There’s a new currency in town: women’s sport. No new league, or sporting format, or any major sporting announcement, is complete without trumpeting what it will do for women.
Great! Isn’t it? In a world governed by how something looks rather than the substance that lies beneath, good PR is everything. Certainly where there is profit to be made in sport. Philanthropy has been around since time immemorial; for some successful people, giving back is the right thing to do, for others, it helps settle the conscience. And for almost all, it looks pretty good too.
At a company level, this is “corporate social responsibility”. Anything which relies to some degree on public investment, engages in CSR, whether it is supporting disadvantaged children or ploughing money into local communities. And now, gender is in vogue.
Which is great. Or at least, a tempered greatness. Recently, we have become familiar with the term “sportswashing”: using sport to whitewash a tarnished reputation, especially where human rights abuses are concerned. Now, we have “genderwashing”. Because, despite this new interest, and intent, to invest in women’s sport, often the actual benefit to women is poorly thought-through.
Take the two lines reserved for the women’s game in the recent ill-fated European Super League announcement. “As soon as practicable […], a corresponding women’s league will also be launched, helping to advance and develop the women’s game,” it read.
The respective women’s teams weren’t even consulted; any benefit to the women’s game an after-thought. A convenient sweetener to a controversial major money deal in men’s sport, which has become increasingly switched on to the PR benefits of being seen to be gender inclusive.
Only not quite so switched on as to realise how transparent some of these gestures appear. In the same month, Leyton Orient Football Club announced it was cutting ties with its women’s team to form a girls academy, with a separate, lower-tier women’s team. The statement framed the decision as a “new direction for their female football activity”.
However, once again, the women’s team wasn’t consulted. Worse, once they were informed of the fait accomplis and reverted with an alternative proposal, the men’s club allegedly “declined even to consider or discuss this option”. The reality was that this was an easy way to save money.
In cricket, the men’s Indian Premier League commands 26 million paying television subscribers and 31 million social media followers. The sport’s most lucrative tournament has used these platforms to publicise campaigns to fund women’s sanitary products and even a one-off mixed-gender match (albeit silently scrapped without explanation). But the IPL has never staged an equivalent women’s tournament, despite having held 14 of the men’s versions annually.
Even The Hundred, starting in July, has found women a convenient buffer to the controversial launch of an entirely new cricket format. That this is the first cricket tournament to have a men and women’s version from the outset is a big and genuine progression. So too the fact that its marketing and sponsorship have sought to be gender balanced.
Yet however much the ECB might trumpet the equal prize money, and equal platform, by enforcing double-header fixtures and maintaining a startling pay disparity (a female player can expect 15 per cent of the men’s salaries), a lot of the underlying systemic inequality continues.
All part of the gradual development of the women’s game, perhaps. However, insiders at the ECB have conceded that without the women’s arm of the tournament, it wouldn’t have occurred at all. The very premise of The Hundred was to demonstrate a sport accessible to everyone; those steepling men’s salaries are in fact contingent on their female peers.
Cynicism, of course, shouldn’t guide all our impressions. The benefits that The Hundred could bring the women’s game are real and could transform the financial landscape for female cricketers. It won’t hurt the ECB by increasing its paying punters and players, aka consumers, if nothing else.
Still, good to be wary. When the secretary of Indian cricket’s governing body tweeted, on International Women’s Day, that its women’s team would play a Test against England this summer, India’s first in seven years, it was the first the ECB knew about it. Discussions had started but confirmation, and its logistics, was a long way off. The pressure of optics prevailed.
Anyone working within women’s sport has long-since settled with the fact that good things often happen for the wrong reasons. It is on all of us, however, to make sure that those good things provide real, and long-lasting, change.