Spectator sport

Less women’s sport might sometimes be more

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

The credit sequence for the tennis flick Battle of the Sexes has this very British warning: ‘Contains occasional scenes of moderate sex.’ That just about sums up the story of one’s life, really. But if it’s only a moderate sex movie, it’s a terrific tennis picture. I’d forgotten quite what a tireless and heroic campaigner for women’s sport (and pay) Billie Jean King had been. And we have, as they say, come a long way.

But not that far: all the women players in the world’s top seven football leagues — that’s Mexico, France, Germany, England, USA, Australia and Sweden — earn slightly less combined than the Brazilian Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain (under £33 million a year). Though I bet even Billie Jean would probably rather watch PSG than a women’s champion-ship match between, say, Lyon and Manchester City, two of the best sides around. So it’s all about what people are willing to pay to see — which is of course the argument that the odious Jack Kramer uses to put down Billie Jean in Battle of the Sexes, and an argument she smashes away.

What is certain is that women’s sport is doing better than ever, though ultimately would you rather watch the Ashes or the Women’s Ashes? Good for the BBC for its relentless promotion of women’s sport, but maybe now dial it down a bit for 2018. Less might sometimes be more.

It promises to be an enthralling Six Nations. England are steadily getting better, though still not the finished article. Scotland are very strong despite having a pool of only about 25 players to pick from. The Irish are famously tough to beat, with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton the best 9-10 combination in Europe, possibly the world. The Lions players are suitably battle-hardened, and the drawn series in New Zealand will have shown them what they are capable of.

The final three minutes of the third Lions Test was the sporting highlight of the year. The drama over the disputed penalty award, later withdrawn, that could have given the All Blacks the game, and the series win, was unbearably tense, and played out in a spirit of total sportsmanship. As the two captains, side by side, watched the sequence on the big screen, Kieran Read turned to Sam Warburton and said, ‘This is rugby, mate.’ That’s why rugby is the game of games.

It’s so often baffling, though. And here’s an idea to speed things up for 2018. I would like to see the clock stopped more often. Whenever the referee blows his whistle to halt play for a penalty, set scrum or try, the match clock should be stopped and not restarted until the ball is back in play. After the 2011 World Cup the International Rugby Board reported the ball was in play for only 35 minutes, 25 seconds of the game’s 80 minutes.

Next year will be the year of Russia and Putin and the World Cup. It promises to be as smooth and successful as Putin’s Winter Olympics in 2014 (now overshadowed by Russia’s ban from the 2018 games). Lots of glittering infrastructure, well-policed fans and lavish hospitality to cover a multitude of sins.

Who will win? Brazil skated through their interminable qualifying group to win by 10 points over the nearest rival, Uruguay. Does that mean the rest of South American football is poor? After all, England drew with Brazil the other day. But Brazil were playing Harlem Globetrotter football, sauntering around with 75 per cent possession. It will all be different in Russia. Southgate’s young England side can, you feel, nevertheless spring a surprise. They have sailed through their mocks: now for the real exams. And please let’s bring in video refereeing to avoid the errors that can blight matches, tournaments and careers. It boggles what’s left of the mind that it still hasn’t been introduced.

Australian Open tennis will soon be keeping us lonely fans up at night but my last wish to Santa is that one of the new young guns might creep shyly on to the main stage and end the hegemony of Federer and Nadal. They come and go, the Zverevs, the Raonics, the Thiems of this world, but rarely put down roots in the slams. I wonder if many of you have the faintest idea who Lucas Pouille is? Well, he’s France’s latest sporting hero, having won the deciding singles in the Davis Cup final vs Belgium. He has also reached a couple of Grand Slam quarters but I couldn’t put a face to the name. Come on guys, move Rog and Rafa out of the way.

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