By Karthik Shankar:
The FIFA Women’s World Cup started ten days ago and yet you would hardly know it. I had to stream the highlights of one of the most exciting football games this year. It was a Switzerland – Ecuador match in which Fabienne Humm displayed her dexterity by scoring a hat-trick of goals in five minutes. It irked me that the only way I could watch it was a highly pixelated video online. In India, not a single sports channel has live coverage of the games. Meanwhile they are re-telecasting test matches played two years back and incessantly scheduling repeats of La Liga games. Are we really more interested in older games than watching live coverage of women playing spectator sports?
The World Cup followed months of feverish anticipation about everything from the tattoos the players would sport to the WAGs they would bring along. Barely a year later, the Women’s World Cup, has the distinction of being the only FIFA World Cup, since its inception, to be played on artificial turf. That’s how little FIFA cares about the women’s game.
The lack of support by FIFA permeates even football clubs. In many developing countries, the focus on men has derailed women’s football. For instance, Neymar’s high salary forced Santos, his previous club, to dissolve their women’s football team. Neymar’s salary was over $5 million at that point, almost ten times the annual budget of the women’s team.
Even our country is not exempt from this disinterest in women’s sports. Since the BCCI took over women’s cricket in 2006, the quality of the women’s cricket team has deteriorated. Several junior level tournaments like the U-16 and inter-zone tournaments were scrapped; clear signs of cost-cutting by the BCCI. If one of the richest sports boards in the world cannot afford to invest this much in women’s cricket, then how do we expect our women’s team to thrive?
Sports bodies are not the only culprits. The question of why women’s professional sports attract less interest from sports fans (who are overwhelmingly male) and the media usually has one very sexist retort. Men are physically stronger than women and display far higher standards of athletic ability. The idea though, that the difference in interest is tied to sexual dimorphism is dubious at best.
Each sport requires its own set of special skills. People watch the English Premier League for the pace and La Liga for the nimble manoeuvres. So why can’t women’s football be watched for its unique qualities, rather than be measured against some arbitrary yardstick (which doesn’t even make sense considering men’s football boasts such a diverse array of playing styles in different countries and clubs)?
The problem is that the disinterest in women’s sports becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A study that found ESPN’s flagship programme SportsCenter devoted just 2% of its coverage for women’s sport, delved into how the media shapes perceptions of women’s sport. It points out that the “continuous cacophony of exciting coverage of men’s sports is counterpoised with the tendency to present most of the few women’s sports stories in a matter-of-fact, uninspiring, and lacklustre manner.” Cheryl Cooky one of the authors of the study astutely surmised, “Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting. They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary. When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.”
The Guardian’s sports desk scrapped its weekly report on women’s football due to a lack of readership. However, this in turn further removes female players from the centre of the zeitgeist. Lack of readership, viewership and sponsorship further deflates future interest in the games. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents female athletes from earning as much or being adulated as much as men. If sports like tennis are more egalitarian it’s because the women’s tournaments get to enjoy the perks of associating with the men’s games such as the plush stadiums and the high quality television coverage.
Just look at how Usain Bolt’s record setting sprints amplified interest in track. All it takes to galvanise a sport (or the women’s version of it) is a worldwide celebrity. This World Cup has no shortage of stars like the dynamic Asisat Oshoala of Liverpool Ladies. The New York Times notes that many of this year’s football stars have been compared to male greats. The difference is, we get to see Messi and Neymar on television.