Why are so many women’s sports played in near-empty stadiums? Madeleine Chapman suggests some big changes to bring in more fans.
Over the weekend I took a bus to Tauranga to watch the first of three tournaments aimed at deciding the best women’s basketball team in New Zealand. The event was held at ASB Baypark Arena, a huge sporting complex designed to seat big crowds for multiple games at once. I was with a bunch (nine) of my relatives because we had cousins/daughters in the Wellington team. At each game, we made up at least 60% of the crowd.
It’s not like the basketball was bad. There were a lot of great players. It’s just no-one was there to see them. My aunties are famous for being very vocal towards the referees during games. Last weekend they had intimate conversations with the ref every time a foul was or wasn’t called. Typically by the end of each game, the stands would start to fill up a little. But it was just the next batch of teams arriving early before their games. And so it was there, sitting in a huge stand, surrounded by empty seats, that I tried to figure out why people just aren’t interested in watching women play sport.
I thought about Valerie Adams. She and Tom Walsh can both throw the shot put over 20 metres and it’s bloody impressive. It’s equally exhilarating to see their power and strength in action.
But if we gave Valerie a men’s shot put – 7.7kg instead of the women’s 4kg – and she threw it considerably less than 20m, it just wouldn’t be as exciting, despite showcasing the same power and strength.
Therein lies the problem with some women’s sports. We have tried to practice gender equality in a number of codes, particularly cricket, basketball, and rugby, and have only been rewarded with small crowds and little-to-no interest. What women’s sport needs more than equality is equity; for watching women play to feel equal to watching men.
The WNBA has become moderately successful thanks to a major boost from their affiliated men’s league, the NBA. But even with all the sponsorship and media, the women’s league doesn’t bring in the numbers to be even closely comparable .
There’s a simple explanation. Basketball players love to watch the Spurs go through a set play, executed perfectly with fluid ball movement, and finish with a soft touch off the glass from Timmy D. But most viewers would rather see LeBron James rudely put his crotch in another man’s face while dunking on him.
Put simply, the men’s game has something to offer that the women’s game can’t compete with.
Tennis is an exception. Few sports have successfully navigated the gender terrain as well as that game, and it’s no surprise that seven of the 10 highest earning female athletes of last year were tennis players. Sadly, the blonde, short skirt wearing may be a factor, but for the sake of my sanity I will say that it is also because the dimensions and equipment in tennis are perfect. Everything is just the right size. The fact that there is such a thing as mixed doubles is proof enough. Can you imagine a mixed game of basketball or a mixed game of international cricket?
Yet even in the game of tennis where everything is so beautifully equal, men play five sets and women play three. And it works. People don’t scoff at Serena Williams because she plays fewer sets than the men. They sit back and enjoy her astounding athleticism within a shorter game.
Golf found the one area where women struggled against men – the long drive – and moved the tee-off mark forward because it makes perfect sense. It’s not patronising, it’s smart.
The playing field needs to be evened before the players set foot on it, not explained away after nobody has watched them play.
I watched the White Ferns beat Australia in a Twenty20 match at the Basin last weekend. There was one six hit the whole game. Now I know for a fact that women can hit sixes. I’ve seen it happen many times off my own bowling. And I could argue until I am blue in the face that it’s far more impressive for a woman to hit a six because the bowling is a lot slower and so the ball connects with the bat at a much lower velocity, requiring far more power to hit the ball over blah blah blah. But if you just watched two of the best teams in the world play a Twenty20 and hit one six between them, my ranting probably wouldn’t convince you to tune in next time.
The fact that a lot of people watch netball proves they do enjoy watching women play sport. Netball is in the wonderfully unique position of not having to compete with a male equivalent. Who knows what would happen if men started playing the sport professionally. Perhaps they would be in a similar position to some female teams now; struggling to keep up and perform within rules and structures clearly designed for the opposite sex.
If women’s cricket and basketball want to see viewing numbers increase, something needs to change. While some sporting bodies (sorry, pun) have capitalised on their athletes’ aesthetics, for others it may merely be a case of modifying the women’s game so that the action is on par with the men’s.
Lower the basketball hoop to nine feet. Take 10 grams off the cricket ball and bring the boundaries in so that most women can throw the ball into the keeper on the full. Make small changes so viewers don’t feel that the women’s game is lacking in comparison.
No-one cares that Valerie Adams throws a lighter shot put than the men. They care that she throws it just as far.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.