Is It 2017 in the World of Women’s Sport?

I still remember sitting there, with three minutes to go; Sydney led West Coast by four points and the entire crowd was frozen with fear, excitement and frustration – the latter mostly for fans who donned blue and yellow. With 30 seconds to go the ball is marked by Leo Barry, winning the Sydney Swans the 2005 AFL Premiership for the first time in 72 years. Young boys and girls dressed head to toe in red and white screamed at the camera, flashing their merch. Elderly fans, who had lived a lifetime without seeing their team win, cried into their loved one’s arms. I remember seeing the boys on the pitch, who had just won their first premiership, running into each other and falling carelessly into a pile. Most vividly, however, I remember wondering whether a stadium would ever fill to a capacity of 91, 898 spectators for a women’s league.

It is a common narrative: the pay gap between men and women in day-to-day society. This disparity, however, is much more pronounced in the world of sport, with the differences in income going from thousands to millions.

Cricket Australia – the national governing body for cricket – pitched a proposal to the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) in March 2017, which would have seen an inflation in the gender pay gap both domestically and internationally. Among the recommendations most contentious was the suggestion to scrap the shared revenue model for player payments, which has existed for 20 years. If adopted, this would push Australia’s male cricketers amidst the highest paid sportspeople in the nation, while failing to adjust Australian female cricketer’s salaries – rendering it a “win for cricket administrators, but a loss for cricket.” The ACA is the representative body for male and female cricket players and has been campaigning strongly against unfair treatment by Cricket Australia. Despite the series of protests and strike that took place earlier in the year, which even saw the existence of the Ashes called into question, the matter is yet to be resolved.

You may have heard that the Matildas, the Australian female soccer team, cancelled their US tour in 2015 due to a dispute with the Football Federation of Australia (FFA). The Matildas made Australian history in June of 2015 when they played Japan in the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup – a success that the Socceroos have never tasted. Despite being ranked sixth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, members of the women’s team earn $750 for each match, compared to a Socceroos player who earns $8,500 per match despite the team being 50th in the equivalent men’s world rankings. In fact, if the Matilda’s were to make to the women’s World Cup final, they would be paid less than the Socceroos get for a simply turning up for a single group-stage game.

It is understandably difficult to encourage young women to engage in sport when Australia demonstrates – on a domestic level as well as to an international audience – that they do not value women’s sport as they do men’s.

I’m sure that we have all heard the popular misconception amongst sports fans that the reason women’s sport is underfunded and underpaid is simply because it is less enjoyable to watch – and that this is backed up by men’s sport having more viewers. Indeed, world tennis star Novak Djokovic said only last year that male tennis players deserved to be paid more than their female counterparts because they attracted more spectators and TV viewers. Albeit offensive and sexist, his comments are not entirely false: women’s sports do have less spectators at the stadium and audiences watching the screen. However, there is more to this narrative than just the number of ticket sales made.

The perception of a higher entertainment value and male hegemony in the sports world is directly linked to funding decisions, visibility, sponsorship and traditional societal expectations of femininity. As highlighted above, the funding decisions made by associations such as CA and FFA commonly see women’s sport under-funded, despite performance achievements. Funding covers wages and salaries, but also determines the amount of money and effort devoted to training facilities, equipment, uniforms, coaches and trainers.

Despite a continued growth in participation, women’s sport remains less visible than men’s sports, in terms of media coverage, scheduling decisions and media representation. It is not difficult to see these differences. Weekend television is dominated with men’s AFL, NRL and cricket matches, spanning across all of 7’s channels (7, 7Mate and 7TWO) while there is not a women’s game in sight. During the European League, masses of Australians set their alarms for 3am, ensuring they wake up to watch the soccer. Female league, however, is only offered on pay-TV forums such as Foxtel. This kind of scheduling, which prioritises men’s sport, is loosely based on the assumption that there is a lack of audience interest for women’s sport. Thus, a perpetual cycle emerges: women’s sport is not broadcasted on free-to-air TV, much of the public is unaware or uninterested in seeking out the game, the game reaches a minimal audience, there is a lack of revenue and funding based on the number of spectators, and all the money is subsequently poured into the men’s league which upgrades its facilities and equips its players with the tools they need to play better.

A 2010 study that looked at sport coverage in the Australian media found that only nine per cent of news and seven per cent of non-news content covered women in sport, demonstrating the relative exclusion of women’s sport in the media. Moreover, any air-time that is devoted to women in sport does not come without negative commentary. Female athletes are often subject to harassment by the media: they are either overtly sexualised or ridiculed for not adhering to traditional societal conceptions of femininity. A study in the 1970s of professional sports photographs looked at gymnasts who combined youthfulness with athleticism and a slender figure, demonstrating the how the idealised images of the female form depict the gender ideals in a given era. This study served to highlight how sports photographs construct and establish gender and body standards through popular media and advertisement.

We see this on a day-to-day basis: when we open a magazine and often see images of female runners wearing tight, sexualised workout clothing that attracts dialogue surrounding her physical appearance rather than athletic ability. Furthermore, female athletes with more ‘masculine’ physiques and characters are often met with slander, taunting and mockery for not fitting within society’s framework of a timid, soft-spoken and feminine figure. The victor of the 1999 Australian Tennis Open tournament, Amelie Mauresmo, faced aggressive discourse surrounding sexuality and masculinity in the media coverage of the game, and it seems it has not, even now, dissipated. Andy Murray recently revealed that upon hiring Mauresmo as his coach, he received an amount of criticism aimed directly at her coaching abilities, incomparable to any he received with other male coaches. He stated that with other coaches, his failures were always blamed on him, but with Mauresmo, the reproval was aimed solely at her.

Upon looking at the disparities that exist across the board in women’s sports in Australia, we can’t help but be saddened at the lack of progress we’re making. Indeed, it is important to recognise the (slow) developments that are taking place: it is a pleasure to think of my thoughts during the 2005 AFL Grand Final, and recognise that 12 years on, in February 2017, Australia kicked off its first women’s AFL league. However, despite this incredible progress, netball is still the only professional women’s sport in Australia. As a nation, we need to show more interest in seeing women’s professional sports leagues broadcasted on the big screen. Preferably at a higher rate than the current one women’s league game a week being aired on free-to-air TV.