Hazel Irvine: ‘I was the only woman in the room’

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jul 10, 2019

Hazel Irvine: ‘I was the only woman in the room’

With the incredible success of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the Netball World Cup 2019 right around the corner, this summer, women’s sport is stepping into the limelight it deserves. BBC Sports broadcaster Hazel Irvine has been at the centre of the move to a more inclusive sporting world. Though, as Hazel tells Happiful, these seismic shifts don’t happen overnight, but great things are on the horizon…

When it comes to women’s sport, a lot has changed in the last 30 years – and no one knows that better than Hazel Irvine. As one of the first women to work in the industry, Hazel has been at the centre of the rise of women’s sport since she first entered the world of broadcasting in 1987.

With the Netball World Cup kicking off this week, along with the BBC ‘Change the Game’ season – a campaign celebrating women’s sports – we’re set for a long overdue summer of sporting excellence. But the fight for parity between men and women’s sport hasn’t been easy, and it’s far from over. Here, we speak to Hazel about the catalyst for change in women’s sport, the importance of representation in coverage, and what it was like to be the only woman in the room.

Hi Hazel! We’ve got a packed schedule of Netball coming up. What are you most excited for at this year’s World Cup?

Full houses, massive enthusiasm, close matches, home crowds, and the possibility of a seismic shift in the netball hierarchy. There’s so much to look forward to!

There has already been a seismic shift in the netball hierarchy since last year at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, when England won the gold medal. It was a complete shake up for the sport. And it had been a long time coming. It had always been very competitive – and then New Zealand not getting the bronze medal for the first time, with Jamaica beating them in a thriller.

It felt like a very dramatic tournament.

It really struck a chord with the public. That was proven when England netball not only won the Team of the Year, but also the Moment of the Year, voted by the viewers at BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. And it was a huge wake-up call for women’s sport. It’s wonderful drama, and was recognised as wonderful drama.

But don’t forget, we have Scotland, and Northern Ireland there this year too. So three British teams all involved. The best netballers in the world. Wonderful elite athletes, many of whom are now professionals. These are very different times for the sport than when the first Netball World Cup took place in 1968.

You fronted coverage of the tournament in 1995. Do you feel attitudes towards netball have changed since then?

Attitudes have changed, but the sport itself has changed too. It was mainly played by amateurs, and the whole professionalisation of the sport has only come about in the last few years. We have a wonderful netball super league in Australia. We have an emerging and really high quality netball super league in this country as well, with franchises in all parts of the country which has been great to see.

So, I think one of the main differences would be the opportunities that this sport is now affording women and girls as a career choice. Now, don’t forget that career choices in professional team sports have not been at a premium for women over the last 30 years.

Hazel Irvine

Hazel Irvine. PHOTOGRAPHY | BBC / Julia Fullerton-Batten

How do these career choices change the game?

You look at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. In the rowing category in 2012, and in cycling in 2016, there were a huge number of medals coming through in women’s sport. These are from career opportunities in professional sport that were never really available when I was growing up, and when I started broadcasting in 1987.

It’s all part of a growing and burgeoning set of opportunities for women and girls to make career choices to play and – in my case – to broadcast elite sport, which is now redressing the imbalance that has been there for many years.

You moved into sports broadcasting as one of very few women doing the job at the time. Did you face any challenges because of that?

It was challenging because I was the only woman in the room – when I turned up at press conferences, when I worked in football in my early years. I was the first woman in Great Britain to fully anchor a dedicated football programme, and that brought its challenges, clearly.

I was a curiosity in the early days, I would say. No one said no to being interviewed by me, but they were very interested to see what I brought to the party. And I think they realised I would bring my own style to it – I fundamentally knew what I was talking about. And I was, by and large, pretty much accepted, which says a great deal about the people I worked with.

I was a curiosity in the early days. No one said no to being interviewed by me, but they were very interested to see what I brought to the party

Did you have to fight harder for your opportunities?

I couldn’t get away with sound bite fodder. I had to be very careful to make sure that in the phrasing of my questions, they realised that I’d done my homework beforehand so that I would be taken properly and seriously. And I hopefully did that.

Yes, I had to fight hard for the opportunities I was given. Whether I had to fight any harder because I was a woman, possibly. But my memories of that time are happy memories about new opportunities, about grasping them, and about working really hard to justify my involvement.

But it is amazing what a little bit of visibility does… When I was growing up there was nobody apart from Sally McNair. It’s the visibility which normalises what should always be a perfectly normal situation. I think it was only 1975 or something like that when Angela Rippon was the first permanent female newsreader in this country. It’s not that long ago, is it?

It’s surprising when you think about how far we’ve come. What do you think caused that shift?

I think you have to go back to role models. Who’s on there? Who do you want to be like? I can’t tell you a number of women who wrote to me and said, “How do I do this?”

Eilidh Barbour, who of course worked on the FIFA Women’s World Cup, wrote to me when she was 14. She said until she’d seen me present Grandstand, she didn’t know women were allowed to do that – that it was available as a career option.

Broadcasting by its very nature is a visible genre. So, if you see somebody, it just normalises the process. You have someone to aim for. You have something to aim at. It’s taken a long time and I’ve been doing this for 32 years, but it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to see women sport broadcasters on television.


‘Change The Game’ is the BBC's season celebrating a summer of live women’s sporting action. PHOTOGRAPHY | BBC / Julia Fullerton-Batten

Is there anything that you feel still needs to change?

I think we’re making progress. But I go back to role models. Growing up, my role models in sport were mostly men because those were the most visible. I idolised a huge number of footballers.

But I also remember the 1972 Olympics. That was the most seminal moment in my television watching career, and probably one of the most seminal moments of my life as I became a complete obsessive about all things gold, silver and bronze. I was absolutely fascinated by the Olympics.

Broadcasting, by its very nature, is a visible genre. So, if you see somebody, it just normalises the process. You have someone to aim for

Those were the games of Dame Mary Peters, and the pentathlon gold for Great Britain. And Olga Korbut on the beam and the floor. These are things that really struck me very forcibly. And then, as I was growing up, I started to play a lot of golf. Nancy Lopez was a supremely talented American woman who was playing on the LPGA tour. But of course, the LPGA tour was not really broadcast much in this country at all. Again, visibility.

Which women in sport inspire you today?

Oh, there are so many. Gosh, I don’t even know where to start!
Laura Muir is wonderful. I think she’s just the epitome of grit and talent and hard work and not taking no for an answer. And she’s a bright woman. I like the fact that she studied. She got a veterinary degree. She has really ticked a lot of career boxes in that respect. I really take my hat off to her. She’s a smart woman.

Katherine Grainger has to be one of my heroines. Olympic silver after Olympic silver after Olympic silver, finally gets the gold and still keeps going. Liz Nicholl who was the top woman in UK sport from a pure administration point of view. Oh, Simone Biles, the gymnast. An extraordinary talent. Amazing story.

And from a netball perspective? Tracey Neville. To see her journey from a fantastic player to now having really put netball on the map through her efforts as an England coach has been fantastic, and I really admire her.
I won’t go on, because I will be here all day talking about inspirational women in sport. But isn’t it great that I could?

Hazel Irvine is leading the coverage of the BBC Netball World Cup. The BBC will broadcast every game of the Netball World Cup 2019, from July 15. ‘Change The Game’ is a new BBC season celebrating a summer packed full of live women’s sporting action and complementary programming across BBC TV, radio and online.

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