As Ali Bowes and Alex Culvin note in their introduction to this collection of informative and thoughtful chapters, ‘the evolution and professionalisation of women’s sport has been dramatic, and the industry will continue to grow’ (p. 1). They also caution, however, that women’s involvement in professional sport is both interesting and challenging’ (p.1). ‘Challenging’ is indeed the operative word and, in response to it, the editors and most of their contributors go on to eschew a purely quantitative approach that would testify to the dramatic increase in the growth of women’s professional sport and instead demonstrate that this does not mean that all is right with the world.
In addition to the editorial introductory chapter, the book consists of three sections that address respectively The Emergence of (Semi-)Professionalisation, The Impact of Mediatisation, and Experiences in and of (Semi-)Professionalisation. Section A is made up of four chapters, Sections B and C of five chapters each which includes an editorial conclusion in Section C. The book itself is a contribution to the Emerald Studies in Sport and Gender, a series edited by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj.
The collection covers a wide range of sports – tennis, rugby union, basketball, ice hockey, golf, American football, cycling, rugby league, and cricket. In terms of geographical reach, the focus is almost exclusively on the English-speaking world which may in itself draw our attention to at least one of the challenges to which Bowes and Culvin allude, although it is worth noting that the editors’ forthcoming second contribution to the series will be an edited collection devoted to Women’s Football in a Global, Professional Era which should at the very least afford opportunities to examine the situation in certain countries in continental Europe and South America.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, tennis features twice in the collection, first in Rob Lake’s account of how it came to be in the forefront of women’s professionalised sport with due recognition being given to the role of Billie Jean King, and second in Hannah Thompson-Radford and Michael Skey’s discussion of media reactions to the pregnancy and motherhood of Serena Williams, another highly significant figure in the quest for gender equity in sport, in her case as someone who understands that the challenges can often be intersectional as well as solely gender-based.
The sports media have consistently been criticised for their tendency to infantilise women’s sport and the women who play sport even at the elite level.
Arguably tennis had an advantage in terms of professionalisation for the simple reason that it has long been regarded as suitable for women to play. But what of sports that were never seen in the same way and possibly never will be? In a chapter which encapsulates most of the issues addressed by the collection as a whole, Stacey Levitt and Carly Adams take us into the world of professional women’s (ice) hockey and specifically the National Women’s Hockey League, founded in 2015. According to Leavitt and Adams, ‘the NWHL is, arguably, one of the most significant developments in the sport since the inclusion of women’s hockey on the programme at the 1998 Nagano Olympics’ (p. 72). However, taking their cue from Jaime Schultz, they add that ‘we must be cautious and “cheer with reserve” when reading narratives of “girl” power, increased participation, and professionalisation’ (p. 72). They argue that ‘progress narratives about women’s sport rest on the assumption that the gains and achievements are universally good for all women, thus overlooking the ways in which white, affluent, and heterosexual women are centred within narratives of “success”’ (p. 73). They point out that, ‘in the case of the NHWL, as well as other women’s (semi-)professional leagues, rather than success equating to an increase in sporting opportunities for women, success is more often defined as business success’ (p. 74). This can lead to ‘post-feminist marketing tactics that promote a homogeneous understanding of women’s sporting experiences, one contributing to a linear progress narrative which centres on the heterosexual, white, Western experience’ (p. 82). What is required, they conclude, is a counternarrative ‘that privileges women’s rights and ensures equity’ (p. 83).
A progress narrative is also possible to construct in the case of women’s golf, particularly in the United States. However, as Robbie Matz and Ali Bowes reveal in their snapshot of the 2019 US Women’s Open, sexism and racism are persistent features. While other chapters provide similar critical analysis of the situation in semi-professional women’s rugby in South Africa (Hendrik Snyders), women’s American football (Dunja Antunovic, Katie Taylor, Macauley Watt and Andrew D. Linden) and professional women’s road cycling (Suzanne Ryder, Fiona McLachlan and Brent McDonald), one might also have expected to see studies of boxing and mixed martial arts.
If anyone doubts that women’s professional sport has a long way to go if it is ever to be compared favourably with men’s professional sport, then look no further than the case of Brittney Griner, two time Olympic gold medallist and star performer in the Women’s National Basketball Association. Without commenting on the rights and wrongs of the case leading to Griner’s arrest and detention in Russia on a charge of smuggling hash oil, it is worth speculating on how much more publicity such a story would have received had it involved Steph Curry or LeBron James. It goes without saying, of course, that they would never have had the need to find themselves in the same situation as Griner who has played regularly in Russia to supplement the income she receives in the United States! For an explanation, read the chapter in this collection by Nola Agah and David Berri who document the gender pay gap in professional basketball.
The sports media have consistently been criticised for their tendency to infantilise women’s sport and the women who play sport even at the elite level. Although there are signs of progress, old habits die hard. Let me also suggest, however, that sport itself has a tendency to infantilise the men who both play and avidly watch it, and professionalisation has served to exacerbate the resulting childish condition, which is no media construction but, in my opinion, a reality. This was captured perfectly in the pleas made by football club owners, players and fans for the return of spectators at a time when, throughout the world, patients in ICUs were struggling desperately to take their last breath. Bill Shankly has much to answer for!
As Bowes and Culvin conclude, ‘it is not enough to consider professional women’s sport as a mirror of the men’s versions’ (p. 249). Yet how can this be avoided if the ‘success’ of professional men’s sport is taken to be the yardstick by which progress in women’s sport is measured? Making it increasingly possible for women to earn a full-time living by playing sport should be celebrated but not if the same mistakes are made as have been made in men’s professional sport. Doing professional sport differently and, hopefully, in more progressive and inclusive ways that demonstrate greater concern for the rights of the many than for the privileges of the few, is the task that women’s professional sport must set itself. This fine collection of essays makes a significant contribution in this respect not least because of the clear-sighted manner in which the editors and most of the contributors identify the pitfalls of professionalisation just as much as the potential rewards.
Copyright © Alan Bairner 2022
Table of Content
Section A: The Emergence of (Semi-)Professionalisation
Section B: The Impact of Mediatisation
Section C: Experiences in and of (semi-)professional women’s sport