Each game of this Twenty20 World Cup has been leading to this – the attempted world record crowd for a women’s sporting event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for Sunday’s final between Australia and India. For months, Cricket Australia and the local organising committee have been boldly espousing their hopes to break the current record of 90,185 set at the 1999 Fifa Women’s World Cup in the United States.
As Australia fell to India in the opening game of the tournament, then stumbled against Sri Lanka, there must have been some bitten-down nails amongst tournament executives. The regroup against Bangladesh and the win over New Zealand to secure a semi-final place elicited a sigh of relief. And then the weather stepped in.
Suddenly the loss to India wasn’t the small setback that it first appeared. With no reserve days scheduled, that loss meant that if the semi-final was rained out, Australia was out with it.
Finally the game was played, Australia won and the campaign was back on track. Barring an unforeseen downpour in Melbourne on Sunday, there are no more hurdles to overcome.
A win for Australia would be icing on the cake from an administrative perspective. This final has become more than just a game of cricket; it has the potential to be a defining moment for women’s sport.
Earlier this year, US football star Megan Rapinoe made headlines when she spoke about wanting women’s sport to be consistently marketed to adult fans, rather than relying on the ‘role model’ narrative and always targeting young girls.
“You never see LeBron James purely positioned as inspiring young boys,” said Rapinoe. “No shit he’s inspiring young boys. He’s fucking LeBron James … so why are we limiting ourselves that way?”
No doubt there will be young girls among the thousands at the MCG on Sunday. The next generation of Meg Lannings, Megan Schutts and Beth Mooneys will be watching, believing that they can one day play in front of a packed MCG, too. The importance of that visibility can’t be overstated.
But what we have witnessed with this Australia women’s team over the past five years has been even bigger than that. The momentum around the team has grown and crowds and television audiences have expanded alongside it.
It happened slowly enough that it almost wasn’t noticeable. A reference to ‘batters’ instead of ‘batsmen’ here. An understanding that ‘Healy’ means Alyssa and not Ian there. And before we knew it, people were standing around office kitchens having long conversations about Ellyse Perry’s hamstring and furious debates about whether she should be replaced by an all-rounder or a specialist bowler.
The conversation has shifted and the media coverage along with it. Whereas once there was a semi-regular stream of opinion columns from earnest men deploring the lack of coverage of women’s sport before getting back to their regular routine of writing about men’s sport, now there are match reports and analysis pieces about every game. The day after the semi-final, the winning moments were plastered all over the front and back pages of major newspapers across the country. Women’s cricket is being covered and spoken about the way that followers of the sport have always wanted – as if it was just cricket.
It’s likely even the tournament organisers didn’t envisage this shift when they first announced their goal. The inclusion of Katy Perry playing an exclusive Australian show at the final demonstrated a bid to go after the young girl audience. But a press release that included a tongue-in-cheek assurance that the singer is ‘no relation to Ellyse’ signified that this tactic was little more than an insurance policy; the work continued behind the scenes to ensure that cricket was the centrepiece of this event.
This is not the end point of this journey. It is a milestone and it should be celebrated. But there is more to tackle before equality can be declared. When news outlets can have comments open on articles about women’s sport without fear of abuse. When sporting organisations stop talking about the value of playing purely for the love of the game. These are just some of the scenarios that need to change before we can truly say that women in sport – both and off the field – are on equal footing with their male counterparts.
While a world-record crowd at the MCG, if it transpires, doesn’t change everything, it is a symbol of the change that Australia can expect if we continue along this trajectory. If sporting organisations continue to set ambitious goals around women’s sport and work hard to achieve them, this will become the new normal. In time the goals won’t seem as ambitious and the work will get easier. Yes, it will inspire young girls. But it will also create communities, remove barriers and make sport more inclusive.
While all eyes will be on the Australia women this Sunday, they’re just walking out to play a game of cricket, like they have done hundreds of times before. It’s those in the crowd, watching on television and talking about it in the lunch rooms who will make it so much more than that.