Skip to main content

Great World Cup so far. More than 100 goals scored. Thrilling games and upsets. Germany, the defending champion, evicted in the first round. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo struts through it, Argentina’s Diego Maradona having meltdowns in the VIP seats and a lot of viewers crushing on Mexico’s spirit and style.

But there’s something else, something ominous and cringe-inducing going on in the TV coverage: The return of what some call the “babe cam” – the habit of TV cameras finding and lingering long on comely young women in the stadium seats. It’s as if there’s a directive to find and ogle women with great hair, big smiles, low-cut tops or short-shorts.

There was a time when this type of egregious objectifying of women at sports events was common and tolerated in TV coverage. Then it wasn’t tolerated any more. Anyone who watched the recent NHL and NBA playoffs saw none of that. The practice died off in the same way that making workplace remarks about a woman’s looks and clothes died off. It just isn’t done.

But what is a firing offence in the workplace is practised, without words being spoken, in TV coverage of soccer’s world championship. No words need to be spoken. It’s ogling; it’s the sexualizing of women fans with a sharp undercurrent of misogyny.

Watching the recent victory by Colombia over Poland, the camera went repeatedly to one blond Colombian female fan in the crowd. The woman was not especially animated in her support for her country. That wasn’t the point. She was being stalked by the cameras. In any other context it would be seen as a woman stalked by some creep obsessively ogling her.

At the end of Wednesday’s match in which Sweden defeated Mexico, the camera went three times to the same female Mexican supporter, a smiling woman talking on her phone. The camera went briefly to a male supporter in a giant sombrero and colourful poncho. Then back to that woman twice. That kind of intense gawking, at a woman who asked for no attention but is simply attending a game, could get you fired in some places.

Where does this new wave of leering – for that is what it is – originate? All the live match feeds, including packages of the stadium, fans and player/manager interviews, are managed by FIFA’s TV division and its regular subcontractor, the Paris-based Host Broadcast Services (HBS). TSN, the Canadian host broadcaster, says, “There are different production teams at each venue led by a director. There is a general protocol for each match to provide some consistency for viewers, in terms of the pregame setup, etc.”

It is impossible to determine if the individuals wielding the cameras are local, as in local Russian staff hired for the tournament, or from an international pool of staff used by HBS. Certainly they seem to be from another age, one that the rest of sports broadcasting transcended and left behind.

As a man watching this leering, I’m deeply uncomfortable. So I asked Sonja Missio, who writes often about soccer for The Guardian and other publications, for her thoughts. It was unleashing fury.

“They’re reducing women fans to the bubbly cute cheerleader in the stands,” Missio said. “To boil fans down to boobs and cute outfits is beyond me. Skin matters in soccer. Players get carded for removing their shirts, male fans get praised for removing their shirts, since that’s considered passionate. And then women get shamed or objectified for showing skin. They’re given a secondary fandom role that never allows them just to be a fan.”

For me, while I’m at it, TSN could do better in the matter of sexism, both subtle and unsubtle, in sports broadcasting. For the pregame, halftime and post-match analysis, a small group of guys, most with British accents, sit at a desk and pontificate. They are the panel of experts.

When Andi Petrillo arrives later to do the highlights package, she’s standing in the studio in a dress and heels. The camera’s gaze is, really, the male gaze. There’s a female gaze for male presenters too. But it’s unnerving that, mostly, one guy from the panel arrives to explain stuff to her. How was Brazil looking ahead of Wednesday’s game against Serbia? Well, Kristian Jack arrived to explain that to her. Perhaps it’s not meant to be patronizing to Petrillo, but it is.

Look up the video for that segment online and you’ll find there’s no mention of Petrillo. It’s captioned as “Brazil building toward peak performance. Kristian Jack looks at Brazil’s adjustments in their last game ahead of their clash with Serbia on Day 14 and what has gone wrong for Germany so far this tournament.”

Watching it, I thought the capsule summary might more accurately be, “Guy explains to woman what’s happening at the World Cup.” No offence to Petrillo, a fine broadcaster, but power exists in sitting at the desk, pontificating. That defines gravitas and worth, the way TSN does it. And she is excluded from that.

It’s been a year in which women have been empowered by the #MeToo movement, and yet a grotesque stereotype persists at this World Cup on TV – women as passive objects for male consumption. And here on TSN women have soccer tactics and formations explained to them by men.