This has already been a bumper summer for women’s sport, what with the successes of the Cricket World Cup and football’s European Championship. Now comes the Kia Women’s Super League with the triumphant England cricketers dispersed to their regional teams and mingling with world-class players from around the globe. The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott wonders if this is the dawning of a new age for women’s team sport
Packed stadiums? Tick. Record TV audiences? Tick. Uplift in media coverage? Tick. Stand-a-lone commercial deals? Tick. Respect? Half-ticked (despite numpties). What’s next for women’s team sport given the striking success of the Cricket World Cup and football’s Euros this summer, with rugby and hockey poised for their own showpiece events?
This, it has to be said, is a belated run for stardom given that women have always had muscles and strategic minds, but there is no point belabouring those issues now. The fireworks have exploded, the confetti rained down and now it’s a case of building on expectations, not whinging on about ill-balanced Neanderthal chore-sharing
As former England (male) cricket captain, Michael Vaughan, wrote on Twitter following Anya Shrubsole’s wicket-taking whirlwind to win the final: “Booooooooommmmmmm!”
We’re here. It’s a place with great potential. Now what?
In fact, what’s next is the Kia Women’s Super League, which launches tomorrow at the Ageas Bowl with a rerun of last season’s final between Southern Vipers, led by former England cricket captain and legend, Charlotte Edwards, and Western Storm, featuring the current World Cup-winning England captain, Heather Knight. That’s a tasty beginning and anyone who thinks that Edwards won’t come roaring into the arena like a particularly wound-up dragon in A Games Of Thrones doesn’t know the contents of their cricket commentary box.
In a way, the KWSL is just T20 county cricket with altered chromosomes. But it could also be a standard-bearer, a way-finder, for all women’s team sport, searching to build domestic support when the great charabanc of the international eye-candy has moved on.
The organisers have been smart. The Vipers versus Storm clash is a double-header with Hampshire against Glamorgan (the chaps) to make best use of a gathered crowd and the catering. But, ultimately, it will be the characters, quality and competition that sells women’s domestic sport, not a pint of Spitfire and a pie.
Women’s football has the same ambition when the FA WSL begins again in September. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that. The fixtures have been jerked around like Judy Murray on the tango floor with Anton du Beke. (She won’t mind me saying that. Possibly.)
“Shamefully haphazard,” Clare Balding calls it. “It needs to sort out its organisation before it can expect supporters to be consistent.”
She adds: “Women’s team sport has cracked it in terms of interest and reach, but there’s always more to do. We don’t want to turn it into men’s football [God forbid], but club facilities can improve, athletes can have better medical and nutritional support, matches can be better attended and, crucially, better advertised.
“On the plus side, I was struck by the warmth and friendliness of the crowds at the Women’s Euros – it was like being at the Olympics – and the production crew I worked with (who do a lot of men’s football) said the big difference was not worrying about the latest riot between fans. Men’s football has a lot of issues that put off families from supporting in person, but women’s football doesn’t have those problems and I think it will benefit from that in the long run.”
That’s the heart of it. Women’s team sport isn’t men’s. It is sport, performed by athletes, that stands alone on its individual merits. It offers different attractions.
“There’s definitely a lot more people who are beginning to appreciate women’s team sport just for the sport,” reckons Helen Richardson-Walsh, cricket fan, recent Test Match Special guest and one of the stars of GB Hockey’s gold medal-winning team in Rio.
“For its competition, drama, fight. But … only when it’s on. It has to be visible.
“So I think the KWSL will do better this year because we know the characters now following the World Cup. We know the England team, a few Aussies, some of the other stars and that’s the kind of stuff we need. It happened to me when I was watching the Euro semi-final. The commentator mentioned that the Dutch player Shanice van de Sanden plays for Liverpool and I found myself thinking, ‘I might go and watch one of their games’.”
Women’s team sport has to create the imperative to get us watching. Anya Shrubsole is among those who can do that when she recovers from the side strain that keeps her out of Western Storm’s first match. But this is not solely the responsibility of the players. Thanks to the innovative Clare Connor, the director of England women’s cricket, and another former England captain, the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] are getting things predominantly right. A novel sentence to write about any sport’s governing body.
The sensational World Cup victory over India for England would only be a springboard if there was somewhere to spring to. Enter the KWSL that will run almost daily from tomorrow until the final on September 1. This female version of the Big Bash took the plunge last year in advance of their male counterparts. It was a brave decision as was the bid to host the 2017 World Cup. The fact that Connor was a self-proclaimed “mess” in the closing stages of the final, sitting in floods of tears with her dad and her brother in the stand, attests to the genuine passion of those who run the sport.
Judy Murray has this theory about women taking up the reins in sport. If women’s sport really wants to crack it, this is her checklist:
*Each sport to have a female focused strand of their development plan – led by a woman.
*An investment in female coaches in terms of a coaching pathway.
*A drive to attract more women into coaching or delivering sporting activity (competitions, refs etc).
And, apart from on the subject of dancing, she would know.
You can find eight games of the Kia Super League live on Sky Sports and every round will be covered on BBC Test Match Special. For more information and to buy tickets go to www.ecb.co.uk/super-league
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles