JEDDAH: Media coverage of sports plays a key role in representing athletes from different nationalities and ethnicities in their respective fields. It can promote global dialogue that transcends femininity and masculinity, embracing the inclusive nature of sports and reporting it to the world.
Yet on a global and local scale, women’s representation in sports media coverage seems to remain at a disadvantage compared with that of men.
In December 2007, Arab News covered the first women’s street basketball tournament in Jeddah, organized by Jeddah United Sports Company and Gold’s Gym, and showcasing Saudi sportsmanship and highly skilled female athletes.
When asked about the exposure gained from the tournament, Lina Al-Maeena, co-founder of JUSCo. and former Shoura Council member, told Arab News: “I have to say that it opened up doors for us, especially on the international front. CNN and BBC, as well as many international channels, approached us, and numerous potential sponsors, such as Nike, also connected with us.”
JUSCo. is the first Saudi private sports company to train girls and boys in basketball, football and volleyball, and promote the culture of sports and physical activity.
Al-Maeena added: “Women’s sports are definitely underfunded and under-promoted. We are yet to have broadcasting initiatives, but advocating for equal airtime is important to promote women representation in sports, along with fundraising through sponsorship.”
In alignment with Vision 2030 and the 16 sustainable development goals, the Kingdom aims to ensure healthy lives and well-being for individuals of all ages.
The Saudi National Transformation Program launched in 2016 continues to raise the standard of living, and enable the sports and private sectors, including social development and empowerment of the Saudi people, and women, in particular.
On Nov. 22, 2021, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Regional Football League kicked off, marking a new era for women’s football in the Kingdom.
“The NTP has empowered young individuals to widen their horizon and explore the possibilities in sports, too,” said Al-Maeena.
She added that the sports sector is a sister sector to the health and education sectors, highlighting physical activity as preventive aid to many physical, psychological and social ailments.
Arab News spoke to female athletes about their journey from amateur to professional, and the familial and sports sector support they received in their quest to fulfil their dream.
Saja Kamal, a 32-year-old Saudi sports advocate and professional football player, shared the uplifting experience of the professional 2020 Saudi Sports For All Women’s Football League under the Ministry of Sports.
“My father introduced me to football at the age of four, at a time where taking part of a male-dominated sport was difficult, and almost a privilege for girls and women,” said Kamal.
During her high school education in Bahrain, Kamal joined the Arsenal Soccer School.
“It’s not that female sports don’t have their fan base or interested audience, it’s just a matter of equal access and media coverage,” she said.
Elham Al-Fahad, a 36-year-old Saudi football player, broke the 2019 world record for the longest football match held at the Lyon Foundation under a nonprofit initiative promoting gender equality and access in sports, with Kamal ranked in third place.
“My dream is to become a coach for Al-Hilal football club when it establishes a national team,” said Al-Fahad when asked about her future plans.
Al-Fahad was also part of the football team challenge in Riyadh in the days before football for women was made official in the Kingdom.
“I was encouraged by my male family members to join them in playing football, and by the age of seven I became completely hooked on the sport, up to the point of taking my football with me to bed as a child.”
Yasmina bin Mahfooz, a 30-year- old professional tennis player, told Arab News that she joined the Al-Nasser tennis club early in 2021.
“My parents allowed me to experience all sorts of sports and activities, and in doing so, my passion for tennis was born at six years of age,” she said.
“Introducing children from a young age to all sorts of sports serves as an outlet for them and a disciplinary tool, and for that I encourage women and young girls to always dream big and indulge in the world of physical activity.”
Al-Maeena said: “Legislation of women’s clubs is very new and even though the trend is toward privatization, women’s sports have not received the opportunities and funding that men’s sports received in the past decades which enabled them to develop and advance far more than women’s sports.”
She said that attitudes toward women in sport could be helped by promoting equal access to sports media and the various sports in educational institutions under the Ministry of Sports.
Any promotion has to be cultur- ally sensitive, and abiding by the public decency regulations is important to gaining acceptance, she added.