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A gentleman’s sport

There has been some interesting debate over the last week since cricket commentator (and former professional player) Peter McGlashan unveiled the massive discrepancy in financial spoils for the country’s top female domestic cricketers compared to their male counterparts.

In case you missed it, the women’s Twenty20 cricket final was played last Sunday, with the match screened live on Sky Sport. A number of earlier matches in the competition had also been televised.

Following the match, McGlashan highlighted via Twitter that the players were rewarded with only around $50 each (as a travelling allowance), and there was no prize money awarded to either the winners or runners-up.

Above: McGlashan’s first tweet (of many). $ amounts subsequently corrected

Meanwhile, the men who played in the Twenty20 match beforehand pocketed $575 each for their day’s work. The team that goes on to win the men’s final will apparently receive $60,000, with even the runner-up team still earning $20,000.

(Interestingly, there was no mention of the annual retainers that the men also receive – ranging from $53,000 to $27,000 per annum depending on where a player is ranked by their domestic association.)

McGlashan wasn’t afraid to shoot from the hip in voicing the disparity. It’s clearly something which has irked him for some time – and for particularly good reason, given his sister Sara is a former NZ international who, like a number of our better cricketers, is now playing in Australia and England as she battles to earn a living from the game she loves.

Peter is also a board member for Northern Districts, who were set to give their female players match fees equal to their male counterparts this season until the national body stepped in, worried about the precedent it would set (that’s a seriously crap reasoning in this day and age).

The debate follows similar lines to those that both football and rugby are increasingly having to deal with, as the popularity and profile of women’s sport grows. Last year, our national women’s rugby team was given an improved financial package including annual retainers.

And last May, New Zealand Football agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with our Football Ferns that ensured equality with the All Whites in respect to pay parity, prize money, image usage rights, and travel arrangements. The agreement was hailed as a world-first for its unparalleled scope.

In regards to football, I’m rather envious of how cricket and rugby have managed to professionalise their men’s competitions at a domestic level – I’m sure many football players are pretty envious too. Talented male cricket and rugby players across the country can aspire to become a genuine professional player, paid to play the sport they love.

It often staggers me how football – far and away the world’s biggest sport, with professional leagues in dozens of countries – can’t provide proper pro or semi-pro leagues in NZ.

But back to the stir created by McGlashan’s comments. There seems to be plenty of people – predominantly, it would appear, males – who feel that women’s sport is lucky to get the level of exposure, coverage, and funding that it currently does.

When you filter out the commenters who are blatantly just trolling (hopefully?), then there seems to be a couple of common justifications that crop up as to why female sportspeople don’t deserve the time of day:

  1. There’s clearly not the public interest in women’s sport – proven by tiny crowds and small TV audiences compared to their male counterparts; &
  2. The skill level of the best females in many of these sports just can’t compare to the elite males.

Both of these justifications appear to ignore the numerous hurdles that have been placed in front of generations of females playing sport (and many other aspects of their lives too).

This is where I have to be honest and admit that until a few years ago I was pretty ignorant about this myself. I thought that females had it easy by being able to reach the international stage with only a fraction of the competition for spots their male counterparts faced.

Learning about the treatment of women footballers in pre-WW2 England was an eye-opener for me. Discovering that a Boxing Day women’s football match in Liverpool in 1920 drew a capacity crowd of over 50,000, with thousands more turned away, blew me away (Ella wrote about it here). Seemingly threatened by the growing popularity and crowds (which frequently exceeded those of the top men’s teams), the FA effectively banned women’s football in 1921. Women’s football practically didn’t exist for four decades.

Even after this ban was lifted, women’s football was left to stagnate until it was brought under the FA umbrella in the 1990s and given more attention over the ensuing years. It’s impossible to imagine just where the profile of women’s football would be at now if it hadn’t been virtually killed off for half a century – multiple generations of potential female footballers!

The other eye-opener was more personal, and was a bit of an eureka moment that only struck me quite recently. More than a decade ago, I was the most average of average third-grade cricketers in Dunedin. I vividly recall playing a club match against a team that featured three girls – one by the name of Suzie Bates. She was already on the cusp of playing international cricket, and here I was hitting her for six and dismissing her in the same match – what a great laugh! That was always a good story over a beer as my old teammates and I would see Suzie go on to captain her country and become one of the world’s premier all-rounders. She was no better than a third grader!

It’s only recently that it dawned on me what an arse I had been to treat her success with even a modicum of contempt. Sure, I might have got the better of her on that particular day – but she was just a teenager trying to push herself to reach her potential. With no proper club competition available to girls, she had no choice but to come up against boisterous males much older and bigger than her. She was probably terrified. But even at such a young age she knew that was the kind of challenge she had to face in order to achieve her lofty ambitions. She’s developed into an absolute superstar. I never made it out of third grade.

Even today, many of the cricketers thrust onto national television in the Women’s Super Smash face hurdles that the men don’t have to worry about. As genuine amateurs, the women often struggle to even get regular training sessions together given their other commitments. Most regions don’t have any form of proper women’s club competition. These players are effectively getting thrown into the lion’s den with televised matches – it’s no wonder so many of the players (many of them teenagers) seem so nervous in these matches.

You get the impression that New Zealand Cricket believe they’re doing women’s cricket a big favour by simply providing the TV exposure – and it has been great in boosting the profile of the sport – but in many respects it’s actually quite unfair on the players. All of a sudden they are having to deal with the negative consequences that come with being on national TV, and the pressure of making mistakes that instead of being quickly forgotten can be endlessly scrutinised. They’re not used to it. Sure, some of these players have serious aspirations to play international cricket, but some don’t. They just want to play cricket! What do they get in return? Barely enough to cover their lunch and dinner bill.

It’s disappointing when even the likes of White Ferns star Frankie Mackay – whose commentary stints have been a highlight of the summer – publicly says the following:

“We understand [that] we don’t bring the money in, we’re not the big sponsorship drivers, we’re not getting huge crowds in that are paying ticket price to get into the ground. We understand that we cost our associations money at the present stage.”

It’s disappointing because domestic men’s cricket (and rugby, and football…) certainly isn’t drawing in the crowds either. 25 years ago, 13,000 packed into Carisbrook for the (amateur) one day final. Last month, barely 700 fans attended the men’s one day competition final – despite stunning weather, cheap tickets, and extensive marketing. At most men’s domestic matches, the crowd can easily be tallied by a quick headcount. So that’s not a valid justification.

The reality for all of these sports is that the majority of the revenue is driven by the success of the international teams. And while at the moment virtually all of that revenue is generated by the international men’s teams, I don’t see any good reason why that means that revenue should only filter down to men’s domestic competitions.

Because rather than treating the women’s competitions as a liability, they need to be considered an investment in the future. Investing a fair share of that revenue into the promotion and development of women’s competitions will slowly start to undo the decades of under-investment – in fact, negligence – that’s been suffered across the sporting spectrum.

Football has perhaps escaped much of the recent media glare in terms of inequality between genders, and as mentioned NZF has made some fantastic strides with the new collective bargaining agreement, the bigger and better National Women’s League, and the swift response to the Andreas Heraf fiasco. Things are heading in the right direction – but there’s still a long way to go.

Because while it’s impossible to say exactly where women’s sport could be today without the inter-generational hurdles faced over the last century, now’s the time to invest in getting it right for future generations.

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7 replies

    1. Heh – thanks for pointing that out – might have been just before my time following the league! But no surprise given how many sportswomen are multi-talented across the sporting spectrum.

  1. To me the obvious way to give womens sport a “hand up, not a hand out” is to host mixed gender competitions – particularly at the highest level. It worked a treat in tennis where women and men compete in parallel at the same Grand Slam tournaments. The resultant organic growth in fan following for women’s tennis has been the starting point for media attention, viable sporting career paths (not just for players but also coaching, administration, fitness, media etc), large committed player base and everything else needed for a sustainable professional sport ecosystem. Sure, some young women may initially wilt under the sudden spotlight of massive media attention, but others will seize their opportunity like the U17 Ferns did and take flight.

    A mixed gender FIFA World Cup would rapidly and dramatically raise the profile of women’s football. Cost and logistics have been thrown up as obstacles, but how significant are they really? FIFA is already planning sprawling, continent-wide World Cups for the future (and seems intent on diluting the elite status of the competition in the process by adding ever more men’s teams). The real obstacles are conservatism and short-term greed – strong drivers in highly political organisations with deeply tribal cultures.

    Like many first world males, my view on gender equality was that we aren’t quite there yet but we’re generally going in the right direction apart from some occasional backsliding. This view was utterly shattered when my daughter started showing signs of enjoying and having an aptitude for sport. It didn’t take much research to find that of the wide range of sports providing men with financially self-sustaining careers, only tennis and golf were reliably viable options for women. I’m embarrassed to admit that somehow this yawning gulf of gender disparity eluded my notice until there was a possibility it would affect a member of my family.

    From there it didn’t take long to become aware of online commentary to the effect that women’s sport is a joke, they don’t have the physique to compete and nobody’s interested because of the low level of performance and skill on display. Often online seems to be a place where everyone’s trying to be a shock jock, but you have to assume that at least some of that sentiment is genuine and worth responding to. So here goes:

    It’s true that most of the records for physical feats are held by men (ultramarathon and freediving among the few exceptions). For some, this is what sport is all about – running the fastest, jumping the highest, throwing the furthest – and those people can get everything they need from the Guiness Book of Records and track & field (which ironically is a big promoter of women’s sport thanks to its joint competitions). But for the rest of us, record breaking is of relatively fleeting interest compared to oppositional sports where humans compete with all the resources they can bring to bear – physicality, skill, instinct, determination, adaptability, deception and brainpower. Two committed opponents contesting a finely balanced game is one of the most reliably entertaining forms of reality TV in existence. Doesn’t male domination of sport make this a more one-dimensional experience for everyone?

    Balance is crucial to the drama of sport. In balanced sports we often see an entertaining “arms race” where teams and players continually strive to find new and improved ways to counter each other. Balance is also why elite level women and men don’t generally participate together in highly physical sports – there is little entertainment in lopsided competition. But there is no reason why women-only competitions should be any less competitive and entertaining, and they can actually be more interesting than men’s sport. Some male tennis players have excessively powerful serves that cause an imbalance between attack and defence, with a large percentage of points only involving one hit of the ball. Female tennis players generally aren’t as able to dominate with the serve, resulting in a more engrossing contest.

    Sport can give us many gifts – goals and direction, building of character, camaraderie, health, and maybe even income. But the greatest gift of all is the chance to live life with heightened meaning through high-stakes competition in front of large, passionate audiences. Are there really any worthwhile reasons to deny women the opportunity to share in these experiences?

    1. Great comments – thanks for contributing your thoughts. I have to admit that having a young daughter has certainly helped me look at things from a different perspective and realise things weren’t as fair as I had previously thought!

  2. In terms of game revenue, I’ve been charged up to $15 to attend men’s national league matches. I’ve never encountered a gate charge for a women’s national league match yet. Why is this? Is it a simple anomaly? Have I just been lucky? Or do we have no faith in the women’s product as a saleable item?

    I don’t know what to think. Appreciate the views of others. Women’s football can be very different, but shouldn’t the waters be tested a bit more on gate income?

    1. That’s certainly a question worth exploring. But there’s so many factors that go into ticket pricing for events. Part of that’s historic factors; for example, our (men’s) national league football team down this end of the country struggles to get people through the gate for a mere gold coin, despite being more than competitive these days. People just aren’t used to forking out $ for football down here.

      The fast-improving (at least in terms of profile) Australian W-League & WBBL competitions (women’s football & cricket respectively) are now charging respectable gate fees (although generally about half the price of their male counterparts). They’ve also reached a point where these matches are becoming standalone matches rather than being treated as curtain-raisers for the men.

      I believe with an increased focus on promotion & development of our competitions that we’ll reach a tipping point where fans will happily pay to attend quality matches. But it won’t happen overnight.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. The same sort of thing happens in other sports too. I can’t understand why golf in particular cannot make more of an effort at professional level to host a combined event. Or even have a genuine foursomes (alternate hit) L/PGA tournament. Golf is one of the few sports that could actually have players of varying strength compete on the same layout. Have two sets of tees, have a male and female champion but they are paired or grouped together.
    Currently where I play, tee times are still segregated by gender, I’ve raised this numerous times at committee meetings, saying that if a young couple (well they don’t have to be young, it is golf) join our club, the only day they can actually play together is Sunday. Our course is predominantly male, and women have select tee times on Saturday, however I proposed a complete opening up of all times, based on membership (IE full playing, plays anytime they want). However it was actually rejected by the female committee members who wanted their Tuesday preserved.
    This doesn’t necessarily relate to your blog, but some attitudes are deeply entrenched and not always how you would expect.

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