After significant year for women's sports, 2024 promises more

2023 forced a few changes, laid a solid foundation, and made sure the efforts of those who want change are not wasted. The ball is in 2024's court now. May it be even better. 
From football to cricket and basketball to rugby, all over the world, 2023 felt like a year of belongingness. (Photo | AP)
From football to cricket and basketball to rugby, all over the world, 2023 felt like a year of belongingness. (Photo | AP)

CHENNAI: After the inaugural Women's U19 T20 World Cup in South Africa, I met Kass Naidoo. She has been a force to be reckoned with in South African women's sports for years, as a commentator and as a founder of GSports4Girls. The organization sensed something about the year 2023 in January and made a T-shirt that read "2023- The Year of Women's Sports". "Congratulations on a wonderful tournament," Naidoo said before handing me the tee shirt. "Do you really think it's going to be the year of women's sports?" I said with a little bit of hesitation visible on my face. "I hope so," Naidoo said, beaming from ear to ear. 11 months later as I write this wearing the same T-shirt, I could not believe how confident she was and feel mad that I wasn't.

In recent times, with every turn of the calendar page, women's sports have seen exceptional growth. The athletes always had the skills for their respective sports, but 2023 felt like a bigger stage. From football to cricket and basketball to rugby, all over the world, it felt like a year of belongingness.

Take for example FIFA Women's World Cup in July and August of 2023. The cricket and Australian Rules Football-mad Australia and Rugby-crazy New Zealand embraced this tournament like anything. That aggregate attendance figure soared past the previous best set in 2015 and smashed FIFA's ticket sales target of 1.5 million. The TV Audience for the tournament broke the records all over the world. After surviving losses during the 2019 and 2015 editions, the 2023 World Cup broke even by generating a self-sustaining $570 million.

On the home front, Indian women's cricket finally took that big step with the start of the Women's Premier League. The five-team and 22-match long tournament showcased what a franchise league can do for women in one of the biggest markets for the sport. It allowed many players, who would probably not have gotten an opportunity to play for the country, but now have a platform to showcase their skills. It just underlined again that those athletes belong to the game.

More than attendance and viewership, what stood out the most was how the supporters of the game and even the players stood behind women's sports. Whether it was Serina Wiegman dedicating her UEFA Women's Coach of the Year award to the Spanish team or the Australian Cricketers' Association standing firmly behind the country's netball players with a financial fund. Throughout the year the stories of women supporting women athletes were the talk of the town.

In the past few years, every time a female athlete did something extraordinary, a section of social media would comment, "But nobody watches women's sports." With limited avenues to watch it live and games organized at venues with lower capacity, it was a reality in some cases. 2023 offered the biggest stage possible for multiple women's sports and every stakeholder grabbed that chance to make the most of it.

2024 is going to be even bigger. It's not just wishful thinking. Deloitte, one of the leading consulting agencies, has predicted women's sports to break the billion-dollar barrier. In their report in November 2023, the agency said," Deloitte predicts that women's elite sports will generate global revenues of $1.28 billion in 2024 (£1.02 billion). This is the first time that annual global revenues for women's sports will have surpassed $1 billion. This total is at least 300 per cent higher than Deloitte's previous valuation in 2021." Investing in women's sports is not just a vanity project anymore. 2023 has shown that it's a way forward.

There are still many systemic issues involved in women's sports, ranging from equal prize money to sexual harassment on different levels and from getting more opportunities to acceptance of LGBTQIA+ athletes. ICC's recent strongly-worded verdict about transgender players is an indication of the same. But fighting for all of these issues is not new for the athletes or the supporters. After all, the push for progress that is currently there for everyone to witness came from the same people who advocated for change for the longest time.

In the year of belongingness, it felt like it was just the beginning. There is more to come — in regards to opportunities, money, acceptance, and a lot more, and history will remember those who laid the foundation for all those who laid the foundation for these changes.

Dawn Staley, the USA basketball world champion and the current coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, wore a T-shirt that said "Everyone Watches Women's Sports" at their game against East Carolina, which her team won. A few years ago, there would have been a battle on social media, that would call Staley a delusional person who has no idea of reality. Today, the comment section was full of people asking where they could get the same t-shirt.2023 forced a few changes, laid a solid foundation, and made sure the efforts of those who want change are not wasted. The ball is in 2024's court now. May it be even better.

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