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WPL 2024

WPL 2024: Women’s sport is winning – celebrate it, but also make the stadium experience accessible

Delhi Capitals' Annabel Sutherland jumps to field the ball during the 2024 Women's Premier League (WPL) match between Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on February 23, 2024.
by Karunya Keshav 5 minute read

Karunya Keshav writes on her experience of being at the Bengaluru venue during WPL 2024.

My sling purse is the size of two child-sized palms held close. It matched the red colour of the home team I was to watch in the Women’s Premier League. But there was no way it was getting past the zealous security of the M Chinnaswamy stadium with its unforgiving “no bags policy”.

I emptied the contents, surrendered the bag outside to a friend for safekeeping, and stuffed my ticket, phone, wallet, keys, sanitary napkin, mask and anti-allergy medication into my pockets. I congratulated myself for the foresight to wear one of maybe two items in my cupboard with functional pockets, because it’s actually illegal in most countries to give women’s clothes pockets that are for anything other than decoration.

I then proceeded to spend at least two overs of the match on my knees, clutching an achy post-partum back, fishing under the seats for the items I invariably shed from those overworked pockets and swearing at the many small indignities of trying to watch a match as a woman of a certain age.

I didn’t wait to see if this would be another last-ball thriller. I left early to avoid the crowds, because an unaccompanied woman out so late was responsible for her own unfortunate choices, right? No exciting finish is worth the risk of getting felt up at the exit.

And what if I missed the last metro home; I’d travelled the world as a cricket journalist, but I also turned into a damsel when the clock struck 10pm at home, needing my husband to pick me up and help fight the dark and the dragons on that final 700m stretch from metro station to home.

I’d sacrificed an entertaining end to the match a few nights before too. The group of men a few rows from the boundary line had been getting more vocal and limber as the night went on. Exhorted by the DJ and his rowdy music, inhibitions were being shed and the players at the ropes subjected to increasingly insistent calls. The line between enthusiastic support and abuse was getting taut. A quick glance around had confirmed that I was one of maybe a handful of female faces in the entire section. Who are we to interrupt their fun, so let’s leave quietly.

I wondered if I’d have been here if this tournament happened last week. Because last week I was still breastfeeding; pumping or nursing discretely anywhere here to keep my supply up or my children fed was laughable.

In fact, the very idea of bringing my toddlers to watch a game was laughable. Toddlers come with diapers, more diapers, changes of clothing, a toy bus they never leave home without, sippy cups, incessant demands for snacks, attention spans inversely proportional to appetite for said snacks and an evolutionary need for never sitting still. All of that is contraband at this stadium. Also, a little known fact about toddlers is that they turn into hellspawn after sundown, so me trying to make plans that include them past their 8pm bedtime makes me certifiably insane.

To be honest, I feel a bit insane for complaining. As a sports fan, I should take pride in the lengths I go to follow my love. There are bigger fights for women than ‘they didn’t let me take my bag into the stadium’. The WPL itself is a celebration of womanhood – don’t take away its shine by mentioning minor inconveniences such as toilets, ticketing and bottoms pinched at the turnstiles. We complained when women’s cricket was being held at back-of-beyond, ‘boutique’ grounds at midday; now they are in the big centres at prime time and we’re still not satisfied. We once lamented about empty stands, so what’s the problem if mostly men take those seats?

And who brings kids here anyway. What kind of mother wants to take her children to a late-night cricket match. Go to a park. Or the mall. Watch Cocomelon until it’s coming out of my ears. Who told me to have kids anyway if I wanted to watch cricket.

But maybe it’s because I’ve had enough practice being in rooms, including at the press boxes at the Chinnaswamy, where I was the rare woman, that I am prickly about spaces and experiences that are closed to women. I want my boys away from a screen, learning about sports, and hopefully learning to love it, early. I want my boys to one day respectfully share these very spaces with the women in their lives.

So I shall complain, even if I’m not the first to do it, even if it means I’m screaming into the wind, to say: Indian stadiums need to do better to meet the needs of women and children. (And this is coming from an able-bodied, privileged pulpit, I cannot even imagine the frustrating nightmare that being a disabled sports fan entails.)

A campaign by a sportswear brand during the WPL asked women to fill the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi for the match on March 10, a couple of days after International Women’s Day. A slick video claimed women’s cricket got only one-eighth the viewership of men’s cricket, and this was because only 18% of women who watch men’s cricket watch women’s cricket. (I couldn’t trace a source for these figures.)

“Cricket is everyone’s game, but they” – as in the players – “can’t make it theirs until we make it ours,” said Kareena Kapoor Khan earnestly, exhorting stadium attendance.

A noble message indeed. ‘Watch women’s cricket.’ Fully on board with that. I hear the Kotla got a revamp of their women’s toilets during the World Cup last year, with pads, diapers and a changing room even, so maybe those luxuries are still available.

But, this message is also unfair. The onus is not on female fans to put up with unpleasant, unsafe and hostile environments; stadium governing bodies, the boards, the franchises, the government, the police, all stakeholders should make the match-watching experience a welcome one for women and children.

This is especially urgent for women’s sports, and in this case, Indian women’s cricket.

We know that when asked ‘why don’t you watch women’s sport’, people tend to come up with a few common responses. They believe (until they get into it) that the sport is not entertaining enough. They perceive a disconnect because they have never played the sport (even though this is not an issue for men’s sport), they don’t know the players, or they don’t have enough information about when and where matches happen. They don’t have a community to talk – or thrash talk – with. The sport needs to rise to an event, an occasion, for it to consistently get buy in.

We also know that these biases are changing, because women’s sport is on the up every way you look at it. Investment, interest, skills and viewership are growing, and stadiums – yes, even these derelict ones with UTI and/or tetanus risks around every corner – are getting sold out.

But even as we celebrate these wins, we shouldn’t rest on them. Women’s sports gives us a chance to remake sports as we know it, and change what we have till now put up with in men’s sport.

That includes fandom and the live viewing experience.

I couldn’t find specific numbers for India, but world over, TV audiences for sports are growing older. In the UK, for instance, surveys over the last couple of years have put the average cricket viewer in various formats as a man in his late 40s and 50s.

However, women’s sport tends to attract new, more diverse audiences, and those buying tickets for matches tend to be younger and more female as well. That’s vital for the future of any sport. The NFL, for instance, recently found out just what a boost young (and not-so-young) women can bring thanks to the influx of interest driven by Taylor Swift’s romance with a player.

Little wonder then that cricket stadiums in England are improving facilities for women and children, and setting up sensory rooms for young people who need them to enjoy the sport. In New Zealand during the 2022 World Cup, a company offered childcare at the grounds. In keeping with Australian cricket’s ambition to bring more girls and women to the sport, the WBBL often leads the way with music and live entertainment for children alongside the matches.

Indian fans deserve such accessibility and wholesome entertainment too. We need safety and convenience inside the stadium, and on the way to and from there. We need spaces in the stadium that understand the varied needs of children, their need to be active themselves and entertained. We need to help them make core memories and fuel their dreams, so that they will be the fans and athletes of tomorrow.

Keep the doors wide open, put out the welcome mat and clean the toilets for these new fans – and yes, maybe let them carry diapers in.

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