Why have we waited so long for a women’s AFL league?

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There’s no shortage of young Aussie women with the ability to belt a footy across an oval with as much power as the boys. But until now, the idea of playing in the AFL was little more than a dream. When AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced that the first bounce in the national women’s league would occur in 2017, it was met with overwhelming positivity.

In fact, he described the Women’s All-Stars match as: ‘a landmark night for our game, and we hope for women in sport’. And rightly so – the match, which was televised in prime time, had more than one million views at its peak, and the biggest Saturday night audience of any 2016 game. There’s clearly an appetite for women’s football. But there are many reasons why the launch of a national league was so far behind the men’s.

Women are playing as equals, but they’re not paid as equals

Deakin University Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science student and Melbourne Demons draft pick Maddie Boyd says, ‘It’s such an exciting time for not only women in footy, but women in sport in general.’ She looks forward to making the most of the AFL resources and playing at an elite level. But in 2017, female AFL players can expect to earn up to $25,000 and as little as $5000 for their inaugural season – a stark contrast to men, who earn an average of $300,000 per season.

McLachlan has argued, ‘We don’t have a broadcast deal, we don’t have a sponsorship deal, at the moment we don’t have any commerciality around the (women’s) league.’ Jess Cameron, who’s been drafted by Collingwood, predicts that it will take some time for women to be financial equals. ‘In 10 years the pay packages will be similar to what men are getting,’ she says. Even Cameron, who’s directly impacted by the pay gap, can see that making the women’s league successful won’t happen overnight. ‘You don’t want to start a competition and have it fail,’ she points out. ‘The AFL has put a lot of money into the women’s program in the past couple of years to push for games and get on TV. All the advertising and marketing has helped.’

'It’s such an exciting time for not only women in footy, but women in sport in general'

Maddie Boyd,
Deakin University student

Increasing the opportunities for development

A generation of girls will now see that playing at AFL level is achievable, but prior to the new league launch, the path to success was unclear. For Ballarat-born Kaitlyn Ashmore, a promising young footballer who’s been drafted by the Brisbane Lions, the chance to play professionally didn’t become realistic until she was invited to play in the Youth Girls Academy Challenge.

The initiative, which launched in 2008, has grown from 24 participants to more than 350 in 2016. It’s proof that girls needed access to the skill development required to play in a national competition. Ashmore suggests that a lack of such programs up until a decade ago stalled any chance of progress. ‘It’s amazing to see the rapid rise. I think it’s taken so long because it’s taken time for the AFL to give us a chance,’ she says.

Success and longevity requires research

Deakin University student Kim Encel is undertaking a PhD looking at the women’s league. Through his research, Encel is exploring how the newly launched league can improve outcomes. ‘These relate to potential rule modifications to make the game enjoyable to watch and having effective structures to support the players, coaches and administrators,’ he explains. ‘By modifying the rules, it may be possible to make the game freer-flowing and less congested. Effective structures refer to the procedures and policies put in place to ensure that the stakeholders’ needs are being met.’

He says it’s important to examine the subject because there’s little research into the development of professional women’s sporting leagues. ‘Not only will it be important for the AFL and its national women’s league but it will also provide lessons for other women’s leagues around the world,’ he adds.

In the meantime, though, players like Maddie Boyd are just pleased to finally be recognised on a national level. ‘I was lucky enough to be drafted alongside two other teammates from Geelong, and to continue playing and developing with them at the highest level is pretty awesome,’ she concludes.

 

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