by Craig Wright
Today, she’s one of the fastest-rising stars in the world of sports journalism. Back in 2001, however, Eilidh Barbour was a fresh-faced first-year student at the University of Stirling. As the presenter explained, though, her mind was already set on a career covering some of sport’s biggest events.
“I knew before I went to Stirling” said Barbour.
“I chose Stirling because it offered me the chance to combine media with sport in a joint honours degree, although I ended up majoring in one because I chose to study audio-visual production in my final two years and put all my focus on that.
“It actually helped a lot in my early days of work experience to know a little about how TV and radio were put together, so it was probably the right choice.”
Since graduating with a BA Hons in Film and Media in 2005, the 34-year-old has gone on to cover a range of sports, from presenting BBC’s Football Focus to covering international rugby union. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the sheer variety of her job that continues to enthuse and excite the Stirling alumna.
“Absolutely. It’s key for me and I’m so lucky to have the variety I have” agreed Barbour.
“I love Scottish football and everything that goes with it, so to be able to be involved up here is brilliant. Equally, it’s amazing to be able to cover the Premier League, FA Cup and major international tournaments.
“Women’s football and women’s rugby give me another challenge and opportunity to work in something that is developing and growing all the time, and the golf majors are like my little cup finals in the summer where the focus is global and is a completely different experience.
“I love sport as a whole, so to be able to cover a number of different sports and both team and individual sports is really enjoyable, while also challenging me to continue to develop my broadcasting to suit different environments.”
Having been announced as the successor to Hazel Irvine – a long-time hero of Barbour’s – as the anchor for the BBC’s golf coverage earlier this year, 2017 has arguably been the pinnacle of the Dunkeld native’s career to date. She admits to feeling a sense of pride at following in her idol’s footsteps, and was quick to praise Irvine for her influence and advice.
“It’s a real honour and I’ve loved it so far” said Barbour.
“It’s a total cliche but there’s always pressure to do the best you can. The fact I had admired Hazel for so many years just added a different kind of pressure. She’s inspired me to keep following my dream, and is loved by so many that it did add some extra nerves. She was so supportive, though, and helped me a lot out at The Masters where I was able to shadow her and learn from her for the week, which was invaluable.
“Sometimes when new presenters come into a job it’s because the previous one has been replaced – which can be hard – but that wasn’t the case this time. Hazel chose to step down for personal reasons, but she still loves the team and the sport and I genuinely felt she wanted me to be as ready as I could be to carry on the job she’s done so well. To feel that support was really important and the team themselves have all been so welcoming, which helped me relax a lot.”
As well as being one of the most visible faces in contemporary sports journalism – as well as a passionate supporter of St Johnstone -, Barbour has also earned a reputation as a champion of women’s sport, backing a number of campaigns that aim to increase female participation in sports such as golf. So, after a summer of sport which has seen Euro 2017, the women’s Rugby World Cup, the Solheim Cup and the women’s Cricket World Cup all take centre stage, how does the former Stirling student assess the rise in the popularity of women’s sport?
“There have been changes, I think, in the attitude towards women who participate in sport which means more girls and women are active in general” said Barbour.
“There’s still a long way to go but certainly, in my experience of going to the gym or playing competitive sport, participation is a lot healthier.
“In terms of that elite level, our athletes and players have closed the gap that maybe existed in some sports to nations that had taken it seriously before us. England, in particular, have had an incredible year of sporting success with their women’s teams, Scotland have broken records in many sports by achieving big things for the first time. Success is what attracts people to support a team or an individual and that’s the key.
“I also think some people are seeing these sports played by women for the first time and are enjoying seeing the game played in a different way, with a different approach but with just the same level of excitement and competition.”
With New Zealand’s victory over England in the women’s Rugby World Cup final hailed as one of the best finals the sport has seen in recent years, and Scotland’s women becoming the country’s first representative football team to qualify for a major tournament since 1998, there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards women’s sport. Barbour is cautious when it comes to comparing women’s sport to its male counterpart, however.
“I think this is a personal one” she said.
“I don’t say I play ‘women’s football’ or ‘women’s golf’. To me it’s just the sport.
“What I do think is important, though, is that we don’t compare the two sports in terms of the way they are played. Women are naturally less physical than men – we don’t have the same strength or power in our bodies and the way we play sport reflects that. Women also have different thought processes and again sport often reflects that.
“Anyone who watched the women’s rugby World Cup final will concur, though, that it doesn’t make it any less exciting or enthralling, it’s just slightly different.”
Indeed, it is precisely the excitement and entertainment to which Barbour alludes that has seen the media place women’s sport front and centre over the summer months. Criticism remains, however, with many highlighting the 2015 statistic that only 7% of all sporting media coverage focuses on women’s sport. The situation has undoubtedly changed since then, though, with Barbour optimistic on what the future holds.
“I think we need to have a bit of patience. Women’s sport has grown massively over a relatively short space of time. We have major football, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis tournaments amongst others all covered on TV and radio with some sports, football and tennis for example, also having their domestic seasons fairly well covered.
“It’s still a work in progress and, as much as I would love to see money pumped into women’s sport, we need to realise that broadcasters have targets they need to meet as well and building up a commercial interest is going to take a bit of time. As the interest grows and the standard of competition continues to develop, it will become more commercially viable to cover more and more women’s sport.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think there are enough encouraging signs to show that women’s sport is taken seriously and will continue to be so.”
With her profile continuing to rise, the sky appears to be the limit for Barbour. If she were to place herself in the shoes of a fresher with ambitions to be the next Eilidh Barbour, however, what advice would she pass on?
“The most important one is never give up!
“It’s not easy – there are a lot of knocks along the way but, if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, then just keep plugging away. Take every opportunity to learn that you can, and eventually the break will come.”
With thanks to Tongue Tied Media