Sport

SA lagging behind in women’s sport, but patience is the key

By Antoinette Muller 15 April 2014

With the South African women’s cricket team performing beyond expectations and the SA Women’s Seven Team continuing to dominate, there is no better time to be a female athlete in the country. Yes, women’s sport very much lags behind, but growth is certainly not stagnating either. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

The ICC World T20 is one of the most watched cricketing events in the world. This year, 29 broadcasters beamed the pictures across the globe with an estimated reach of over one billion. There were plenty of delightful moments on offer, but there was also something missing: coverage of the women’s game.

The lack of media coverage for women’s sport is nothing new and it’s a global problem. In America, for example, there are now an estimated 3.2 million girls participating in high-school athletics, up from 300,000 in 1972. The Tucker Centre at the University of Minnesota estimates that up to 40 percent of athletics participants in the States are female, yet they only get around five percent of media coverage and when it comes to TV networks, they get a measly 1.62 percent.

The argument for this is usually that people simply aren’t interested in watching women participate in sport that requires physical strength women simply do not possess. While some of that is true, women are starting to hold their own both on the cricket field and in other sporting codes.

Charlotte Edwards, the England women’s captain, became the first cricketer to cross the 2,000-run mark in international T20s during the World T20 tournament. Danica Patrick managed a NASCAR lap of 196mph last year, becoming the first woman to do so. She earned a nifty $6 million in prize money and an extra $9 million through sponsorship in 2012.

All across the world, in different sporting codes, women are starting to make their mark. London’s Olympic Games in 2012 was inclusive of women with female participants from every country, including places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. The most watched event in South Africa for the games was Banyana Banyana’s match against Sweden, with 2.7 million viewers tuning in, according to the Olympics Marketing report. South Africa lost that match 4-1, but the argument that there is no interest is becoming null and void.

This kind of interest helps aid growth and draws more media coverage to female sports. In the UK, women’s football is the fourth biggest team sport in England, measured on participation. It sits behind men’s football, rugby and cricket. The England women’s cricket team might have lost the World T20 final to Australia, but the interest and talent is there and it will only continue to grow as media coverage continues to grow.

“Normalising” female participation in sports that were previously believed to be “for men” is vitally important. This will encourage the behind-the-times thinking of many suits to change – whether that is Sepp Blatter suggesting women footballers play in tighter shorts, the misconception that only “butch” girls play rugby or cricket or even the boring sexism that simply believes women still belong in the kitchen.

As this continues to change, the approach in the way the media and even sponsors approach athletes will change too. For example, in 2013, Taiwanese tennis player Hsieh Su-Wei became the first Taiwanese to win a Grand Slam when she won the doubles at Wimbledon with her partner Peng Shuai. A liquor company in China tried to lure her to taking Chinese citizenship by offering her $1.6 million in sponsorship. As a result, the Taiwanese government mobilised domestic companies to try to match the offer. They weren’t quite able to match the Chinese sum, but they did manage to keep her from denouncing her citizenship.

Individually, female athletes do incredibly well. Maria Sharapova is by far the world’s highest paid female athlete, earning around $29 million per year, according to Forbes. Serena Williams makes around $20.5 million per year while figure skater Kim Yuna earnings in the region of $14 million. Female golfer Paula Creamer rakes in about $5.5 million per year, with $4.5 million coming from endorsements. Jessica Ennis makes around $8.3 million.

But those are all international athletes and in South Africa, the situation is still a different story. Arguably South Africa’s most famous female athlete – Caster Semenya – struggled to find a sponsor in 2010 following the cruel questioning of her gender.

Raising the profile of sportswomen in South Africa needs to change, because it comes with tremendous potential, not just for exposure but also for the athletes themselves.

The kicker is this: once women start achieving things that were previously thought impossible, the interest starts to swell and the deals will come. Those achievements are often helped by somebody willing to take a punt. The South African women’s cricket team have their sponsor – Momentum – partly to thank for their growth. Having made the semi-final of the World T20, with a maiden win over New Zealand on their way there – is largely thanks to a sponsor coming on board to allow six players to have contracts and focus solely on cricket. It also allowed a coach to sign up. There is a long way to go for the team yet, but progress is certainly not stalling.

In South Africa, part of the problem is the pathway to participation. In rugby, a study found that there was “no consistent participation in women’s rugby in SA across all the provincial unions” with only 20 percent of unions having young girls participate in the sport. The South African Women’s Sevens team recently defending their CAR title by going unbeaten. They have done this despite little being done to introduce young girls to rugby.

South Africa is lagging behind massively when it comes to supporting its female athletes – both as individuals and as teams. However, patience is the key. The country is, of course, just 20 years old in its democracy. With little steps through role models – the Sevens team, the cricket team, the hockey team and other individual athletes, mindsets will slowly start to shift. Although it might be tough, there is no better time to be a female athlete in South Africa than the present. The opportunity exists to be trailblazers and to change the face of female sports for future generations, and that’s quite something. DM

Photo: South African women’s cricket team in 2012 (gsport.co.za)

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