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