Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Essay - musings on women's sport

Again sidetracked this morning by the women's world cup. Again frustrated by the difficulty in actually finding the SBS live feed. Whoever designed the SBS web site deserves a good kick!

I got quite emotionally involved in the game to the point of tears when the Australian girls lost. The Japanese were the better side on the day, but our girls did us proud. Go the Matildas!

That got me thinking about women's sport, men's sport and the broader audience.

This is Aunt Kay on winning the Armidale tennis club woman's championship, It's actually a rather nice shot. Later she would go on to try for Wimbledon in the qualifying rounds. Kay argued, correctly to my mind, that women's tennis was more interesting than men's because of the higher skill levels required as compared to the power and physicality of the men's game.

Tennis was, I think, the first sport where the women's game came to rival the men's in popularity.

We are all formed by our own experiences. In  my case, my interest in women's sport came from my daughters. Outside tennis or athletics, I had no knowledge of women's sport beyond references in schholbooks. Then, with daughters, came almost two decades of watching my girls play.

This is Clare in goal, University of New South Wales defending. Emma. is in the middle. For a number of years Emmas's dad and I met at the hockey. I learned a fair bit about hockey (and Emmas's dad)!  He knew more than I, but together we would walk the sidelines and cheer.

A little later when the hockey world championships were on, I watched the women's matches. I knew enough about the rules by then to have a better feel for the technique of the game and to thoroughly enjoy the spectacle. ..

With Helen came netball and water polo, among other sports. As happened with Clare and hockey, after so many years watching netball, I acquired a real understanding for the game, along with some understanding of water polo. The next time that someone says that boys are rougher than girls, refer them to water polo! What goes on under the water is quite remarkable.

Do more women play sport now that in past years? They certainly spend more time in the gym, perhaps more time than men. But the answer is probably yes overall, although I know of no statistics to measure this.

Both girls and boys now have access to many more sports and at a higher level. The increase in standards has been quite substantial across all sports. In  Rugby, the game I now watch most at school level, my old school firsts now play in the GPS (NSW Greater Public Schools) thirds competition.

There are practical reasons for this. The school is simply not big enough in numbers to be able to the top GPS grade. Just because the school competes in the thirds does not mean that the boys do not have access to highly professional coaching nor to the latest sport's science. I could just wish that I had their opportunities when I played. Watching the boys play over the last two years, my feeling is that they would have defeated any of the school firsts at the time I played.

In all my years playing school sport, I don't think that my parents came to a single game or meet. The world of school was isolated. That has changed.

My own involvement in my girls' sport gave me much joy. However, the interest in and rising standard of school sport has its downsides. It has given rise to scandals about professionalism and to some very nasty behaviour by parents and other supporters.The idea that you would need guards at matches or rigid codes of conduct for players and especially spectators would have seemed incomprehensible to my parents or indeed me when I was growing up. The idea of drug testing for young athletes equally so.

Returning to my opening theme, there has been a lot of discussion over the last two decades about the limited audience for women's sport and the differential pay rates for men and women athletes. In the end, pay comes back to audiences. If you choose to play hockey at top grade, man or woman,  you will earn less for an equivalent skill level than if you were playing soccer.

As has already happened in tennis, when the audiences are there, pay tends to equalise.
As has already happened in soccer, as women's skill levels increase and where there is a competitive element that people can identify with, audiences grow. As they do, there is more cash.

Netball  is presently the most fascinating case study, for this is almost exclusively a girls' sport. With the possible exception of soccer, netball has the biggest junior playing base in Australia. It has a Trans-Tasman competition attracting growing attendances, including men. They may have begun as fathers, boyfriends or partners, but they remain attracted to the game.

Whether netball can make the final jump to a mass viewing audience of men as well as women is still an open question. I think that the code has a pretty fair chance of doing that.      .  



2 tanners said...

I used to watch my son playing hockey (I have no girls) in the frosty mornings of Canberra. Very few parents ever turned up. As a former hockey player I knew most of the rules, except when they had been modified, or changed for schools. The most fulfilling part for me was being on hand as a parent who understood the sport, not as a sports appreciater.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting 2T. At my girls' school, a fair number of parents turned up. Later in post-school sport, there were very few parents beyond me. When I began, I did not understand the rules. I had never watched some of these sports. After more than decade in some cases, I gained an understanding of the rules. That helped me to enjoy an become involved with the games as games.

Sunday, and by accident, I saw a little of a game down the road involving Clare's old team. Emma, I mentioned her, was still playing, but her Dad was not there. I left after a little while because I had no-one to talk to or share.

Going back to watching my old school play in the GPS Rugby competition was quite difficult because I wasn't a parent. I felt an outsider, wondered if I should be there even though I enjoyed the sport and wanted to cheer the team on. It wasn't until I started writing about some of the games that I gained an "official" place. Even then, it could be remarkably lonely.

Sorry, this is a bit of a digress.