When will a woman commentate ABs?

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Beth Mowins will become the first woman to call an NFL game. Photo / AP

By Kris Shannon

New Zealand rugby has in recent years made admirable progress on the long path towards gender equality.

From the Black Ferns sevens team eclipsing the efforts of their male counterparts to Farah Palmer becoming the first woman elected to the board of the game's governing body, rugby in this country is gradually edging out of the dark ages.

But there is another frontier yet to cross, one that right now feels as far away as the decline of the Barrett brothers.

When will a woman commentate an All Blacks test? Or even a Super Rugby game?

While it's not uncommon for both genders to be represented on the sidelines or in pre- and post-match shows, for how long will the commentary box remain a boys' club?

This week, ESPN announced that Beth Mowins will soon become the first woman in 30 years to handle play-by-play duties for an NFL game, a sport as closely aligned to America's patriarchy as rugby has traditionally been to ours.

Staying in the United States, Jessica Mendoza has this season featured as a chief analyst in ESPN's baseball coverage, while cricket around the globe has positioned itself at the forefront in the fight for gender equality in the broadcast booth.

And that's what it is: a fight. Until young women can look at all aspects of sport and see an open career avenue, it remains a scrap that a progressive society shouldn't ignore.

On the field, we are creeping closer to an ideal, aside from the obvious disparity in remuneration and, of course, the occasional instance of male players treating women abhorrently.

Continued below.

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Off the field, though, it's a different story, especially in this country. Just consider the fact that Sky Television - the company with a monopoly on top-level sport - retain no women in full-time on-air roles.

Melodie Robinson is a regular presence on the fringes of our rugby broadcasts, while Rikki Swannell last summer became the first woman to lead the commentary of a men's cricket game in New Zealand.

But both are employed as freelancers, an ostensible shortfall in sport restricting their duties, despite Robinson also working in netball and Swannell across a panoply of codes.

The question, then, is why? It can't be a case of athletic prowess being a prerequisite; an abundance of former Black Ferns or White Ferns must tick that box. In any case, play-by-play men like Grant Nisbett and Tony Johnson have become household voices without first making their name in the middle.

Think a female voice would see fans reach for the remote? Well, a small problem: there's one place to watch rugby and nowhere else to turn. And, to be honest, modern sport is probably better off without supporters who choose that particular hill to die on.

Away from rugby, it hardly seems this year's Indian Premier League has suffered after featuring three women in its commentary team, or that the BBC was hurt by making Alison Mitchell the first woman to commentate regularly on Test Match Special.

So if there is no cogent argument to keep the commentary box male-only, and if there are plenty of qualified candidates who possess plenty of passion and knowledge, perhaps Sky would be wise to declare itself in favour of progress and try something new.

Detractors may insist the business of broadcasting rugby, like any other, is a meritocracy, and to an extent that is true. But when an industry has for so long been dominated by men, affirmative action can be required to crack the glass ceiling.

New Zealand has never been a stranger to breaking boundaries in rugby. It's time for that to extend outside the lines.

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