegraph across the nation.
Cashman, R, Sport in the National Imagination, Sydney, Walla Walla Press, 2002, p. 208.

When Trickett arrived home in Sydney, 25,000 people were waiting to greet him.

The first female sporting star to be embraced by the newly federated nation was swimmer Annette Kellerman. In 1902, she won the inaugural swimming event held for women and her achievements continued. In a groundbreaking move emulated by many a sporting star today, Kellerman moved from sport to entertainment. Relocating to Hollywood, she starred in silent films including Neptune's Daughter (1914) and A Daughter of the Gods (1916) and in doing so became 'the highest paid female athlete in the world.' Cashman, R, Sport in the National Imagination, Sydney, Walla Walla Press, 2002, p.228.

How things have changed

Cathy Freeman at the 2003 World Championships

Cathy Freeman at the 2003 World Championships. Image courtesy of the SBS Sport.

As Australia developed economically, so too did technology and literacy rates. This meant that more Australians had the leisure time in which to play and watch sport, and more time to read about it. The first newspaper devoted entirely to sporting news was The Referee, published in Sydney in 1886.

An example of the changing face of Australian sport can be seen in the story of the Melbourne Cup. When the first Cup was held in 1861, 4,000 people watched. In the years following, telegraph and print media across the country popularised the event and by 1881 over 100,000 people were in attendance to witness the running of that year's Cup. By 2003, 'the race that stops a nation' (this has become the term by which the Cup is broadly known in Australia) was broadcast using twenty-five cameras crewed by 120 people. In total, 856 media representatives were accredited to cover an event that was transmitted to a potential global audience of 700 million.

The sports we watch, read and listen to

With the development of satellite and pay TV, it is now possible to view a wide range of sports. Despite the choice, it is still the traditional team sports such as football that capture much of the public and media attention.

Debate surrounds the issue as to why certain sports such as netball and soccer receive relatively little media exposure in Australia, especially given that they are Australia's most widely played sports. Heidi Packer, who manages media relations for Netball Australia, believes that in order for netball to develop, 'It is important that our champions be promoted in the same way that the football codes promote theirs.' (Heidi Packer interviewed 17 June 2004).

How the media covers sport

Just how important sport is in Australian society is illustrated by government legislation to keep certain events, such as the Olympic Games, on free to air television. Other events on this list include the Australian Open tennis tournament and the Australian Masters, also known as the 'Mastercard Masters' golf tournament.

One of the most popular events on television each year is the Bathurst Motor Car Race. Over two million people watch the race on television and cameras ring the track to capture the action from every angle. Cameras are also placed inside the cars and a helicopter circles overhead relaying images back to the broadcast control room. Gerard Doyle from Channel Ten Motorsport explains that constant efforts are made to get drivers to take their helmets off when not at the wheel, 'We really want the public to get to know our stars, and it's hard to do that if you don't know what they look like!' (Gerard Doyle interviewed 17 June 2004).

Aboriginal stars

From Lionel Rose to Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Cathy Freeman an important aspect of the media's coverage of sport has been the way in which it has allowed the community to recognise the outstanding contributions of Indigenous Australians to Australia's sporting history.

Evonne Goolagong in a singles final, 1970.

Mike Brown, Miss Evonne Goolagong (Australia) bends to reach a ball during the final singles against Miss Virginia Wade (Britain) , 1970, photograph: b&w. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Sports media outlets

Online websites such as Sportal offer instant sporting updates. Newspapers such as The Courier Mail and The West Australian continue to cover sport in great detail.

All commercial television, radio and public broadcasters offer significant sporting coverage as well.

SBS television provides viewers a wide range of sporting choices with an international flavour. Over 1.5 million Australian homes are now connected to pay TV services. These broadcasters offer dedicated sports channels such as Foxsports that not only focus on the more popular sports, but also present traditionally less well covered sports such as snow boarding and surfing.

With the introduction of digital broadcasting in March 2004, the choices for viewers utilising these services are increasing exponentially.

Sport and celebrity

In developments that Annette Kellerman would well understand, the reporting of sport has expanded across the media spectrum to include what would, in a previous era, be termed 'variety shows'. Programs such as the Footy Show on the Nine Network have made presenters Eddie McGuire (prominent Australian Football League figure) and Paul Vautin (champion National Rugby League player) national celebrities.

And it doesn't end there: stars from a wide range of sports have moved beyond the boundary lines of their chosen sport out into the general media. The skills and public profiles acquired during sporting careers stand these individuals in good stead for future media appearances.

Johanna Griggs was a highly decorated international swimmer for Australia; she now hosts 'Better Homes and Gardens' for the Seven Network. Retired Australian Football League premiership captain Mark Bickley had presented the weekend sports reports for viewers in Adelaide, while former Australian cricketer Brendon Julian circles the globe for the Nine Network travel program, 'Getaway'. Former international Rugby player Peter Fitzsimmons has gone on to a highly successful career in journalism and has also produced acclaimed biographies of public figures. Rex Hunt played 202 games in the Australian Football League but is now more famous for his television fishing show than he ever was for his on-field exploits.

The more things change

Despite new technologies used in sports coverage, one of the main sources for news about sport continues to come to us in a form unchanged since July 1932 and the launch of ABC Radio. National Editor for ABC Sport Peter Longman explains:

Despite all the changes, ABC Radio continues to be a major source for sports news. We've altered things slightly in the last few years to emphasise entertainment a little more, but when all is said and done we continue to broadcast to ninety-eight per cent of the Australian population and produce three and a half thousand hours of sport each year. There's something very Australian about driving along an open road listening to your favourite sport on the radio and feeling as if you were right there.
Peter Longman, National Editor for ABC Sport, interviewed 17 June 2004.

Useful links

Sports codes and sports organisations

Australian sporting events

Print references

  • Cashman, Richard, Sport in the National Imagination,Walla Walla Press, Sydney, 2002.
  • Vamplew, W & Stoddart, B, Sport in Australia: a social history, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1994.
  • Headon, D, The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing: a 200-year collection, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2001.

Last updated: 15th February 2008