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Pandemic fallout hampers women's sport in Asia

Optimistic growth forecasts threatened as men's games are given priority

Players on the Indian national cricket team celebrate a wicket during their Women’s T20 World Cup match against Australia in Sydney on Feb. 21.   © AP

SEOUL -- This year started promisingly for women's sport in the Asia-Pacific. On March 8, more than 86,000 people crammed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Australia defeat India in the final of the Women's T20 World Cup.

India loves cricket, and was starting to take more notice of women's events. "Women's cricket was thriving in early 2020," said Vishal Yadav, founder of Female Cricket, a Mumbai academy dedicated to helping people achieve their dreams in the popular game.

"Overall, there was massive progress as they geared up for the World Cup in Australia," Yadav said. "There was a massive crowd there with lots of Indian fans. Domestic cricket was moving forward, and there was optimism."

If women's cricket was starting to go places in India, the same can be said of women's soccer in Indonesia. Esti Lestari, the chairwoman of Women's Football Network Indonesia, was helping the game to grow in the soccer-mad country.

The founder of Persijap Kartini, Indonesia's first professional female team, established in 2016, Lestari also helped to found a new professional league, Liga 1 Putri, in 2019. "We started the league for women last year, and everything was positive," she said. "We were not flush with sponsors, but it was sustainable and all the clubs finished the season."

Team India looks dejected after losing to Australia in the Women’s T20 World Cup finals against Australia, in Melbourne on March 8.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 season has not yet started for Indonesian women's soccer and many other sports around the region. The Women's T20 World Cup cricket final was one of the last major international sporting events to take place before COVID-19 brought sport around the world to a halt earlier this year.

By August, some sports were returning. There may have been no tennis fans in New York to watch the U.S. Open women's singles final on Sept. 12, but millions tuned in on TV to watch Japan's Naomi Osaka, the world's top-rated player, beat Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. In golf, Kim Sei-young continued South Korea's domination of the women's game on Oct. 11 by winning the Women's PGA Championship in the United States to collect $645,000 in prize money.

In other sports, however, especially team games such as soccer, cricket and rugby, women have often had to watch the men restart while their own sports have remained in abeyance. That could threaten the future of some -- including sports that were riding a wave of optimism before the pandemic began. Earlier this year, for example, the global association representing professional soccer players warned that the economic effects of the coronavirus would affect female players more than their male equivalents.

A promotional poster for Indonesia's new women's professional soccer league, Liga 1 Putri. The coronavirus has thrown the league's future in doubt. (From Instagram)

"The lack of written contracts, the short-term duration of employment contracts, the lack of health insurance and medical coverage, and the absence of basic worker protections and workers' rights leaves many female players -- some of whom were already teetering on the margins -- at great risk of losing their livelihoods," said the organization, known as FIFPRO.

In India, women's cricket has taken a huge hit, both on and off the field and at the international and domestic levels. "There is a vast difference in the pay scale between male and female cricketers," said Yadav. "Therefore, the female players are left with fewer or sometimes no resources to fight back against such unforeseen economic adversities."

With a population of nearly 270 million, Indonesia has huge potential in global soccer. But it is not clear whether its nascent professional women's league can continue after the interruption caused by the pandemic -- in part because of the greater priority given to restarting the men's game.

Members of the Persib Putri women's soccer team join a parade to celebrate winning the 2019 Liga 1 Putri championship.   © AP

"We are back to where we were before. I don't think there will be a league this year. After the pandemic, women's football became less and less of a priority," said Lestari. "Men's football was given priority in getting games playing again."

Lestari added that financial assistance from the Indonesian government and the Football Federation of Indonesia is "crucial" to keep women's professional clubs alive. "They must assist or next year 260 players will have no team," she said.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. The cost of running women's sport in team games such as soccer, rugby and cricket is far lower than for men's sport, which makes entry costs for corporate sponsors more attractive.

A Liga 1 Putri match: “We are back to where we were before," said Esti Lestari, chairwoman of Women’s Football Network Indonesiai. "I don’t think there will be a league this year." (From Instagram)

"The cost of entry to support women's sport is much less at the moment," Steve Martin, global chief executive of the M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment agency, part of the U.K.-based M&C Saatchi Group, told SportsPro Media, a London-based sports media organization.

Martin added that if his marketing and sponsorship budget were halved, he would reconsider his options. "I maybe can't put all of that 50% into men's sport, so I'll be looking at the deals I have in place and looking at the opportunity in women's sport because I think it can be very cost-effective."

Women's sport in Asia should also benefit from the impact of major sporting events in the region over the next few years, including the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021 and the Women's World Cup soccer finals in Australia and New Zealand in 2023. If the soccer tournament goes ahead as planned it will be the first to be staged in the southern hemisphere, and the first to feature 32 teams -- up from 24 at the 2019 tournament in France and double the number that competed as recently as 2011.

"We have some great opportunities," said Moya Dodd, a former Australian international soccer player. "Everyone in sport is struggling with the uncertainty of COVID right now, but in Asia we have the two most important world tournaments right here, in the next three years. That gives us a comparative advantage. I hope we can use that to boost fan interest, media reach and commercial value."

Dodd said that planning for the resumption of women's sports should be given the same priority by administrators and governments as the comparable men's games, and called for long-term changes to strengthen women's competitions in the wake of the short-term pain inflicted by the pandemic.

"As old habits are broken, we should look to rebuild sport with the equality that we want to see for future generations," she said.

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