While women’s sports booms, pros face major struggles


This is the best of times for women’s sports around the world. And yet, women athletes are still deprived a seat at the table

The Women’s Premier League (WPL) is back, and with it continues the global growth of women’s sports that started gathering serious momentum last year. In 2023, the Indian women’s cricket team finally played two tests after a long gap. In England, the Hundred Women’s Competition successfully returned for a second season. Tour de France Feminin was a close and thrilling battle. Formula One announced a feeder programme for women drivers. 

The cherry on the cake was the smash hit Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. As if to prove a point, England women’s football team goalie Mary Earps beat competition from cricketers like Stuart Broad and golfer Rory McIlroy to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and the Spanish World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso was named the Guardian newspaper’s Footballer of the Year.

Things are certainly improving for women’s sports, but still quite slowly than one might like. While the Indian Premier League (IPL) has 10 teams, WPL launch was rushed with just five teams. Numbers haven’t improved this year.

While the BCCI deployed the charm offensive with top Bollywood stars performing at the WPL opening ceremony, a marquee IPL franchise like Kolkata Knight Riders (co-owned by Shah Rukh Khan), still doesn’t have a WPL team. “When the WPL was launched people were skeptical,” says Divyanshu Singh, COO, JSW Sports who have interests in cricket, football and multiple Olympic sports. That, perhaps, explains why only five teams played the inaugural tournament. 

While both our men and women’s cricket teams get equal pay, the women hardly play any Test cricket, points out Suprita Das, author of Free Hit: The Story Of Women’s Cricket In India and the media manager for IPL’s Delhi Capitals. “There are more issues behind the scenes and the processes in team and backroom staff selection are also a bit haphazard. If women’s cricket has to progress and be taken seriously, they have to play more tests just like men do,” she says. 

Another sports marketing professional working with IPL and ISL franchises says it is difficult to convince sponsors to invest in women’s sports. It feels like women’s sports still remain an afterthought, a box that needs to be ticked to show that the right thing is being done. No matter what the sport, there is an all-pervasive bias that women’s game is of an inferior quality, which is not the case.

Not only do women’s sports face an uphill battle to win over stakeholders and sponsors, sportswomen also face many more challenges and roadblocks just to be able to play professionally. From the developed to the developing world, from gymnastics to wrestling to beach volleyball to football, sportswomen have to battle on multiple fronts. They are constantly failed by governing bodies and sports businesses. That this is still happening, at a time when women’s sport is breaking into the mainstream, is quite unbelievable. 

In India, Sakshi Malik, one of the seven Olympic medal-winning female athletes we have, protested for days and endured manhandling from the police to draw attention to the abuse she and other wrestlers allegedly suffered at the hands of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Singh, who is now under investigation. Malik and other wrestlers recently returned their medals and awards after Singh’s son Sanjay Singh took over as the WFI head. 

In the US, several young gymnasts (including serial Olympics medal-winner Simone Biles and other minors) were abused by the team doctor Larry Nassar for years. The Zambia women’s football team coach Bruce Mwape led them through the World Cup despite accusations of sexual misconduct by his players. The Nigerian, South African, Canadian, English, and Colombian football teams have had trouble with their federations over either unpaid wages or bonuses. Even serial champions don’t have it easy. Team USA’s famous fight for equal pay lasted six years before a deal was struck.    

Then there was the infamous sexual assault that the former Royal Spanish Football Federation’s president Luis Rubiales perpetrated on live television on Hermoso. Had the Spanish women’s football team not come together to stand up against Rubiales, things would have continued as they used to be—wrong but normal. What the incident did was expose the problems in women’s sport, not just football, ranging from casual misogyny to assault.     

For women in India, and many other countries, taking up sports as a profession is more challenging than a conventional career. “Some of the conditions that a lot of women endure to take up sports… from the pressure of getting married early, defying a lot of conventions by taking up sports, staying away from the family… from that perspective, yes, women have it tougher to make it in sports, says Singh. He gives the example of champion boxer Nikhat Zareen, who had to struggle hard, in order to succeed. 

“India’s dismal record on women rights, discrimination, gender equality, women safety, women empowerment… we are among the bottom ranked nations in the world… yet we are creating women who go on to play sports overcoming hardships and defying stereotypes,” Singh adds.

Despite the bright signs, being a professional sportswoman remains a struggle. To this day. In Hermoso’s support, the football players union Fifpro wrote: “Your struggle is my struggle. Her struggle is our struggle. And we have had enough. We, the players, are stronger, more united, and more determined than ever. We demand change. We demand better.” The change, and calls for it, in women’s sports must continue. They deserve better. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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