The summer of cricket proved mixed crowds can improve the fan experience | Emma John
Cricket’s culture wars can call a truce. There is something traditionalists and progressives agree on, and rather surprisingly it’s about the Hundred. Now the all-important final scores are in – and we’re talking bums-on-seats and eyes-on-screen, not who hit most sixes or which weird-named franchise triumphed – there is consensus on a single, indisputable fact. The tournament was A Good Thing for women’s cricket.
For the hardcore sceptics, the grudging concession that the Hundred has been a gamechanger for women will not outweigh the collective trauma the competition has cost them. The undeniable benefits the women’s game has derived from the format – the increase in viewership, prestige, standards of pay and quality of play – are all very well, but they’ve still come at the cost of the future doom of the real game. What matters for the men matters most, because theirs is the Test arena, and theirs are the broadcasting millions, and theirs is the glory, for ever and ever, amen.
Still, back to the Good Thing: the women’s side of the Hundred saw record attendances, unprecedented ticket sales and viewing figures in the millions. And one of its most successful elements, the double-header format, was simply a happy accident: a shrinking of logistics and ambitions caused by Covid protocols and shortfalls.
Had a global pandemic not intervened, the women’s and men’s matches would have been staged separately, rather than played one after the other with a single ticket buying a seat to both. We can’t be sure that the women’s tournament would have enjoyed the same popularity if their matches had been relegated to other – let’s face it, smaller – grounds. But we can be pretty certain there would have been a different atmosphere at the men’s games.
There were clear indications of that in the first men’s match at the Oval, the only one staged as a stand-alone. Far from being a family-friendly environment, that game was played against a beery, blokey backdrop recognisable to anyone who’s been to a T20 finals day: the kind that numerous fans have shied from taking their kids to; the kind that the Hundred was, indeed, created to combat.
As it was, one of the most revealing outcomes as the tournament progressed was that the increased female presence at matches had a real and pleasurable impact on the fans’ experience. It would come up repeatedly in people’s conversations, an encouraging thing to hear: encouraging, moving and a little amusing, the kind of mix you feel when your friend finally “discovers” Parks and Recreation on Netflix and messages you how awesome it is a decade after you first told them to give it a try.
It turns out that transforming a sports stadium from a mostly male environment into a genuinely mixed one really can improve your day. That lowering the average testosterone level of a crowd will lessen its tendency towards antisocial behaviour, will reduce its inclination to drink too much and get a bit lairy and yell stupid, off-colour things that seem hilariously funny at the time. That it keeps at bay primal bursts of tribalistic aggression that we wouldn’t allow anywhere else but find acceptable and even faintly praiseworthy when they’re construed as sporting passion or team loyalty.
This isn’t news, of course, not really. Plenty of us knew that gender-balanced crowds don’t ruin a sporting atmosphere by making it generally, you know, nicer. Anyone who’s been to the tennis, or scored tickets to the London Olympics. All those who’ve attended women’s football matches, or women’s rugby games, or professional netball. The 24,000 people who went to the 2017 Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s, and came away saying it was the best atmosphere they had encountered at a cricket match.
And yet it’s fair to say that until recently the presence of more women in cricket grounds or indeed any stadiums has rarely been a priority. On the sporting hierarchy of needs, it’s always been up at the esoteric top end, along with self-actualisation and human transcendence. Even we women who followed sport long before the men who ran it bothered to add us to the Venn diagrams in their marketing presentations accepted that we were entering a man’s world. And if we didn’t like the way some men behaved, we knew where we could go.
Macho posturing and a faintly edgy atmosphere have been endemic to the stadium experience for decades. Fans have kidded themselves that it simply goes with the territory. Most accept it as the price they pay for following the teams they love. Some – those who like the idea of “war minus the shooting” – will argue that it’s part of the purpose of spectator sport, an outlet for men and women (but primarily men) to express the full range of their emotions and work out their anger issues.
I know a number of devoted football fans – male and female – who gave up going to games because they couldn’t bear the oppressive and often hostile environment of the walk to the station afterwards, the train rides home. The thought of that used to make me sad and furious but I could not see it changing.
Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the more fans experience what it’s like to watch sport in a more gender-equal environment, the higher it will appear on their wishlist. Perhaps we’ll learn that a positive outcome for women – players, supporters, or newcomers – can be the best thing for everyone in the long run. Perhaps we’ll allow that it might even be worth some momentary rearrangement and experimentation in the men’s game. After all, we’ve long put up with our own discomfort.