Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Women's Sport

It's seen as a great time for women's sport in the UK. Britain are Olympic Hockey champions, England are world rugby (for at least a few more weeks) and cricket champions, European Football semi-finalists. It's an exceptional level of success, and as people continue to point out, such a contrast to the men's teams.

I've touched on women's sport as an issue before, as it often comes up when I write about sporting "greatness" and discrepancies that clearly emerge when making such lists. There is considerable debate at the moment, both polite and otherwise, about fairness in sport, about the pay gap etc.

I feel like, on both sides, there is some nonsense being spoken. Safe to say, there is more nonsense being spoken by what we can gently call the "old-fashioned" side, but the "progressive" side is, as far as I can see, playing a little fast and loose with the truth sometimes.

Look, I really want to write this. I'm aware that it's in danger of coming across as mansplaining of the highest order, but anyone who reads anything that I write knows that I tend to self-importantly and pompously "splain without prejudice". I want to write about this, I care about it for a variety of reasons.

Mainly because I love sport, and those associations it often has (rightly) with prejudice, with violence, excessive partisanship, machismo, cheating, bullying, elitism and exclusion, are a massive shame. It needn't be that way. Well, not always ....

I'm lucky in my upbringing, I think, to have escaped most elements of the patriarchy. I'm pretty confident I'm,  at the very least, not a tremendous, awful chauvinist. But I know my maleness comes to the fore when it comes to sport, perhaps because of growing up playing so much male sport at a boy's school, as well as watching so much more men's sport than women's sport.

Sport is often not a progressive place. It's a place where grizzled so-called truths are hard to shake off. In this context, I've sometimes found myself apologist for some people getting more in a couple of days than teachers get in two years, I've found myself apologist for meanness and bullying, for survival of the fittest, for violence and rough behaviour, for cheating and grandstanding. For all the thoroughly male characteristics.

Even in my work, as a question writer seeking conciseness, it has only struck me as necessity rather than indulgence in the last year or two to e.g. write 'In the men's cricket World Cup ... ' and, when running a quiz, my assumption would be that a quiz audience with lots of women would not welcome a sport round whereas a room full of men would.

Oh, yeah, this is how progressives think ...

Well, enough of the introductions. The way to deal with this is not to talk about it in general terms, because actually the picture is very different across different sports. I'll try to incorporate numbers and facts gently rather than get bogged down in them.

A working assumption you can make is that I think fairness needs to be fought for, that I recognise that sport mirrors society in that it is not acceptable to pass off discrepancies as "the market" when "the market" is guided by historic unfairness.

Do sportswomen deserve equal pay to sportsmen? How is that to be achieved in a fair way? Is women's sport as good as men's sport? If not, how not, and can that be changed?
These are my key questions.

How far are women away from having equal pay to men in sport? Further than you can imagine. Were you outraged (or faux-outraged) by the BBC pay discrepancies? That's nothing, really nothing. Of the 2017 list of 100 Best Paid Athletes in the World http://www.nj.com/sports/index.ssf/2017/06/these_are_the_worlds_50_highest_paid_athletes_forb.html, there is precisely one woman, Serena Williams, at 51. And when we get to the top 1000, or top 10,000, well, I doubt it would get proportionately better. There are far too many half-decent male football and basketball players with extremely wealthy and competent agents for that.

What is particularly outrageous about this is that it far exceeds even what one would instinctively think. I mean, even though sport in the media has traditionally been dominated by men and there are definitely more famous sportsmen than sportswomen, that proportion is not 1 in 100, not in the UK, not anywhere.

So there are clearly several factors contributing to this huge unfairness - it's not just visibility and the market. There's plain old blatant sexism in play too.

An interesting list to place alongside that is the Sportspro Top 50 Most Marketable Sportspeople in the World http://www.sportspromedia.com/most-marketable. Of these, a more respectable 14 of the Top 50 are women. What does this speak of? Wishful thinking? Or that men are very happy to make money off women, just not to actually pay it to them? Probably a bit of both ...

How is it possible to change this? You can't just say "this should be fairer". The money is being paid by TV companies and brands and private individuals, they may pay lip service to giving a fuck, but they don't really, not with the figures at stake.

So where can one start to make inroads? Well, women's sport has to get better, doesn't it? It has to be a valuable and marketable and watchable product? It has to produce global stars who are worth the money?

Well, has it not already? Or, rather, has it not deserved to? Let's have a look, sport by sport.

Tennis is a good place to start, both because it's very high-profile and because gender issues and pay issues have been in the news lately.

I'd say there's very little doubt that tennis has produced the most iconic female stars of any sport - a good test of global fame I have access to is the picture rounds we put together for quizzes. Well, down the years, we've had Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Seles, Hingis, Sabatini, Capriati, Davenport, Henin, Clijsters, Venus and Serena Williams, Li Na, Sharapova, Kournikova, not to mention Konta, Watson, Robson, Baltacha, Judy Murray - those are just off the top of my head, there may have been others. I don't think the man, or woman, on the street with no great interest in sport could name or recognise so many women from other sports.

And these women have had the fame to fight for their rights more prominently than those in other sports - Billie Jean King, Navratilova, the Williamses, they're not just sportswomen, they're activists and forces for change. And yet Serena Williams, one of the greatest sportspeople of all time, still earns less than at least 50 sportsmen .... (by the way, I'm not going to go into race issues at all, that's a whole 'nother ...)

Yet, even this year, we've had a slightly unseemly set-to regarding John McEnroe and Serena W (who by and large tried to stay out of it). I confess, when I initially heard McEnroe, in response to whether she was the greatest tennis player of all time, had said Serena may be the greatest female player but she'd only be about No.700 in current men's players, and I saw the context of the interview in which he was rather egged on and perfectly civil, I thought "well, that's true, indeed Serena did lose easily several years ago to the world 300, i don't know what everyone's getting het up about".

But the fact it's true is not the point. Why compare her to men? Her not being "as good" as men doesn't take away from her greatness. She's playing a different sport with a different set of standards and criteria. McEnroe's response arguably did betray a certain grudging peeviness about women's tennis, that he always feels he's watching an inferior product.

The argument as to whether she is the greatest tennis player of all needs looking across eras, needs looking at the heat of her competition, the journey she went on, the longevity of her career, the list of grand slams etc. Whether Dimitry Tursonov or Lukas Rosol would beat her is totally irrelevant. It's like saying Sugar Ray Leonard isn't one of the greatest boxers of all time because Audley Harrison would probably knock him out.

Serena Williams gets way, way more than any other current female player (though Sharapova in her prime used to earn more from endorsements) and yet still earns less than Andy Murray. She's the greatest player of all time. That's clearly not right, much as I love Andy Murray. Andy Murray wouldn't think it was right.

Then the other arguments come up - it's not as competitive, not as many people watch it, they only play three sets.
Very briefly,
1. that depends on the era, women's tennis 1995-2005 had more great competitors than men's at the same time, it just happens men's tennis has been blessed over the last decade.
2. that's self-perpetuating in terms of TV deals, and not always true.
3. therefore women shouldn't be paid less, they should play the same structure as men. Now, in recent times it's becoming clear that a 5-set Grand Slam tournament is becoming a burden on more and more male players, with the intensity they play at - the number of injuries and drop-outs is increasing all the time.
So, how about something revolutionary to even it up but not create an impossible schedule? Across both men's and women's Grand Slam, it's Best of 3 sets up to the 4th round, and Best of 5 in the QFs, SFs and Finals.
I think this would be a great way to establish true equality in both men's and women's tennis. You'd lose the odd 5-set classic in the early rounds of a men's Grand Slam, but I reckon most people would prefer it.

Women wouldn't be able to cope with 5-set matches, some would say ... that persistent argument of physical weakness is one that has time after time been proved false in other sports, which allows me to move on to the world of Track and Field.

Now, Track and Field, indeed Olympic sport in general, is the place where, for the most part, men's and women's sport has equal value. A gold medal is a gold medal is a gold medal. (that's not to say that women are allowed to have an equal program to men in many sports). Support for one's nation often overrides the usual prejudices. I can only speak for myself but when I watch the Olympics, I've never thought of the women's events as secondary to the men's events.

There are several lessons in this. One is about exposure, which I'll return to. The events run alongside each other in full stadiums. Everything seems as important as the next thing, notwithstanding the presence of Usain Bolt. "Buzz" is so important. A feeling, watching sport, that it matters, and that you're with thousands and millions who also think it matters, that's of its essence.

Another thing is that men's and women's athletics events basically look the same, with quite a small reduction in standard. Women run (and swim) roughly 10% slower than men - our eyes are adjusted to still seeing them as outstanding athletes, I don't think we really notice that 10%. Again this is something I will get to in much greater detail when talking about the problems which might still face women's cricket and football.

Also, they do almost exactly the same events. This is where I take up my point from tennis. The idea that women don't have the strength and fitness to play as long as men has been debunked in athletics. For decades, men had a more complete programme, but gradually all the women's events have been added  - Marathon, 10000m, 5000m, 3000m steeplechase, Triple Jump, Hammer, Pole Vault in the last two or three decades. Funnily enough, women can do all of them perfectly well (!), and they've all very quickly become highly competitive, strong events.

I'm no scientist (I'll use that phrase more than once) but the gap between men and women is, i believe, far more to do with explosive power than stamina. The only differences now (besides the size of some projectiles) is that women do 100m rather than 110m high hurdles, they don't do 50km walk, and it's heptathlon rather than decathlon. All of those could be changed, just depends if there is sufficient movement for it to happen. You'd get people saying "women couldn't do decathlon ..." but I'm sure they could.

All this and bearing in mind women's athletics has been hamstrung for the last three decades by most of its World Records (which generate huge excitement for a sport) being out of reach due to the ludicrous drug and hormone-fuelled times and distances of the 1980s.

OK, I'm going to move on to cricket, which is at a high point in this country, but may yet have a few problems if it wants to establish equal footing with men's cricket. (I'm afraid this may be a point where I sound a bit more like a typical man, but hopefully not).

Women's cricket has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. This is particularly evident in the hitting (and the large scores) and the fielding. There has been a concentration on the limited overs game, there has been more professionalism and emphasis on fitness.

A recent World Cup final in front of a packed Lords where the hosts narrowly defeated the nation with the biggest cricket market in the world, India, couldn't have gone any better.

There will still be grumbling men.

Sport is about many things, it can be about numbers, teamwork, competition, atmosphere. All of those women's cricket can potentially achieve to the same extent as men's cricket.
But sport is also about explosive power, about seeing something unimaginable and electric. Usain Bolt, Muhammad Ali, Curtley Ambrose. And indeed Serena Williams, Allyson Felix, Simone Biles. Man or woman, we're watching something thrilling and beyond our capabilities.

A problem women's cricket may have is that there are a lot more men who have played (or will feel they have played) at that standard than might think they can run as fast as Elaine Thompson or jump as high as Katarina Johnson-Thompson (on a good day).

It is less a problem with the batting and fielding than the bowling. Both of them are so much better than even five years ago and you can imagine the same rate of progress continuing. The boundaries are brought in a little bit, there are plenty of 4s and 6s. You see the power gap less and less. Will it be the same with bowling?

The 10% gap in track and field is barely visible. In cricket, a male opening bowler may push 90mph, in women's cricket, it's rare that anyone bowls above 70mph, generally the opening bowlers are in the mid-60s. That's a much bigger and unignorable difference. Lots of club cricketers face faster bowling than that every Saturday.

Does that matter? Hopefully not. If the skills continue to improve and the pace continues to improve and, most importantly, there is enough women's cricket on TV, the game will be fully established as its own entity rather than set against men's cricket. It might remain an issue to a minority, but that would be all.

As a side note, I find it interesting that while running tends to see the 10% gap, the gap between javelin distances for men and women is proportionate to the distance in speed of bowling in cricket - 85/90 metres to 65 metres, 85/90mph to 65 mph. Again, I'm no scientist, someone who is could help.

Another side note is that, actually, especially in limited overs cricket, 65mph is much undervalued in men's cricket. I think most male seamers don't have the humility to bowl at that speed, but actually those kind of balls, without pace, can prove extremely difficult to get away. I think far too many one-day bowlers bowl too fast. So maybe women's cricket will be the pioneer.

The point of all this is - even with all things being equal, should they ever become so, with high professionalism, plenty of TV, regular excellent competition, will women's cricket be as "watchable" as men's cricket (in the way women's tennis and athletics are)?

There may be a breed of male sports fan who is unpersuadable. I suppose the hope is that these current successes will create and inspire a new breed of sports fan (thank goodness!) and a new audience which isn't comparing to the men's game.

Indeed, it may require a new, actively conscious and virtuous attitude to watching and commenting on sport for a while, a little bit of that political correctness gone mad. A determination to see women's sport as equal will be a self-fulfilling prophesy - if for a while, some sporting events get more newspaper coverage than their e.g. attendance suggests, then so be it.

Revenue generates pay, of course. Having said that, when it comes to national teams, I rather think there is more of an onus on governing bodies to pay equally, even while the women's game is less watched. It is far more of a public interest issue. It may be years before T20 franchises pay any where equally to women, but I rather think national teams could get close to do it pretty quickly.

That's why the recent decision to take the England women's rugby team (World Champions, no less) off 15-a-side contracts and focus on the Sevens side of thing is massively disappointing. As people are rightly saying, there seems to be plenty of money in English men's rugby, can they not spare a little more?
Particularly, this reduces the woman's game to an inferior product, without as many strings to its bow. Perhaps they are following cricket's lead - there has been a shift to T20 and ODIs a way from tests in recent years and, though a bit of a shame, it has probably made the game more lucrative and more watchable. But, you know, that's a general trend in men's cricket too, it's not really a trend in men's rugby. It should be possible for both 15-a-side and 7-a-side to thrive.

It's a particular shame because rugby, like cricket and football, has really shut the watchability gap in recent years. If a bit of money is put into a game, if players are allowed to be professional, to be full-time athletes, you very quickly see the results.

One thing football probably can't do quite as effectively as cricket is share a stage with the men's game E.g. you can play women's and men's cricket double-headers to generate interest and audience. I'm quite sure football clubs will never allow that.

However, women's professional football in this country is being played in front of larger and larger crowds. As recently as a few years ago, people were talking about reducing the size of the pitch or the goal for women. No one is saying that now.

The teams in the Women's Super League are increasingly aligned with "men's" clubs, something that has been done rather brutally and cynically, but which is increasing the profile of the women's game amongst casual fans.

In this country, of course, it's in football that the pay gap is most obscene, and, the way men's football is going, one can't really see that changing.

Obviously, a terrestrial channel and, indeed, Sky,  taking a punt on regular women's live club games in a prime slot would be a big help. Now more than ever, the spectacle is good enough. And I think that the audience prepared to give themselves to a less bloated and ghastly version of sport is really there.

I suspect it will be in international women's sport rather than club, or franchise, sport that women will find it easier to compete with men's sport in terms of prestige - a loyalty more quickly formed in the crowd's mind. This may be another reason why pay is some way behind coverage and marketability. Club usually pays more than country.

It is clear from figures like the number who watched the women's hockey final at the 2016 Olympics, the number that watched Konta-Halep at Wimbledon 2017, the number watching England's women at the 2017 Euros, that the potential audience is there. I think us sport lovers have surrendered too readily to the idea of the brutish/male/jock idea of sport. I think what is needed to make sport more universally attractive is really just a small leap of faith.

Traditional arguments about it not being a strong enough spectacle are not holding up. These ratings spikes can be more than one-offs.
So, will a woman footballer be payed £500,000 a week in the near future? I doubt it, but £10,000 a week would be a good start (actually, one or two in the USA have, but the British stars are way, way down on that).

Talking of obscene money and the ugly side of sport, Floyd Mayweather... (well, actually, an extremely graceful sportsman with a graceless personality). Boxing is an interesting case. I don't think women's professional boxing, though burgeoning, will reach a level playing field with men. At the moment, bouts are shorter, gloves are bigger and less harmful, and I rather think it will stay that way (thus never providing the shock and explosiveness which is the drug of many boxing fans) - not so much because of any archaic "women shouldn't be doing that" arguments, but just because, while men's pro boxing is so established that, though you can try to make it safer, to take away its essence would be to destroy it, to create a new sport (as 12 round women's boxing with smaller gloves would be) where people, men or women, are facilitated in knocking each other unconsciousness and giving each other brain damage, is very unlikely. Hence, I'd be surprised if women's boxing is allowed to develop into the same bloodthirsty dangerous spectacle as men's boxing and will remain primarily about skill, more like the amateurs.

But, generally, with very few caveats, it's clear that women's sport is moving in the right direction in terms of exposure, if not pay. It is moving in the right direction in terms of being essentially "the same" as men's sport rather than a watered-down version, it is moving in the right direction in terms of clearly being taken seriously as high-class professional sport.

I wanted to answer the question in my own heads - is women's sport "the same" as men's sport? i.e. all things being equal, is it as potentially thrilling, as potentially watchable, can it have as many stars, can it have exactly the same playing field and rules as the men's equivalent. I've found an overwhelming yes in almost every case.

This may seem a fatuous and backwards question to those for whom equality and fairness are without question, but, like I said, for a long-time sports fan reared on watching mostly men paid a huge amount, there were questions I needed to answer.

The sad truth is, this started when I was trying to think of the greatest male and female sports stars of my lifetime and there were far more male contenders I could think of, across a wider range of sports. Yes, I accept my own prejudices, such as they are. But sport is still mainly marketed by men and for men. I've probably watched an awful lot more women's sport than most people, but still a fraction of the men's sport I've watched.

Anyway, here's a list. It's in no particular order apart from Serena Williams being top! It's pretty arbitrary, obviously.

Top 25 Sportswomen of my lifetime

Serena Williams
Katie Ledecky
Annika Sorenstam
Steffi Graf
Janica Kostelic
Marta
Charlotte Edwards
Jenny Thompson
Chrissie Wellington
Tatyana McFaddyen
Sarah Storey
Martina Navratilova
Jessica Ennis-Hill
Katarina Witt
Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Heike Dreschler
Tirunesh Dibaba
Vreni Schneider
Mithali Raj
Marianne Vos
Svetlana Khorkina
Simone Biles
Mia Hamm
Allyson Felix
Chris Evert





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