Interview has been edited and shortened for clarity and brevity
Right now, Australia and New Zealand are home to sporting history being made in real time as the hosts of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This is something we probably won’t have on home soil in our lifetimes again. This is rare and we get to say we were there. The energy is electric as games sell out, attendance records are broken and more people than ever show that the passion, commitment and investment in women’s sport has value. As Lizzo would say, it’s about damn time. If you’ve been watching any of the Channel 7 commentary, you’ve likely heard the voice of former professional and Under 20’s Matilda, Grace Gill.
Grace is one of the very few to successfully transition from playing to commentary in the women’s game, something she says “wasn’t the next obvious step for me with women more likely to go into coaching or on other field roles post playing.” Instead, it was the media and the chance to have her voice heard in interviews that held appeal, the opportunities for which snowballed when she retired in 2016. When we sat down for a chat 10 days before Game 1, she was nervous, excited and keen to do a brilliant job. Well, so far so good, Grace!
HD: Not all commentators have playing experience, but it’s definitely more common in the male versions of codes. Do you see your playing experience as an asset to your commentating? Does it change the way you view the game as a commentator?
GG: When I first started out, I think I was almost too nervous or too scared to be critical, or overly critical of players who were both my friends and my former teammates – because you have to see them afterwards.
I know that teams and players, they go back and they review the games, and sometimes they’d hear what you’d say. And I think it took me a while to really fine tune that craft of doing my job as commentator and analyst and doing it respectfully, but also doing it in a way that I’m acutely mindful of what those players are feeling on the field because I have been in that position and, you know, when you make a mistake as a player, you’re your harshest critic. And that’s the hard part about being an athlete.
So I think, yes, my time as a player, it’s an asset to actually have been able to put myself into the human side of how these players are feeling in those moments, whether that be the nervousness, or whether they make a mistake, or the elation.
I think the important part about commentary is that you let some of your personality come through as to, you know, your human side of connection and empathy. But it is a challenge. Of course, it is because ultimately, these are people who are just aspiring to do the best that they can do.
And in a split second, whether that’s a positive thing, that they do something really good on the field, or they make a crucial error, or they get injured, there are a range of emotions that are running through them at that point in time. It’s my job to try and capture that as a commentator.
There’s an insane pressure that women’s sporting codes are under because people weren’t paying attention for so long. And now they are paying attention. And, (it can feel) like if you don’t perform ‘right’, those eyeballs might go away.
HD: You represented the Matilda’s in the under 20s. World Cup back in 2006, when women’s sport was barely a blip on anyone’s radar, unfortunately, and, and unfairly, because it should have always been on people’s radar. But I’m curious as to how you would contrast that experience with what you imagine the current squad going through?
GG: All these elite level domestic competitions are broadcast. There’s endless amounts of media, social media, journalists doing a wonderful job covering the game on all corners of the globe.
But if I contrast that to 2006, so around 17 years ago, which makes me feel incredibly old, right? The 2006 Under 20s World Cup in Russia. And it would be hard for some of the younger generation now to comprehend this. But 2006 was a time where we didn’t have Facebook, and we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have social media. YouTube had been out for a year, as it launched in 2005. And that’s a really strange thing to sort of comprehend or get your mind around.
The younger generation would laugh at this, but you’d go down to the internet room, and you’d pay for 30 minutes access to an internet connection in which you would email your family at home to let them know how you were okay and how the games were going, there were some ways to access things on the internet, you know, that would show results and outcomes of the games.
HD: I can imagine, like, going through an experience like that, you would bond with your fellow players and the people you were with?
GG: Pretty inexplicably. Because there’s nothing there’s no one else. Like having an opinion about your experience, or being able to see it. Like, you guys are the only ones who know what it was like to play a game and then have to go to the internet cafe and be like, “mum, we lost” or “mum, I scored a goal today, or I’m feeling really homesick.” And being in Russia is like another planet compared to home.
HD: Yes, I can imagine that experience would have been quite formative in terms of the way that you also look to, and maybe even mentor, other young women coming up through the game. Like I could imagine that being a reason for you to sort of be an open door because you didn't have it, I’m guessing.
GG: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And you’re right, we didn’t have that outlet in the way of I know many players, now they can finish a game, go back to their hotel, and then jump on the phone or FaceTime with their family friends loved ones debrief about things as much as they do with their teammates as well. They also have laptops where they can, you know, tune into a Netflix series just to decompress it and turn them off for a little while. We just didn’t have that. So you’re right, in that it was formative in that we’d go back to the hotel, we’d do our recovery, and all of the same things that the girls still do now, to a lesser degree, but still the same concept. And then our spare time was in your rooms hanging out with your teammates.
HD: Obviously, like, that’s worlds away from what you’re doing now, like you were announced as one of Channel Seven’s commentators. Channel Seven is a huge commercial network here. We’ve seen you move from commentating on the ABC, which potentially less people might watch, to being on Channel Seven and on streaming services. How does that make you feel about the very clear investment in women’s sport and players, and the valuing, I guess, of women?
GG: Yeah, it’s so important. And you know, back in the day, when I played in what was then the W League, yes, it was shown on ABC. And there was one game shown a week on free-to-air television, it was sort of like the game of the round was on ABC. So that was cool, because it meant that, you know, if you were going to watch a game, it was that one game on ABC television. And then as the game progressed, and moved from Fox Sports, and then ultimately to 10 and Paramount Plus, now all of the games in the elite women’s competition, free on 10 Play. So now anyone can stream it as long as they have the link.
And we’ve seen as well, in the last sort of 12 months, more progress in visibility in the way of podcasts and content done about the game. To be fair, there are some really long standing podcasts that were kind of ahead of their time that covered the women’s game in Australia, which was really cool. It’s still going to this day. And now we’re seeing more and more people wanting to talk about the game, and more and more people wanting to watch the game. So the investment has been so, so important.
And now we’re seeing at our top level, Australian players get picked up to go overseas, whether that be the Matilda’s players or even girls who are just on the cusp of the Matilda’s finding their way to places like the European League, or Scandinavian leagues. And quite frankly, that doesn’t really happen if you don’t have the visibility of those girls playing time and matches and strains that are now available to an extent worldwide. So that kind of visibility is so important.
HD: So in line with that visibility, are there things you wish is the kind of audience at large, understood better about the experience of women’s sport in this country that you think they don’t?
GG: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s really important to pause and reflect – that although it may not be quite where we want it to be, we have to acknowledge how far it has come.
HD: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s, it’s interesting, because like, obviously, participation in women's sport itself has increased over the years, and we have more eyeballs watching. But Nike just put out some research they’ve done that said that only 10% of sports media commentators are women. I was just wondering, what would be your advice? I guess, for anyone looking to get into the media and commentating space that may or may not have a background in playing already?
GG: I think the advice I would give to anyone wanting to get into the world of media broadcast commentary is that your voice is your own, and you’re not trying to copy anyone else’s voice. You’re not trying to be anyone else, or emulate anyone else. In an industry that has long been dominated by male presenters, male commentators, male dominated industry in sport, it's really important that we continue to see and hear more and more women in this space. And I think that can be a really nerve wracking thing for women going into what is so largely a male dominated industry.
But that’s almost why it becomes even more important because the diversity of voices and the diversity of view and experience, I think, is what makes a more complete picture. I, to an extent, had that experience over the last 12 months, where I was the only female commentator on the elite men’s competition. So I’ve been working with a lot of my male counterparts, who have been fantastic and entirely supportive. That was really nerve racking for me coming into a league where I don’t have that closeness with the players, or you don't have that recollection of your time playing in that league. You bring a completely different angle into how you look at things, view things, and analyse things. I think across all sports, that’s really important.
It was pushing myself just outside of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is the women’s game in Australia, and there are obvious reasons for that. So to then move into a space that was outside of my comfort zone, in the men’s competition, pushes me to grow and progress. Certainly I’ve done that over the last 12 months from being involved in the men’s game and having some really wonderful allies around me.
HD: Speaking of allies, are there like specific things that your male peers did that you think helped make you feel? Like, like you belonged in that space?
GG: There was never a sense or a feeling from my colleagues that I didn’t belong there. I was there not because I was a woman, but because I was good at my job. I was good at commentating on football and analysing football, whether that be the men’s or the women’s game. So I think there was always that respect for me.
Anytime I was uncertain about something, as I was on a few occasions in the men’s game, I could rattle off questions to them, and they wouldn’t sort of judge me or say, “Well, why don’t you know that? It was just like, “Oh, cool. Yeah, let’s have a chat about it. I’ll tell you what happened.” It was a really educational thing in the same way that if any of my male colleagues didn’t know much about a specific situation in the women’s game, they would ask me, and I would very comfortably talk to them. It’s a safe space.
HD: So with all of that in mind, what are you hoping we get out of the World Cup?
GG: There’s a lot. I think, on the playing side of things, we’re going to see an increased number of young girls and boys wanting to play the game, because they’re going to see these incredible athletes running around for the next five weeks. So I think player participation is going to increase.
I think, in terms of my side of my job, and what I’m doing, I think being a woman’s voice on a major international tournament is something that I almost want to become the norm – to the point that next World Cup, it shouldn’t even be a point of conversation.
I hope that from the end of this World Cup, for the young girls and boys who aren’t interested in playing football, that some might – whether hear a voice commentating the game, or see a panel analysing a game – that those young people can go, “That’s cool. I want to be a sports pundit or I would want to work in the media.” Or they might see a female coach and say, “that’s awesome.”
I think that’s the kind of legacy that will last long into the future.
Interview has been edited and shortened for clarity and brevity