Unequal Fields

The World Cup by default for most means men’s World Cup and that’s the big problem for most women’s sports

By Author  |  Published: 16th Jun 2019  12:00 amUpdated: 15th Jun 2019  10:23 pm

There is another World Cup on. Twenty of the 52 matches have already been played. And there have been many stunning moments and quite a few records too have been set. Yet many of us have not even heard of it.

The eighth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off on June 7 in France. After making it through the qualification rounds, 24 nations are playing the beautiful game in the biggest tournament, which concludes on July 7.

The teams have been divided into six groups and each team plays three games within its group. The knockout phase begins on June 22.

The United States is the defending champion and France is hosting the event for the first time. Australia, China, Japan, Korea Republic and Thailand are the teams competing from Asia, after winning the first five spots in the 2018 AFC Asian Women’s Cup in Jordan. France, Germany and England are considered strong contenders.

Team USA in their first match shut out Thailand 13 – 0. In this single game, the women from the US scored more goals than their male counterparts scored in the last four World Cups put together. Argentina, which did not play from 2015-17 owing to pay cuts by the Argentine Football Association, drew their opener against Japan, the winner of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Italians scored their first victory in two decades stunning Australia 2 – 1.

Glaring Gap

Yet, unlike their male counterparts, the FIFA World Cup, which is always surrounded by hype and hoopla, the Women’s cup got off to a sober start. While the men’s World Cup is celebrated as a carnival across the globe, the women’s event is getting scant attention despite the high quality of the matches. The growing gender gap in sports is disconcerting.

Even the organisers of the Women’s World Cup have a very casual approach. The final of this World Cup is scheduled on July 7, the same day the finals of Copa America in Rio de Janeiro and CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago is being played. This would rob away the much-needed viewership and focus from this flagship quadrennial event.

The whole country is now glued to television sets with ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup under way in England and Wales. The game of cricket is no less than a religion in India but when it comes to women’s cricket, we aren’t interested. While the male cricketers enjoy a demigod status, not many are bothered about the Indian women cricketers. Until July 2017, the women’s cricket team was never a topic of discussion. Their inspiring performance in
the 2017 World Cup, where they reached the final before going down to England, changed the fortunes for the eves for the better, but not wholly. Some women cricketers are now being recognised.

But challenges remain. Barring major ICC tournaments, their matches are not seen as lucrative for broadcasters and so most of their matches are not live telecast. Since women’s cricket attracts less eyeballs and ad revenue when compared with male cricket, it is not a profitable business yet.

The attention given to women’s cricket by the BCCI and the world body International Cricket Council (ICC) too is much less than their male counterparts. Only a handful of tournaments are being conducted year-long unlike men’s cricket.

Indian cricket stars like ODI captain Mithali Raj, T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur and batting sensation Smriti Mandhana have now and again brought up the issue of unequal pay. In fact, much needs to be done to bridge the gap between men and women’s cricket, in terms of pay, attention, and a lot more.

Individual Success

When it comes to other games, the resurgence of women’s tennis and badminton is directly proportionate to the success of the individuals playing the game. For instance, Sania Mirza powered the popularity of tennis, while shuttlers Saina Nehwal and now PV Sindhu managed to grab the spotlight for badminton. Their success at the Olympic level and international events saw it get wide coverage and attention. Women’s badminton is now more popular than that of their male counterparts due to the tremendous success Saina and Sindhu managed in recent years.

Otherwise, the only time the women athletes in the country hog the limelight is when they win medals at international events like the Olympics or Asian Games. We had such instances in 2016 Rio Olympics where women came to the fore. Sindhu (with badminton silver) and Sakshi Malik (with wrestling bronze) were the only two medal winners for the country, saving India from a major embarrassment. It is in such moments that women’s sports get support and appreciation from all quarters. But soon after the hype dies down, it returns to the staid old ways.

The Exception

The global scenario too isn’t much different. On the world stage, the only sport that is on the way to matching their male counterparts is tennis. This game got a much-needed boost when tennis icon Billie Jean King created Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973 after years and years of battle for equal pay.

In the same year, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tourney to offer the same prize money to both men and women. Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Chris Evert and Maria Sharapova, along with others, kept fighting for equality across tournaments, forcing Wimbledon to join the fold in 2007. But there are still tournaments that offer much lesser pay for women.

Why Disparity

A survey in 2018 revealed that over 70 per cent of the men in the top 200 rankings have earned more money than female players. A section of people, including a few players, argue that the women’s games are devoid of intensity like in men’s competitions and men’s games, which draw more business by attracting more crowds. Men play five sets, compared with women who play a three-set match. Players like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have commented against equal pay stating that men should be paid more and they have rightly been criticised.

Interestingly, a few researches have revealed that viewing figures are not gender based but determined by the individual performances. From 2010 to 2014, the women’s US Open final attracted larger audiences in America than the men’s final, with Serena playing four of those finals. More people watched Kim Clijster’s win in the 2010 French Open than they saw Nadal’s victory.

The major roadblock in bridging the gap is the very low popularity some of the women’s sports enjoy among the audience. Media outlets and sponsors say that they would invest more time and money in providing better coverage to women’s sport if they are more popular. But should they not be playing a more proactive part in making women’s sport popular rather than seeing it only through the prism of profit?

In a country like India, where sports is still not a viable career, options for women are limited. Most of them are discouraged from playing after a certain age, while the issues about making ends meet take over. It’s time we realised that hard work, dedication and success should be the criteria, and not gender.