Saturday, April 13

Watching women’s sport

Last weekend, I was asked in passing whether I would be watching the Kiwi Ferns League team play. I took a moment, weighing up how to answer without coming across as a dick.

Because the real answer is, it’s just not for me. Yet if I try to explain why, I risk coming across as misogynistic as Kevin Keegan at a women’s rights rally. Keegan was recently quoted as saying he doesn’t enjoy listening to women commentators because he doesn’t think they have the experience to discuss the subtleties of an elite men’s game. Women were rightfully up in arms about it, but sadly, I didn’t hear many men disagreeing with him. In fact, most men prefer to remain silent on gender issues in sport, particularly around why they aren’t watching. I disagree with Kevin Keegan. I don’t believe you need to know what a perfectly grown tomato looks like in order to know whether it’s ripe or not. Women commentators’ opinions are valid – although while some people might find it refreshing, personally I find Krystal Rota’s accent about as elegant to the ear as a Skilsaw.

Yet in terms of why myself and most men aren’t watching women’s sport, I’m going to foolishly give it a go.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the final games of the Women’s Rugby World Cup. The final itself was tense and overall, the women themselves were refreshing and entertaining in press conferences. The White Ferns were great to watch in the FIFA World Cup in 2023 and rallied a lot of well-deserved support. Most guys can occasionally get into watching women’s sport and genuinely enjoy it. But only the big games and the operative word being, ‘occasionally’. I’m generalising of course because there are blokes out there that totally get into women’s sport, but not many unless their partner, friend, or family member they know, are playing. 

I’ve had a few female friends give me shit about not watching more women’s sport. And my answer to them remains the same – why don’t you?

The stats prove that women aren’t watching themselves. World Cups have provided a misleading perception that people are watching, because if you remove those from the stats and look at the evidence… Stadiums for women’s sport are largely empty. Television ratings for women’s sport aren’t high outside of World Cups. Sure, they’re bigger than they used to be, but compared to men’s versions of the same sport, they’re way off. Why?

Because women aren’t watching. How the bloody hell is that men’s fault?

There seems to be an expectation from women that men should watch them play. We already get enough shit from our partners for watching too much sport, and you want us to double down watching your mediocre efforts as well? Men’s sport is often subsidising women’s sport and women still can’t be bothered to watch themselves. Why?

There are 3 main reasons. Quality, nature, and stakes.

Let me explain.

1. The calibre and quality of women’s sport is generally not high. It’s cute, but it’s not anywhere near the class of men’s sport. But men are super conscious of saying so publicly, or in front of women because they don’t want to offend. And they don’t want to discourage their daughters from participating. They know you can’t compare between them and probably shouldn’t, but you can’t help it either. Men want to be supportive, and yet…   If you put the men’s All Whites (ranked 100th) up against the number one ranked women’s team in the world, the All Whites would wipe the floor with them. They’d comfortably put 10 goals on them. I know there’s plenty of women that could put me on my ass, but nobody watches boxing for me. Yet could you imagine what would happen if you put the best 50-year-old heavyweight boxer up against Mike Tyson? You would never put the best female middleweight UFC fighter up against Israel Adesanya. Watching elite women’s team sport in rugby, football, or league, is like watching fifteen-year-old boys playing. Simple as that. Sorry ladies, but it’s painfully true. Men only get into it out of sheer patriotism. But that’s about it. But at a club level, that’s asking too much of most men who have no skin in the game.

None of this means we shouldn’t support and encourage women to play sport. We totally should. But if you want to know why men aren’t watching, it’s because women aren’t good enough at the sport to watch, comparatively with the men’s game. You can’t compete with men for the most part and we only want to watch the best. Why? More on this in number 3, below.

2. Most women I know would rather watch the latest season of Love Island, than an engaging game of sport. They would rather get a massage and a pedicure than watch or play 2 hours of women’s rugby league or any other variation of team sport. Are women competitive? Absolutely! My partner and I laugh about how competitive we are all the time! But I laugh more. (Wink wink).

Again, I’m generalising and there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but the physicality required of rugby and league is not in most women’s nature. Playing numbers are comparatively small to men’s. And if you ever notice the difference between boys and girls in the playground, then you’ll appreciate the inherent differences within our own gender dynamics. Men are physical, women tend to lean toward verbal.

3. Sport is tribal. It is built into our DNA when thousands of years ago, losing meant your entire village was wiped out. When the All Blacks play, we are fielding the best players our country has to offer to represent us on the field of battle, albeit in a sporting context. The winner gets bragging rights and a sense of superiority. Women generally and traditionally aren’t the warriors of the tribe. This means the stakes simply aren’t as comparatively high when women play. That doesn’t mean it can’t be mildly entertaining. But it just lacks the same authentic resonance because women aren’t the dominant physical representation of the tribe. And therefore if they lose, it doesn’t really matter, because it wasn’t our strongest athletes that lost. We can shrug and say, oh well never mind. Have you ever seen people crying in the streets after the Black Ferns lose a game? Fans were literally balling their eyes out in the stadium and streets after the All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup quarter-final by France in 2007. When England was knocked out of the FIFA World Cup after David Beckham had been sent off, he had an effigy of him burned by his own fans! Have you ever seen that type of emotional response to a women’s sport? I highly doubt it.

And yet, some women’s sports do attract the male gaze. Tennis and golf are good examples. Why? I think you know the answer, but fine, I’ll spell it out. Do you really think men would prefer to sit and watch Anna Kournikova lose at tennis, or watch the Kiwi women’s league front row, pack down a scrum? I know which one most men would be thinking about before they go to sleep.

It may be something we aren’t able to acknowledge or are simply afraid of doing so without sounding like a total pig. Because it doesn’t seem fair or right. But one thing is for certain… Women’s sport is generally more successful if the male gaze can also be satisfied. And I can tell you right now, nearly every player in the Kiwi Ferns league side would be lucky to make the cover of TV Guide, let alone any edition of Playboy.

See, I told you I’d risk coming across as a misogynistic wanker. But am I? Cause if I am, then so are most men. Because like it or lump it, women’s sport is not being watched by the masses. So you figure it out.

Some people are watching. Power to them. I have no issues with women playing sport. Totally encourage it. Doesn’t harm anyone. Go for it. Just don’t blame anyone for not watching it.

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