Image courtesy of Sussex Women’s 6 on Flickr
It’s an argument that we all hear day in, day out. Men’s sport is saturated with too much money, too much ego and too much business. At times, modern football and cricket can bear more semblance to a corporate circus than competitive sport as FIFA unravels before our eyes and haggling over TV deals takes centre stage. The one person who always misses out due to the greed of those in power, so we are told, is the fan.
But is it just the working class man who takes the hit for the governing bodies controlling the likes of football and cricket? Women’s sport has also too often been a casualty of the obsession with maximising profit. Time and again the women’s games have had to be content with an existence in the shade.
But the last 18-24 months have witnessed a seismic shift in attitudes to women’s sport. We are seeing tangible change and we can expect plenty more of it.
Women’s Cricket and Football are not only growing and developing but are in a unique position whereby they can learn from the mistakes and mishaps of their male counterparts to create a more engaging and accessible experience for players and fans.
Undoubtedly, it is the exposure that women’s sport is now enjoying that has really opened up the discussion.
The recent Women’s Football World Cup raised the profile of the sport around the world to unprecedented levels. Over 750 million people tuned in to watch the tournament while the final itself was the most watched Football match in US TV history. The attention it drew in the UK was undoubtedly aided by it being broadcast on the free, terrestrial channel – BBC Three.
Women’s football remains a largely untapped market and there is the scope for vast numbers of young women to get involved in the sport. Yet the viewing figures from the World Cup Final show that the potential of women’s football’s reach could be even greater than anticipated. Women’s football is generating palpable attention and arguably has as good a chance of cracking the lucrative US market as the men’s game, a tantalising prospect.
The Women’s World Cup felt like a watershed moment in Britain. Players like Fara Williams, Toni Duggan and Eni Aluko have gained more exposure and there is a gradual move towards women’s footballers becoming household names.
Women’s cricket has enjoyed a similarly explosive boom in Australia’s recent Big Bash League. Women’s matches took place immediately before men’s and were also televised on free-to-air national channels. While the Women’s World Cup viewing figures were impressive, the sheer hype that engulfed the Women’s Big Bash was astonishing.
The Women’s Big Bash attracted a peak crowd of 14,611, an astounding figure considering the record crowd for a domestic T20 at Nottinghamshire’s iconic Trent Bridge is 13,582. Peak viewing figures reached 439,000 on national free to air television. Compare that to the alleged 467,000 who viewed the final day of the first Ashes test on Sky in the summer and it is clear that women’s cricket is evolving faster than anyone could have dreamed of 12 months ago.
This success owes much to the superb planning and implementation Cricket Australia; almost every detail of the entire Big Bash format was a masterstroke. But what is abundantly clear is that the appetite for women’s cricket already existed, – they have simply found a formula to exploit it.
The challenge now is for the UK to keep up. Sarah Taylor playing in an Australian men’s grade cricket game and more than holding her own is evidence of the talent in the women’s game. Players like Taylor and Charlotte Edwards are now instantly recognisable and hugely respected figures to the British cricketing public.
It is imperative that we find a way to make women’s sport available on television and that a family-friendly match day environment is pushed hard to attract a new generation of younger fans. Allowing such a diverse and talented demographic to stagnate while rivals like Australia capitalise on it would be a shocking waste. Low prices and high visibility hold the key to exposing women’s cricket to the wider British public.
But beyond statistics, there is a chance for female sports stars to set an example. Only a handful of women’s football players are professional, the most a player holding an England central contract generally earns is around £40,000. Many players have jobs and young families to support and have to manage their time carefully.
In many ways it is easier to relate to female sports ‘stars’ precisely because they are not the stars that we are used to seeing in the men’s game. Financially, sport is not necessarily the most lucrative option for them – they truly play for the love of the game while juggling multiple responsibilities.
The rate of transformation is continuing to accelerate. England became the first professional women’s cricket team as recently as 2014 and are one of the dominant forces in women’s cricket. FIFA have also announced that one female representative will be elected as a council member from each federation. It is imperative that the women’s games are not swept along by the rapidity of this change and that the integrity of the sport is maintained.
Men may enjoy more money, more sponsorship and more prestige at this moment in time but there is a gap for something with more purity than cold-faced business in the sporting world.
Women are catching up, but can they keep the romance of sport alive while they do so?
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