Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

COVID Is Not An Excuse To Ignore Women’s Sport

Posted on 5 February 2021 by Nakul Pande

As the year’s final digit ticked over from 0 to 1, while the Australian government were moving heaven and earth to allow their men’s cricket team to complete the series against India, the women’s series was quietly postponed.

Football’s FA Cup and rugby’s Six Nations have seen comparable inequalities imposed upon them: the men’s tournaments expensively and skilfully COVID-proofed, the women’s postponed or cancelled outright.

The protocols that have enabled elite sport to continue through the pandemic have not been perfect, but that they have worked at all is due to a huge sustained investment of time, brainpower and money.

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the scope of this investment has been too narrow – so narrow, in fact, that it has largely omitted an entire sex.

It was true before the pandemic that women’s sport could only grow if treated not as an afterthought, or as a ‘nice-to-have’, but something valuable and saleable – like, for example, sport.

But it seems that COVID has allowed governing bodies an excuse to slip back into old, tired ways of thinking, while covering them up with nicely-presented platitudes.

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In the current Wisden Cricket Monthly, broadcaster and writer Isabelle Westbury neatly skewers the disconnect between official words and official actions.

Westbury says: “The box-ticking exercise of spouting vague words and promises about the importance of women’s cricket, and being duly congratulated for them, looks evermore perverse.

“It may give a governing body a brief PR bump, it may appease conscientious investors, it may even fool some of us. But it does a grave disservice to those it purports to benefit.”

Applying that old truism about every crisis being an opportunity, there are COVID adjustments that we might want to hang onto post-pandemic.

The postponement of the women’s Six Nations means that it will no longer run parallel with the men’s, and that in the long term may prove no bad thing as women’s rugby forges its own path.

England flanker Vicky Fleetwood spoke with the relentless optimism of a true elite athlete to BBC Sport: “Potentially the media coverage that we’ll get will be better so we’re really looking forwards to playing at a different time.”

But the media need a sport to cover, and the public need a way to watch and listen – and, as those who made 86,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground possible will testify, that doesn’t just happen.

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Nick Hockley, who as head of the local organising committee for that T20 World Cup was one of those very people, is now interim CEO at Cricket Australia, whose women’s team outstrip the rest of the world by a distance on all performance, professionalism and pay metrics.

But even with a chief executive with a proven interest in women’s cricket, all the postponement of a series against the world’s most cricket-obsessed nation seemingly merited was a form letter.

“The impact of the global pandemic made it necessary to postpone until next season.” No chance, sorry. COVID, you see.

The very next day, the Australian Prime Minister was giving a men’s Test in a city dealing with an ongoing outbreak a public vote of confidence.

Not only is the de-prioritisaton of women’s sport unfair, it is self-defeating. Sportswriter Kelsey Trainor summed this up neatly: “You have to spend money to make money. This is applied to every other area of investment except women’s sports.”

If you do not build it, they cannot come.

Women’s sport has only just begun to emerge from the shadows of decades of ignorance, hostility and outright suppression. If we are not careful, COVID may dim the lights once more.