Women’s football, hope labour and mainstream-independent media collaborations

“I want to question the separation between gender performance and gender performativity, pondering what opportunities would arise if there was an expansion in what is accepted as valid gender acts, regardless of their proximity to the body or Self.

Angela Christian-Wilkes
Deakin University



Angela Christian-Wilkes is a PhD Candidate from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. Her research focuses on the aspirations and motivations of women producing media about women’s association football. She completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Melbourne in 2018, her thesis project focusing on how women’s footballers represent themselves online through sponsored and branded opportunities. Her academic interests align closely with her background in women’s football as a writer, podcaster, player and fan. She can be found on Twitter at @captainangelo.



Australia and worldwide, women’s football (or “soccer”) is shifting from a place of marginalisation to professionalisation (Bowes & Culvin, 2021; Sherry & Taylor, 2019). Sports media is integral to this transformation: media is where football is broadcast, reported on, and promoted. This project asks what aspirations and motivations move women to make media about women’s association football, filling a gap in research addressing why women choose to make media on women’s sport specifically. Current literature on women’s sports media does not account for how different media forms and channels interconnect and overlap. Research often examines spaces of media production in isolation: for example, profiling professional digital journalists (Sherwood and Nicholson 2013) and fan bloggers (McCarthy 2014; 2012) but not documenting porousness between the two. This paper will focus on one way this occurs: the partnering of independent media products with mainstream organisations. Such partnerships present material positives for media-makers, such as increased coverage of women’s sport, the amplification of women’s voices, and the opportunity to get paid. Using Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas Corrigan’s understanding of hope labour, I explore the motivations and labour economies that underpin these independent-mainstream collaborations.



football, sports media, women, gender, labour



Australia and worldwide, women’s football (or “soccer”) is shifting from a place of marginalisation to professionalisation (Bowes and Culvin 2021; Sherry and Taylor 2019). Sports media is integral to this transformation: media is where football is broadcast, reported on, and promoted. Media, especially broadcasting, can now also create returns for leagues and clubs (Abrams et al. 2021). My PhD research seeks to delineate the motivations, aspirations, and material experiences of women making media about Australian women’s football. It addresses a gap in research: why women choose to make media on women’s sport specifically.

Current literature on women’s sports media does not account for how different media forms and channels interconnect and overlap. This paper focuses on one way this occurs: the partnering of independent media products with mainstream organisations. Drawing on my background as a woman who makes media about women’s football and applying Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas Corrigan’s concept of “hope labour”, I consider the how these partnerships are situated within the economies of labour of sports media. Collaborations between independent and mainstream sports media actors provide positive outcomes that align with media-makers’ own motivations. These include increased coverage of women’s sports, the amplification of women’s voices in sports media, and new opportunities for payment and employment. Yet these collaborations are sustained by economies of unpaid labour that persist within sports media production – especially women’s sports media production. In turn, the transformative potential of such partnerships is brought into question.

Australian Women’s Football and its Media

Australian women’s semi-professional and professional football is becoming more visible and more accessible. The Australian women’s national team, nicknamed the Matildas, broke the Australian television audience record for women’s team sport during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, when 1.4 million people tuned in to see them play Sweden (Football Australia Media 2021). They have also broken match attendance records domestically. This occurred most recently in November 2021, with 36,109 people watching Australia play the USA in Sydney (Manuca 2021). This bested the previous record of 20,029 set in 2019 (Green 2019).  

Not only are more people watching women’s football matches, but there are increasingly more matches available for fans and followers to watch. For example, when I began covering the top-tier domestic competition, the A-League Women, as a volunteer in 2015, up to two of four scheduled games each round were broadcast. One of these games would be broadcast on free-to-air television; the second would be accessible with a $40 minimum monthly subscription. In contrast, for the 2022 season, all games played in the A-League Women were accessible via a streaming service costing approximately $10 per month, with one game per round broadcast on free-to-air (ABC News 2021).

Increased visibility runs parallel to increased professionalisation. Much of the gradual improvements for those competing at the top level has been driven by the industry union, negotiating bargaining agreements that include standards for facilities, wages, maternity leave, and health insurance (Odong 2017; Professional Footballers Australia 2021). Since 2019, Australia’s national football teams have received equal pay (Australian Associated Press 2019). The next rendition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup – football’s peak global competition – will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 2023. During the bidding stage for this World Cup, countries emphasised the development and support they would provide to grow the women’s game in their respective regions (Desjardins 2021; Football Australia 2021). Worldwide, the increased market value of women’s sport is used by industry stakeholders to argue for increasing investment (Bohnet and Klugman 2020; Nielsen Sports 2018; “Women’s Sport: Say Yes to Success” 2014).

While women’s football at the highest levels is becoming more visible and more accessible, statistics highlight persistent disparities in the broader media coverage of women’s sport. By researching women who make media on women’s football, this research connects two related problems: women’s athletes and sport are strikingly absent from sports media, and women are strikingly absent from the production of this media. As sports sociologist Toni Bruce writes, sport is a “overwhelmingly male and hegemonically masculine domain that produces coverage by men, for men, and about men” (2013). In Australia, women’s sport and women’s athletes feature in around 10% of mainstream sports media coverage – a figure that has not shifted significantly in recent decades (Bohnet and Klugman 2020; Lumby, Caple, and Greenwood 2014; Siren Sport 2020). Secondly, and similarly, women comprise 10% of sports journalists’ roles (English 2019; Price and Payne 2019).

While current academic and industry reporting highlights women’s marginal presence and participation in sports media as athletes and as media professionals, this data largely accounts for mainstream sports media (Antunovic 2017). Women’s football is covered and reported in ways that would not be captured through quantitative analysis of traditional print and television coverage. Much of this production is done by women, anecdotally suggesting that women participate in greater proportions on the fringes than in the mainstream.

A word on terminology: “Mainstream” here means “broadcasting and publishing run by large mass media organizations for profit or funded by the state” (Harcup 2014). Conversely, “independent” is the opposite: media produced and owned outside large mass media organizations for profit or funded by the state (Chandler and Munday 2020). Using the terms “mainstream” and “independent” here is not to endorse a binary between the two, as contemporary media forms and media producers don’t conform to being strictly either mainstream or independent.

Literature review, methodology and methods

The ways in which media ownership, technologies and practices converge has been given much consideration within media studies (Dart 2014; Deuze 2006; Jenkins 2004). However, previous academic research on sports media production specifically tends to examine one kind of producer or product at a time. Interconnecting areas of sports media production are explored in isolation: for example, profiling professional digital journalists   (Sherwood and Nicholson 2013), bloggers who have been hired by mainstream outlets (McEnnis 2017), and fan bloggers (McCarthy 2012; 2014). The necessity of containing research foci leaves unexplored the overlap and porousness between different forms and channels.

My vantage point has highlighted how women’s football media and its makers span independent and mainstream categories in different formations – unpaid, paid, casual, part-time, free-lance, simultaneously, sequentially. This is also reflected in my own involvement. I started as a volunteer writer in 2015, covering the-then W-League (now A-League Women) for the digital platform The Women’s Game. I have written, copy-edited, podcasted, shared social media content, and (regretfully) appeared on radio broadcasts about women’s football for various outlets, in volunteer and paid capacities. My PhD project has been designed to capture the experiences of those who may similarly sit across and in-between different media identities and productivities, using “media-makers” as an open category for in-depth interviewing. My insider positioning is a valuable starting point to guide, but not define, research on women’s media-makers motivations and aspirations.

A specific instance of media convergence I have been a part of is the partnering of independent media producers and products with mainstream outlets. My analysis focuses on the economies of labour involved, rather on where these collaborations sit within wider media terrains. The media forms discussed are digital – websites and podcasts. The overlap between digital media and independent media is significant; digital platforms and tools provide the means for those outside of formal media spaces to readily create alternative media (Dart 2014; Pedersen 2014).

Meryn Sherwood’s study (2019) of women independent media-makers making digital media products details three relevant themes that I have seen mirrored in women’s football media. First, media-makers – or as Sherwood calls them, “independent sports media producers” – are partly motivated by a wish to address gender imbalances in the sports media space. Second, their labour is often unpaid. Third, independent media products may go on to partner with mainstream platforms.

To the first point, Sherwood (2019) writes “The interviewees all shared a common reason for creating their products – they saw that content about women’s sport and female athletes, female voices discussing sport, were lacking in traditional sports media in Australia. Consequently, the main reasons that they created these products shifted to advocacy for women in sport first and foremost” (p. 189). This desire to right inequities is reflected in previous research on independent women’s sports media producers (Antunovic and Hardin 2012; Hardin and Whiteside 2012), as well as in public accounts from women in sports media (Bach 2020; Women_of_sport 2021a; 2021b; Zelic 2016b; 2016a). In voluntarily seeking to improve women’s presence as both the subjects and producers of sports media, Sherwood’s interviewees report labouring, for the most part, for free (2019, 193) – a trend identified within women’s sports more broadly (Siren Sport 2021).

Finally, as will be expanded upon here, Sherwood mentions independent media producers partnering with mainstream organisations. It is detailed that two interviewees had their podcasts partner with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and all participants being granted official accreditation to cover sports events (2019, 187). There are similar examples in women’s football. In 2018, mainstream media network NextMedia incorporated The Women’s Game into their digital portfolio (Inside Sport 2018). In 2021, football podcasters and content creators, including the women-run platform The Ladies League, were invited to present at the Dolan Warren awards, the end-of-year celebrations for the top-tier football leagues in Australia (A-League.com.au 2021). I have experienced such partnerships first-hand; first as a volunteer at TWG and, more recently, as a member of the podcast The Far Post, who partnered with the Australian leg of sports media giant ESPN in 2021.

Getting paid: hope labour and independent/mainstream partnerships

Kuehn and Corrigan’s (2013) concept of ‘hope labour’ is useful for thinking through the intersections of altruistic motivations, unpaid labour, and independent media being taken up in the mainstream. With a neo-Marxist lens, they analyse the media production of sports bloggers on the US-based website SB Nation, as well as reviewers on the digital platform Yelp. In making digital media, interviewees report strong intrinsic motivations – self-realisation, enjoyment – coupled with a desire to enter paid work aligned with their productivity. Kuehn and Corrigan thus define hope labour as “‘un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow” (p. 10).

It is not clear whether independent media producers who collaborate with mainstream outlets are initially motivated by the promise of future employment or exposure. However, these collaborations may serve existing motivations to improve women’s sports coverage. Ann Odong founded The Women’s Game to create a central place for women’s football news and information in Australia after she noticed that such a resource didn’t exist (Zelic 2016a). The Far Post started due to a friend’s desire to produce a high quality and entertaining women’s football podcast, of which there were few in Australia (Gilby 2021). By partnering with a larger organisation, media-makers can increase the reach of women’s sports coverage as well as women’s voices. Media-makers from these organisations may share such desires to increase women’s sports coverage in their own roles. For example, when The Women’s Game joined Inside Sport, the Head of Sport Digital Kevin Airs said “Women’s sports has never been bigger and we want to lead the way in growing it even more” (Inside Sport 2018).

Yet, as Kuehn and Corrigan (2013) observe, the “high risks commonly associated with creative innovation are reduced for future employers who can cherry-pick from developing trends” (p. 20). Women’s sport’s growing popularity may very well be the developing trend being cherry-picked. Previous literature indicates that “giving people what they want”  is typically how poor coverage of women’s sport is justified in commercial sports media environments (Knoppers and Elling 2004; Laucella et al. 2017; Organista, Mazur, and Lenartowicz 2021). The myth that “people aren’t interested in women’s sport” has to be constantly busted by fans, athletes and advocates (Dunn 2018; Sherwood et al. 2017). Mainstream outlets can negate the perceived risks of covering women’s sport by investing where there is already interest. One way to do this is by partnering with media that has already built an audience or niche of demonstrable value.

When building this audience or niche, media-makers often labour for free. Kuehn and Corrigan (2013) argue that hope labour emerges from broader conditions of contemporary capitalism: unpaid work is normalised as a necessary part of securing desirable and fulfilling work. With labour seen as a primary source of personal fulfilment and actualisation, underpaid and undercompensated work is justified by workers themselves (Duffy 2017; Tokumitsu 2015). Unpaid labour is normalised in the sports industry, from volunteers at mega events to internships at mega corporations (Reimer 2018; Richards, Spanjaard, and Storr 2019; Hawzen et al. 2018).

Optimistically, independent-mainstream partnerships may result in women such as myself “getting paid”. With regards to The Far Post, it is certainly preferable to receive money for my time and energy than not, especially given how much I enjoy being on the podcast (I must confess to doing what I love!). Yet, as Kuehn and Corrigan’s (2013) framework of hope labour posits, getting paid or receiving exposure is contingent on having spent much time not getting paid. To the benefit of larger and more well-resourced organisations, individual media-makers absorb the cost of creative innovation as well as the cost of their own training and development (McCarthy 2014; McEnnis 2017).

Regardless of whether they engage in hope labour or not, independent media-makers stand to benefit from having their products partner with mainstream outlets. An optimistic reading suggests independent media infiltrating mainstream structures means an increase in women’s sport coverage and women’s voices in sport. Those making this independent media may “get paid” and, some may transition into desired forms of employment. However, such partnerships are underpinned by economies of unpaid labour that problematically intersect with the continued marginalisation of women in sport. Only some topics have been explored here, with others left for the time being: how much and how often women are getting paid, whether independent media work provides more permanent pathways into the mainstream, how creative control and output is negotiated between independent and mainstream actors. Furthermore, this analysis has primarily drawn on my anecdotal and personal insight – a place to start but not land. Interviewing media-makers will more brightly illuminate the material experiences of women who make media about women’s football across converging mediums and spaces.


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