I’ve been a dedicated cricket fan my whole life, I spend hours each summer at games and days in front of my TV (yep, summer’s a real riot at our house). Then, in winter, I watch the NRL and AFL. But I’ve never, apart from the occasional tennis game, watched women’s sport – until now. Over the last few months, I’ve found myself attending, watching, and really enjoying women’s cricket and AFL.
I find it compelling. In some ways, even more interesting than men’s sport. This is why...
I think the most entertaining aspect of watching sport is the accidental magic that happens. All sport lovers have witnessed those electrifying moments when the combined influences of gravity, wind and momentum find one player in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. And thanks to their millisecond-by-millisecond skill, intuition and a little luck, the player turns this into magic.
It’s what we watch sport for. And I've been witnessing more of these sparkling moments in women’s games than men’s. In men’s games, brute strength and peak fitness is often what delivers the win. But I’ve found this isn’t exactly the case with women’s games. Female players haven’t been in training for as long, they’ve had lives outside their sport, and each game’s outcome is less about the elite training and Hulk-like muscles of individuals, and more about the whole team’s combined effort. And those magical surprises I talked about – they happen more often because the spontaneity hasn't been trained out of them. Sometimes when the magic happens, it seems to even surprise the players themselves.
Then there’s the professionalism factor. Nothing kills my buzz like ‘professionalism’. In sport, it seems to manifest as an emphasis on objective, statistic-driven decision-making. It seems to be about control. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, think of a hackneyed, post-match term like ‘percentage cricket’, as in, “At the break, Punter told us we just had to stick to our game plan and play percentage cricket!” And, statistically speaking, percentage cricket and its AFL equivalent ‘percentage footy’ probably increase wins. But it doesn’t leave much room for the accidental magic I love.
The most exciting thing about watching sport is its humanity. And the goal of sporting professionalism appears to be to strip sport of its humanity – to eliminate uncertainty, reduce risk, use objective criteria and play by (pause while I clear my throat) ‘percentage’. Sporting professionalism is the sort of thing I suspect occurs in ground-side training rooms lined with whiteboards and slow-motion replays. I’m also sure it makes a lot of very dedicated, well-intentioned, well-trained people feel important. It probably also makes them feel as though they’re the ones responsible for making sport what it is. And I suspect they’re right. But, for the sake of spectators everywhere, I hope they fail when it comes to these great new leagues of women’s sport.
Of course I’m not saying the AFLW, in its inaugural season, and the WBBL, in its second season, don’t have a great level of ‘professionalism’ – these women are remarkable athletes. But these remarkable women haven’t had the same pathways as the men. They’ve lived lives and had experiences outside of their sport, they tend to train and study around day jobs, and they haven’t had the same privileges in terms of salaries, sponsorships, broadcasts and facilities. So they come across, during play and post-match interviews, as human beings. Watching these human beings go to battle on a field is so much more interesting than seeing outrageously built, otherworldly giants capably executing the same drills and set plays they’ve been rehearsing since kindy.
I’m sure that every female cricketer and footy player looks forward to the pay, the sponsorships, and the respect afforded to their male equivalents. And I want that for them. Thankfully, it now seems certain that women’s sport is on the path for better funding and more mainstream support as it steps out from the unnaturally wide shadows cast by men’s sport. But let’s hope that, as it gains the respect and financial support it deserves, women’s sport retains some of the human qualities that make it so fun to watch.
Jack Ellis is a writer, lawyer and family mediator. He wrote the novel, The Best Feeling of All. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 5-year-old son. Go to www.jackellis.com.au