In the same league – the growing popularity of women’s sport

In the Herald Sun today – the same day that the Matildas made it to Australia’s first ever FIFA world cup quarter finals (men’s or women’s) – Rita Panahi wrote about how she “couldn’t care less about women’s sport”. Her argument seems to be wholly based upon the ‘fact’ that sportsmen are “vastly superior to the female equivalent” and therefore there is no market for women’s sports.

As ‘evidence’ for this, Panahi trots out the 1993 tennis matches between the Williams sisters and 203 ranked Karsten Braasch, where Braasch won. This is hardly the point (though, if Panahi needs some arguments to the contrary, there are plenty – think the 1973 tennis ‘battle of the sexes’ with Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in three sets; or perhaps in cricket in 1994 when Australia’s Zoe Goss dismissed batting legend Brian Lara; or the fact that Steffi Graf is the only player to have been able to achieve a Golden Slam; and so on).

However, the pitting of men versus women in the same game is not just fairly irrelevant to the worth of women’s sport. In fact, it completely misses the point.

Firstly, I wonder how many games of women’s sport Panahi has actually seen, despite claiming that she is a sports fan “of both sexes”. Whenever I have attended women’s sporting events, I am always pleased to overhear (often older males) in the crowd say in a rather surprised tone something along the lines of “oh, wow, these girls can play!” Usually all it takes is seeing a quality women’s match to understand its worth. Sometimes, this can be achieved by clever scheduling (for example, women’s interstate matches directly before the men’s). This is a relatively easy way to allow spectators of a particular sport exposure to the quality of women’s matches.

Whilst Panahi suggests that sponsors are not going to get a good return on women’s sports, it seems clear to me that when fans have the opportunity (through both coverage and attending games) they actually show they are very much interested in women’s sports. For example, in the current FIFA Women’s World Cup, Canada had the largest ever crowd for a national team game in any sport (male or female). Clearly, a sponsor’s dream. Additionally, it is expected that half a billion viewers will watch the game from around the world.

However, the importance of sport is much greater than this. Sport is not about just being the strongest, fastest, toughest. Sport is much, much more than that. It is about the characters on and off the field. It is about cheering for the underdog; about determination; about being able to execute skills honed over years at exactly the right moment, when it matters most. It is about national (or state, or local) pride.

Sport is also about teams and community. It is about building leaders, understanding health and nutrition, and working together. Sport is about the love of the game; the joy of playing – not just for the players themselves, but also for the spectators and fans. Though Panahi wants us to believe that the disparity in media coverage or interest is not a “grand patriarchal conspiracy”, perhaps she could look a little into the history of some sports and see that, actually, until recently (and still today in some parts of the world) women have been forbidden to play sports. Now that women’s sports are growing, it is clear that there is very much a market for them – and arguments like Panahi’s are growing rapidly obsolete. Most sporting organisations around Australia are now coming to understand that growing the women’s game is the best way to grow their game in general – both in terms of players, popularity, and dollars. One only has to look to the AFL, where a national competition is on the cards as early as 2017, or cricket, where the women’s BBL is set to take off next year, to see just how much of an appetite there is in this country for women’s sports. It is beside the point as to whether a female AFL player can take on a male counterpart in a hitout; what matters is the quality of the game that is being played and the attitudes of the players. That is what makes sport exciting to watch.

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