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6 April 2022

Women’s sport is growing fast – but so is the dominance of a few elite teams

The breakaway brilliance of Australia’s cricketer and FC Barcelona Femení highlights the celebratory mood of top-flight female competition.

By Jonathan Liew

There were fleeting and illusory moments when it felt like we might just have a contest. As England toiled and chipped away at their mammoth target of 357 in the women’s cricket World Cup final on 3 April, Australia’s fielders started to share nervous glances. For most of their innings England were ahead of where Australia had been at the same stage of theirs. Nat Sciver, England’s brilliant all-rounder, was playing the knock of her life. Yet even during these brief passages, the idea of Australia losing still seemed so remote as to be essentially theoretical. Ultimately, we knew how this was going to end. So did the crowd at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. So did the Australians. And so, fatally, did the English.

The final wicket of Anya Shrubsole sealed victory for Australia by 71 runs: their 12th World Cup triumph in all formats of the game, their 38th win in their last 39 matches and a fitting monument to probably the greatest team ever assembled in women’s cricket. In terms of talent, athleticism, professionalism, preparation and squad depth, Australia have raised the standard to the point where few other teams can glimpse it, let alone approach it. In so doing they have revolutionised a sport that is rapidly escaping the shadow of the men’s game and establishing its own identity and aesthetic, its own stars and idols, its own distinct and organic appeal.

[See also: Why the ruthlessly brilliant, widely unpopular Man City deserve our respect]

All of which raises a number of interesting questions that pertain not simply to cricket but to women’s sport as a whole. Will dominant teams like Australia’s ever be seriously challenged? Is that a problem? How do you balance the requirement for exemplary excellence, for memes and heroes and fire emojis, with the need for meaningful competition? In short: what is the best way to grow a sport?

Four days earlier, and 12,000 miles away, the same questions were presenting themselves. Over the past couple of years Barcelona Femení have taken a dramatic and seemingly unbreakable stranglehold on women’s club football. Last season they demolished Chelsea, the lavishly funded English champions, 4-0 in the Champions League final. So far this season their record reads: played 38, won 38, scoring an average of five goals per game. In March they won the Spanish league title with six games to spare.

Far from turning viewers off, Barcelona’s dominance has achieved the opposite. On 30 March, at the famous Camp Nou stadium where the men’s team play their home games, Barcelona hosted their bitter rivals Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Naturally, they won: 5-2 on the night, 8-3 on aggregate. And so, in the absence of any genuine sporting jeopardy, the biggest cheer of the evening came when the official attendance was announced: 91,553, a world-record crowd for a game of women’s football. “This is just too crazy,” winger Caroline Graham Hansen said afterwards. “It’s something I never dreamed of happening.”

[See also: Why there is melancholy in Emma Raducanu’s New York fairy tale]

For now, Barcelona’s supremacy still has a stirring novelty to it: a predominantly home-grown team playing scintillating attacking football. But their success offers a portent of the direction in which the women’s game is heading: a shift of power towards the biggest clubs (in effect, the biggest men’s clubs) and a spiralling financial arms race. Already, the traditional giants of women’s football – early movers such as Lyon, Wolfsburg, Turbine Potsdam and Umeå – have either fallen by the wayside or are just about clinging to the elite. In a few years’ time, it is highly likely that the main players in European men’s football – Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City – will be largely mirrored on the women’s side.

None of which is necessarily a bad thing. Virtually all women’s sport is engaged in an eternal battle for attention, engagement and revenue. And as with Australia’s cricketers, who drew their own record crowd of 86,174 at the Twenty20 World Cup final in Melbourne in 2020, most of the available evidence suggests that dynastic dominance sells tickets.

The women’s Six Nations is enjoying bumper audiences and growing media coverage despite its frequent mismatches. Women’s tennis was never more popular than when Venus and Serena Williams were swatting aside all comers. The current landscape, in which there are perhaps three or four dozen women capable of winning a Grand Slam tournament, provides more exciting, unpredictable tennis. But it can be hard for casual viewers to grasp the narrative.

Perhaps what is happening is a kind of tonal divergence. In men’s sport, the emergence of a near-invincible team like Barcelona or Australia would precipitate all sorts of angsty existential questions about fairness and competitive balance. Champion sides in men’s sport are often loathed as much as admired. By contrast women’s sport feels less tribal, with historical enmities somehow less relevant, and excellence broadly celebrated.

Perhaps one day audiences will tire of watching Australia crush every opponent in their path, or Barcelona winning every game 5-0, and start demanding fairer contests, proper rivalries, a more equitable financial model. But for now you suspect that none of this is of great interest to the teams themselves, whose sole concern is with winning more, winning better, winning more beautifully – not worrying about a future they are still trying to craft.

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian

[See also: This should have been a breakout year for women’s sport – now to keep going it needs a leap of faith]

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