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Two big questions that will determine the future of AFLW

Stephanie Chiocci of the Magpies poses for a photograph during the 2018 AFLW Season Launch on January 30, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media)
Expert
1st February, 2018
122
2517 Reads

Dare to Create. That is the motto, advertising gimmick or whatever you want to call it for the second season of the AFLW competition.

A season neatly slotted into one of the few spare spaces in the Australian sporting calendar, after only one year the AFLW has almost immediately become one of the highlights of the year.

It created household names of those barely known a year before; Daisy Pearce, Moana Hope, Katie Brennan, Darcy Vescio and Sarah Perkins are but a few of the heroes young girls across the country now have to look up to.

It’s allowed our daughters, sisters and mothers to dream of playing at the highest level, for clubs they’ve barracked for since they were children but knew only their brothers had the chance to one day wear the colours of.

But coming into the second season, there are two questions that need to be asked.

The first comes back to in what regard the AFL actually holds the women’s game.

Going into the first season there was huge publicity because it was the first. The AFL had to do very little to generate publicity because it was such a big development from Australia’s biggest sporting code.

Questions around the draft, how long the season would be, broadcasting – it all meant the AFL got a free ride as far as promotion goes.

But going into the second season, the lack of noise from the AFL is impossible to ignore. Yes, there is some, but if you look at the breakdown of the way the season is being promoted on social media in particular, it’s been largely left to the clubs.

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This would be unthinkable in the men’s game. Even now, ten days out from the first AFLW game, I’m hearing more about AFLX from the AFL than I am about the AFLW.

This was a point also discussed by the ABC’s Outer Sanctum show on the weekend, and the views of the panelists were split down the middle as to whether they felt the AFLW was getting enough promotion.

For me the point about whether it has received enough promotion in total is secondary. Instead, my question goes back to whether the AFL is investing enough itself in promoting the competition and doing these athletes justice.

I don’t believe it is, and it’s a disservice to not just every AFLW player who has just gone through a grueling pre-season (on the back of their state league seasons), but every woman playing at any level across the country.

Whether the lack of promotion from the AFL is complacency after the roaring success that was the AFLW in season 2017 it’s hard to say, but having spoken to some who have been involved in women’s sport much longer than I, it’s been very easy for them to read this as women’s sport once again being pushed to the background, a poor cousin to its male counterpart.

The clubs have done an amazing job in picking up the leagues slack, but they shouldn’t have to. The AFL should be just as proud of every one of its players as the clubs themselves are.

darcy-vescio-carlton-blues-afl-womens-2017

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

This then leads to the second question; which is how long can the AFL seemingly exploit its female players while reaping the financial rewards that comes with a women’s competition?

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As I mentioned earlier, there is certainly no question that the AFLW has provided a pathway so many girls and women could never have dreamed of.

But it’s also a cop-out to use the excitement and gratefulness of the girls to be able to play AFL football as a way to pay them less than what their work is worth.

I can understand that ahead of the first season the salaries were conservative, simply because there was absolutely no way of knowing how successful the competition was going to be, and many of the players openly acknowledged and accepted that was the case.

But after the success that last year’s competition was, led by a crowd of 24,000 for the opening game of the year, there is now more than enough evidence to suggest a much more significant pay rise than what they were given for 2018 is warranted.

Yes, the very top marquee players at each club are on around $25,000 per season, but this is two players per club.

The rest are on much, much less. Rookie players earn $8500 for their five months work (there is a three-month pre-season remember) while most other players will either be on $10,500 or $14,500.

This may seem like a lot of money for what is simply playing a game in some people’s eyes, but when you look at it in the bigger picture it’s a pittance.

This is especially the case given the amount of money male players can earn playing local level football.

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It’s not unheard of for players to be on upwards of $30,000 to play in local leagues across the country, with some on even more.

I know of two players, each very good footballers who had played some AFL football, who were on over $100,000 a season to play country footy.

I’m not begrudging them earning what they can, and I’m not suggesting AFLW salaries should mirror that, but when male players are able to earn more playing local football than women can playing at the highest level, something is wrong.

While there are salary caps coming into local football because paying players six figures was unsustainable, it’s not the point. Even with these caps in place, there will be enough players on more than the top-earning women to question how that could be allowed to happen.

Not only are these women required to put in a huge amount of work to compete at an elite level, but the product they provide the public and AFL is second to none.

The AFL has been able to use this competition not just to show its commitment to gender equality, something becoming more and more important to corporate sponsors, but also to engage an entirely new market.

The crowd for an AFLW match is often vastly different to that of an AFL game, and I can guarantee you it would not be lost on the AFL that converting them to fans of the men’s game would come with huge benefits.

This is on top of the massive surge in new female players at grassroots level that has come as a direct result of the competition.

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emma-zielke-brisbane-lions-afl-womens-2017

(AAP Image/Dan Peled)

In 2016, before the ball had even been bounced in an AFLW game, the AFL saw an increase of 56 per cent in the number of women playing the game. In 2017, this jumped to a 76 per cent increase with the total number of women and girls playing sitting at 463,364.

This is important, not just for the immediate financial benefit that comes with this many new players paying registration fees across the country, but because we all know who has the final say on what sports kids can play – mum. In however many years time, if mum played Aussie Rules at some point, there’s a fair chance that the AFL will already have them signed up to play, if sport is what they want to do.

This is on top of the gate takings if they go to an AFL game, merchandise sales, club memberships; all the things that come with being an AFL supporter.

But the main reason it’s important is it blows a hole in the argument that the women are being paid in line with the income they generate for the game.

This is the argument used to keep player salaries low, but to look at it properly you need to look at it differently to the way the AFL does; that is through how much TV revenue they generate and how much you make through attendance.

At the moment the AFL receives nothing from the broadcast rights and entry to nearly every game is free; the exception being the game between Fremantle and Collingwood at the new Perth Stadium this season, which will cost $2 to attend.

As an aside, that match is projected to break the all-time attendance record of 24,500 from last season’s opener.

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Having spoken to those working within the AFLW clubs, it is expected that when the TV rights are sold next season that they will go in the vicinity of $30 million.

The AFL will no longer be able to make the argument the players don’t bring in revenue as a direct result of the product, and the salaries will need to increase accordingly.

If not, the AFL will undo all the good work it has done in this space to give girls something to aim at, and will instead simply been seen as another organisation happy to let the status quo that is the gender pay gap continue.