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The fans who women’s sports need to win over

Elite female sporting events will ultimately speak for themselves to fans who need convincing they are worthwhile watching, writes Steve Deane.

Considering there was no local involvement, a pretty decent crowd watched January’s Women’s Super Smash T20 final between Wellington and Canterbury at Eden Park’s outer oval.

It was big enough, that crowd, to suggest that good progress is being made growing interest in domestic women’s cricket in New Zealand. The only real shame of it was that 30 minutes before the first ball was bowled, in what would transpire to be a thrilling encounter, the number of spectators inside the ground had been twice the size.

Because around half of the fans who turned up to watch the Aces men’s team play a curtain-raiser against Otago packed up their deck chairs and chilly bins and wandered to the exits, clearly deciding they had better things to do with the remainder of their Sunday than watch the women’s final.

The lack of local interest in the match would have been a factor – but there’s little doubt that at least some of those who walked would have done so because of the gender of the players featuring in the second match of the day.

It is those fans - and their equivalents across all sporting codes and disciplines – that will need to be converted from leavers to remainers if the pursuit of gender equity in sport is to be a successful one.

Having recently accepted a role working on New Zealand’s hosting of the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup 2021, this column has a very personal interest in converting that particular subset of fans. If those walkers can be convinced to attend matches in 2021, the next major global sporting event to be hosted by this country will be a rip-roaring success.

It’s a battle that can be won.

For starters (and yes, obviously I would say this) the product is great. With better players performing in top-class venues across multiple countries, international women’s cricket has improved exponentially as a spectacle in recent years.

Last summer’s clash between the White Ferns and India was typical of what the game now delivers. The final two T20Is between the teams both went down to the final ball, with the White Ferns prevailing in a manner that was thrilling by any objective measure.

Those contests came after India had dominated the ODI series, thanks, in no small part, to the talents of budding global superstar Smriti Mandhana. The then 22-year-old batting sensation flayed the White Ferns with scores of 105 and 90 in the first two ODIs, then followed with scores of 58, 36 and a rollicking 86 from 62 balls in the T20 series.

That the White Ferns were able to keep pace – and indeed prevail in the T20s – was due largely to the power hitting of Sophie Devine, whose thunderous 72 from 52 balls proved decisive.

It should go without saying that ‘these women can play’. But, sadly, that can’t yet go without saying – because it hasn’t been said, or seen, enough.

Things are definitely changing. However the notion that some women’s sports are inferior simply because they are played by women remains entrenched. Often enough, I listen to friends, who are fathers to daughters, profess to have decreased interest in a sporting event contested by females. It truly baffles me that they would, by implication, devalue what their own children might be capable of.

Strangely, this attitude appears prevalent in some sporting codes, but totally absent in others.

It’s doubtful we Kiwis would be any more impressed by Lisa Carrington’s feats if she happened to be called Larry. Or that there’d be more excitement around teenage alpine skiing sensation Alice Robinson if she was a boy whose parents had decided to give her a girls’ name for a bit of a giggle (Leslies of the world, we feel for you).

In some sports, though, the gender of participants remains a barrier to wider interest. Obviously this cuts both ways. The NZ men’s netball team is capable of beating the Silver Ferns, but we don’t expect them to be packing out stadiums any time soon. But, mainly, it is females who are playing catch-up in the traditional male bastion of sports such as rugby, league, football and cricket.

The good news is they are catching up. Australia’s Olympic champion rugby sevens team came from nowhere to become the darlings of Rio in 2016. The NRLW is up and running (immediately becoming the Warriors’ best prospect of winning a title).

Having attracted monster TV ratings during the recent Fifa World Cup, England’s women’s football team has sold out Wembley Stadium. And, in cricket, a full house of around 22,000 packed into Lord’s to watch England defeat India in the 2017 World Cup final.

With New Zealand hosting the rugby and cricket women’s World Cups in 2021, interest levels here are sure to spike, too.

For the organisers of those events, the battle isn’t to convince Kiwi sports fans that the women’s versions of the games are worthwhile – it is to get them through the gates or in front of TV screens so they can make their own determination.

The sporting contests themselves will do the convincing.

Had those cricket fans who departed remained at Eden Park in January, they’d have witnessed Devine (who is currently tearing up the Women’s Big Bash) clobber a succession of cricket balls clean out of the ground in a display of timing and power any male player would have been chuffed with. They’d have seen a thrilling fightback from Canterbury, only for Wellington to eventually snatch a dicey victory from the jaws of certain victory by scampering a single on the final ball of the match.

They’d have seen a great cricket match. And they’d already be looking forward to the next one.

* Newsroom sports editor at large, Steve Deane, is the head of marketing and communications for ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2021.

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