The myth that there’s no interest in women’s sport is crumbling fast in the wake of the Matildas’ World Cup run and the exceptional trans-Tasman netball grand final, writes James Maasdorp.
They’re the talk of the town, and rightly so: the Matildas’ win over Brazil in the FIFA Women’s World Cupwas Australia’s first ever win in the knockout stage of either the men’s or women’s global competition.
Just a day earlier, the trans-Tasman netball championship decider wowed pay-TV audiences as the Queensland Firebirds scored five straight goals at the death to snatch a 57-56 win over the NSW Swifts in Brisbane.
All the while, the internal metrics measuring eyeballs on stories at ABC News Online told its own story: the audience was furiously clicking on women’s sport stories, and the appetite for them looks a long way from being sated.
Grandstand’s article for the Matildas’ win over Brazil was the most popular for June 22 by a long shot, exceeding Jordan Spieth’s US Open win and a host of the ABC’s more bread-and-butter political stories.
The netball grand final caught fire on social media in what was unanimously lauded as a scintillating, exciting contest, to the extent that “Firebirds” was trending nationally in Australia’s twittersphere.
More and more, this is disproving the old myth that women’s team sport is inferior to men’s and, as a result, proving that there is significantly more demand for the greater media coverage of the women’s game.
A prospector would remark “there’s gold in them hills”. An entrepreneur might reckon we’re dealing with a seriously untapped market.
The myth that there’s no interest in women’s sport is crumbling fast, and while the nay-sayers may be circling the wagons, questions of both the quality of play and the sport’s overall product are rapidly being answered.
The fierce intensity of the netball grand final and Katrina Gorry’s awesome through-ball to set up Australia’s winner against Brazil have showcased the quality on offer in netball and women’s football.
But there are other aspects to the package, perhaps even a comparative advantage, that differentiates the women’s game from the men. The sportsmanship on display from the defeated NSW Swifts players in the wake of the Firebirds win, particularly from MVP Sharni Layton, was lauded far and wide across social media.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup has also been praised for having significantly less gamesmanship, preening and mean-spiritedness than modern men’s football at the top level.
In some ways, the fact that many of these sportswomen have to balance their exceptional on-field abilities with full-time occupations or study is a blessing, giving us well-rounded, relatable individuals who must truly cherish the adoration they receive from the crowd.
But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The holy grail, for equality’s sake, must be professionalisation of women’s team sport. That will not happen overnight. It will take years, perhaps even several generations, of successive women’s competitions to establish, in the same way men’s modern sport evolved in the late 19th and early 20th century.
What cannot be argued any longer, however, is that the quality of women’s sport still has some way to catch up to men.
Yes, men will for the most part be taller, stronger and quicker than women in overall benchmarks, but if this were the barometer for quality in all sport, there would never have been a market for women’s tennis, surfing or practically any Olympic event.
Women’s sport may be physically different to the men’s code, but it is no less strategic or passionate. In time, given the opportunity, it too can be equally storied and develop its own history.
The ball may already be rolling, with video game producer EA Sports’ announcement that women’s teams will feature in the next edition of the FIFA gaming franchise. If the likes of EA Sports keeps this up, the women’s game will become more and more mainstream each consecutive year.
FIFA16 will include a selection of women’s national teams – including the Matildas – with female professionals being used to capture the same painstakingly accurate player animations.
EA Sports has acknowledged there is a different pace and style to play in women’s football, meaning a different approach to the game will be required for the player.
Turn your nose up at video games if you must, but we are talking about the FIFA franchise – a behemoth in world sport. If the likes of EA Sports keeps this up, the women’s game will become more and more mainstream each consecutive year.
So with all this goodwill, where to now for the women’s game in Australia?
Fox Sports must be credited for the excellent product it has delivered in its broadcasting of the trans-Tasman netball championship. The W-League, however, has a long way to go after the ABC was forced into axing its coverage due to budget cuts.
The netball has proved it can stand on its own two feet, but now serious questions should be asked as how to better foster other women’s team sports.
The AFL has already said it is pushing for a national women’s league to commence in 2017, with the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons’ women’s teams already featuring this season at the MCG, prior to the men’s team fixtures.
It will be a more difficult sell for the round ball game, with the quality of the pitch (set to host two back-to-back games) held in such high regard by players and groundskeepers, and bad weather could further complicate the argument on the day.
But the conversation remains critical for football. With the women’s game enjoying such high participation rates and greater coverage in Australia’s media, some kind of arrangement needs to be found between stakeholders to get more eyes on the women’s game to tap in to the Matildas’ success.
Playing and watching sport is meant for everyone. The joy (and despair) felt watching our top footballers and netballers has been widespread, crossing the gender divide.
Now it’s time for the media to start putting the foundations in place for the eventual equality in news representation of women’s sport.
© 2015 ABC | This article was written by James Maasdorp first appeared on ABC on 23 June 2015.