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The politics of sporting success

Updated Thursday, 2nd April 2009

Kath Woodward considers how media coverage of men's and women's sport varies, and what effect this might have on their successes

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Cricket has been in the news. The move of the IPL (Indian Premier League) to South Africa after the attacks on the Sri Lanka team in Lahore is clearly a big news story on the international politics pages as well as, if not more so, than on the sports pages. The future of the IPL is crucial to the economic survival of the sport; a key matter in these times of economic recession and decline in sports sponsorship. These worrying times mean that news of success in sport is even more welcome.

England Womens Cricket team at the 2009 ICC Women's Cricket World Cup Creative commons image Icon paddynapper under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
The 2009 England women's cricket team at the World Cup

The most successful cricket story for English cricket fans in recent weeks might, or should have been, England winning the world cup -no not the England men’s team, but the women’s team, beating New Zealand by four wickets to win the ICC Women’s World Cup in March 2009.

Yes, there was media coverage (the six best games were broadcast to 100 countries world wide) and even interviews with captain Charlotte Edwards on BBC radio sports programmes and not just Woman’s Hour. Even cricket fans might have trouble naming the members of the team though. What’s happening here-or not happening for women’s sport? It’s not just that we can’t name the team; we don’t really know anything about the players even if we do their names.

Women’s games do get a bit more coverage now, if nowhere near as much as men’s cricket, but that’s the only reason the sporting public are not as engaged with women’s sport as they are with men’s. Sport generates its own meanings and what happens on the pitch or in the field matters, but why are the fans not so gripped by the tensions and excitement of women’s sport? Success in competition provides a great impetus for creating wider interest; think of the 2005 Ashes series and the great boost given to English men’s cricket by their success. Success can go a long way towards encouraging young people to play, although the resource problem applies to men’s and women’s cricket, but tradition means the situation is worse for the women’s game. However, the increased interest in men’s cricket after 2005 came partly from the increased coverage of cricketers off the pitch as well as on.

Although sport is enmeshed with popular culture, which is often seen as a female terrain of interest in celebrity, we read more of the feelings and inner lives of male cricketers than female. Kevin Pietersen’s anxieties about being away from home and on losing the captaincy almost get more coverage than his competence on the pitch.

This is not a superficial point. The women’s team are not represented as complex real people in the terrain of popular culture which means that the success of the team doesn’t have the same resonance. The politics of success in sport includes a range of different materialities, of resource and of organisations and institutions, of the sport itself and how it’s played, and of culture and representation.

Media coverage is just one of the dimensions of sporting success, as I’ve argued before in this blog; visibility matters but it’s the form it takes that matters too. Visibility extends beyond ball by ball coverage (although that would be great); being in the public eye can contribute to how success is seen and understood and how much or how little those in sport can benefit from success on the field.

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