Women’s sport currently takes second fiddle. Right or wrong, that’s the world we live in.
The NRL have invested in a women’s competition for the past couple of years, while the World Cup in the UK later this year has committed to equal match payments with men.
But the fact that the Indigenous vs Māori women’s game next month serves as a double header, nearly slap bang in the middle of the end of the 2020 season and the 2021 course (July’s Origin, with a subsequent gap until the NRLW), demonstrates the almost throwaway, afterthought mentality when it comes to thinking about the women’s game.
To ensure long-term viability, the NRL needs to boost the number of punters tuning in and turning up, as they currently aren’t. If they were, then double headers wouldn’t be necessary, players would be professional and more teams would be in existence.
The quality argument offers an easy out: biological differences between men and women ensure that the product appears less appealing to the punter accustomed to the former’s intensity.
Of course, there is the self-perpetuating cycle that minimal media recognition leads to lower public cut-through, which combine for less revenue, so fewer resources, thus poorer quality, and so fulfilling a vicious prophecy.
If Meg Ward and company were afforded full-time contracts, the product would improve. The question is to what extent?
The answer, unfortunately, no matter how much we may wish it, is not to the same standard as the men. If it were, then the entire raison d’etre for the women’s game would be negated.
But more than any biological differences, a more pressing issue is holding back the NRLW from its potential. Following an NRL side is a tribal affair, where blind loyalty and familial ties bind us to backing our lot. Playing quality is near immaterial.
From March to October, these emotions are monopolised by the men who take the field at Brookvale, Suncorp and Bankwest. Especially with money tight, asking punters to put their hard-earned into a new women’s competition only four weeks long seems optimistic.
The answer involves utilising that tribalism, but taking the game to areas otherwise under-utilised by the NRL. Pundits talk about the glut of Sydney fixtures and over-saturation of this market compared to the rest of Australia. Let the NRLW prove it.
Adding a Wests Tigers side would truly demonstrate the utility of a side often first volunteered in relocation talks.
A North Queensland Cowboys side with games from Cairns to Mackay and even Rockhampton could show New South Wales the value of the community game.
The Dragons splitting their time between St George and Illawarra to account for their usual split itinerary, and the Warriors travelling to Christchurch, Hamilton and Greymouth, would demonstrate the depth of feeling for the amalgamated and nationally representative sides, respectively.
Hell, with such a low monetary entrance bar, why aren’t Papua New Guinea considered, especially in light of the enormous social impact the inclusion such a team could have?
The point is there are options to expand the NRLW, providing footy to fans who have been deprived in terms of quantity. This should not be viewed as a consolation, but the opportunity to witness top-flight rugby league. If the numbers are there, then it may provide more pathways and elite viewings.
If the highest level of women’s rugby league is given the NRL moniker, then it follows that Moore Park has to support it. But it needs to avoid the trap of dependency and the poor sibling syndrome.
Eventually, the aim has to be for the women’s competition to stand on its own two feet on a professional and commercial level. This would be an eventual process, not unduly cutting the umbilical cord – forever linked with their male colleagues, but not dependent upon their revenue-raising.