In the last week the national American women’s soccer team has withdrawn from a friendly event, citing concerns about the quality of the playing surface. This is not an isolated incident; the women continually find themselves playing on artificial turf (rather than grass, is accepted as the standard surface material, and which the men play on).
Whilst their concerns have centered on safety, it should be a general expectation that women and men playing at the elite level (or any level, for that matter) have access to grounds and sporting fields of a similar calibre. As the US team’s open letter stated, “at the end of the day, we expect to be treated equally as our male counterparts”.
We have similar issues in Australia. Last week saw the introduction of the women’s Big Bash League – the equivalent to the men’s BBL which is the elite T20 cricket competition in the nation. This is a very exciting prospect and certainly a step in the right direction.
However what is very disappointing is that, whilst being billed as an equivalent league, the WBBL is not on par with the BBL in any way at this stage – not in terms of media coverage, funding, or facilities. Whilst it may be argued that the first two issues are difficult to resolve in the first year of operation, the question of facilities is much more straightforward. It should be an expectation that elite level cricketers, regardless of gender, play on elite fields.
In reality, for this year’s WBBL the women have been relegated to second or third tier sporting arenas. Whilst the men in Tasmania play all their games at Bellerive Oval (aka Blundstone Arena), the premier cricket ground in the state, the women play just one game at this ground for their whole season and are otherwise scheduled to play at Aurora Stadium in Launceston or even at a local club ground, the Twin Ovals in suburban Kingston.
Similar allocation of facilities can be seen across the nation – for example, whilst the men play at the big grounds – the MCG, the Gabba, the WACA, SCG and Adelaide Oval – their female counterparts have to make do with playing at Junction Oval (St Kilda), the Allan Border Field (Brisbane), Aquinas College (suburban Perth), the Drummoyne Oval, Waverly Oval and so on. Whilst they get a few games at the big grounds, these are very limited.
There is of course an argument that the women’s games deserve to be scheduled independently of the men’s, and potentially therefore on a separate day. There is also the fact that the men are still finalising their test and shield matches and have not yet started the BBL campaign. However equally there is an argument that to encourage bigger crowds and television coverage, the women’s games should be held on the same day as the men’s. It becomes much harder to achieve big crowds and media coverage when games are located on different days and in out of the way venues that give the impression the match is not to be taken seriously.
At a grassroots level we know that a lack of access to facilities is one of the key barriers to women participating in sport. It is disappointing that even at an elite level the argument must still be made that women deserve to play on the same field as the men. There are some sports where this has become the norm (you could not image Serena Williams being scheduled to play on court 22 rather than centre court), however unfortunately there are many sports lagging behind.
The UN has recognised that, amongst a range of things, imbalanced access to sporting facilities is “indicative of structural gender biases in the sport system.” Whilst Cricket Australia are to be commended for instituting the inaugural WBBL, by relegating women to second rate grounds they are perpetuating this structural bias. Ensuring that our elite women play at the same venues as the men would go some way to rectifying this. At the very least it would show that they are seriously committed to dealing with these structural issues.