The Australian surfer’s achievement this year remains a case of despite, not because, of the support female athletes receive, but her success may herald a wave of change
Arms aloft, hoisted through the crowd by family and friends adorned in Tyler Wright jerseys of competitions past, the moment was emotional, poignant even. Yet Wright’s feat of winning the World Surf League at the age of just 22, and on the back of a turbulent year personally, was one which has implications extending far beyond the personal victories the Australian surfer had sought to achieve.
Wright’s dominance in this year’s WSL tour has been so great that with one event still to come, not only has she won the competition outright, but she has earned more than her male counterpart, John John Florence, who is on the brink of securing the men’s title.
It’s a rare, if not unheard of, feat in any sport for a woman to earn anything near the male athletes, let alone better them. Surfing is no different; the men’s prize money pool remains bigger than the women’s. Wright’s surpassing of the men’s earnings is largely circumstantial, perhaps less a reflection of equality between the sexes than of her sheer domination of the competition; the men’s competition has been far tighter and the rewards more widely dispersed, yet Florence could still surpass Wright’s earnings should he win the final two men’s events.
Surfing does of course deserve credit for its efforts towards equality between the sexes, but in this instance, as with most female sporting success, Wright’s achievement remains a case of despite, not because, of the support female athletes receive.
Earnings in women’s sport across the board remain woeful, especially for team sports. The inaugural AFL women’s league, to begin next year, was announced amidst huge fanfare and self-congratulation. While the female footballers deserve every bit of long-awaited attention the spectacle attracts, the league itself has largely escaped close scrutiny through a veil of revelry in its self-proclaimed progressiveness.
Male Australian rules football has been professional since the beginning of the 20th century; it has taken over 100 years for women to earn anything at all. While that moment has finally arrived, an entire women’s team comprising of 25 players can be bought for less than the amount that the average male player earns.
Cricket has seen a similar boom with the advent of the women’s Big Bash League; while pay is rapidly rising (the minimum retainer has more than doubled this year to $7,000A), the reality remains little reward relative to the increasingly greater expectation – both of the players’ time, and standard of play we expect them to achieve. The irony wasn’t missed when the fine given to Big Bash League cricketer Chris Gayle for his “inappropriate conduct” during a demeaning interview with a female reporter earlier this year equaled the entire tournament wages of the highest-paid female players. In football too, a Socceroo could make more than a Matilda’s annual contract from the match fees of just three tournament group-stage games.
Women’s sport, especially those in teams, while on an upward trajectory, is increasingly following a frustrating trend – one of maximum publicity for minimal cost. It is good business these days to be championing women’s sport – think of it as a market untapped – but business doesn’t like spending more than it thinks it should at any one point. This tactic makes for a compelling investment, but only if short term gain is the ultimate goal.
Often, advocates of women’s sport are encouraged to appreciate the strides already made, told to celebrate the fact that even if it’s not quite right now, it was even worse way back when. We become desensitised, measuring women’s sport against the pitiful status it once had, instead of the strides still needing to be made. It’s all relative, and on such a pedestal, of course we can pat ourselves on the back – it’s not hard to improve from nothing.
Women’s sport doesn’t need charity, nor pity. What it needs instead is opportunity. The opportunity to train full-time, to have access to high quality coaching and to the services of support staff and scientific knowledge so commonplace in male sporting environments.
It would be delusional to suggest that there are not differences between the physiology of men and women; Wright surfs differently to Florence, just as Serena Williams plays differently to Novak Djokovic, but each offer their own alluring demonstration of athletic achievement. These women, like the men, have thrived on opportunity.
For team sports however, opportunity remains in its infant stages. As women’s cricket, basketball and now AFL slowly turn professional, many conservatives will belittle the perceived unfavourable standard of play compared to the established leagues offered by the men. Netball is the only sport exempted from such criticism.
This short-sighted approach, however, should not stand in the way of paying those players for the standard which we expect and to which those players aspire, not that which we can get away with. In a world fixated on short-term gains, to deny women this opportunity is to lose out on lucrative long-term investment. It is to ignore an exciting stage in the development of women’s sport, in the fight for equality, and to do so is to miss the emergence of gems like Tyler Wright. Investment in women’s sport is not pity, it makes business – and common – sense.