“Women’s sport is not a marketable product” is the common argument I hear for excluding women from the domain of national competitions in almost every sport, with the exception of tennis. 2015 was a watershed year for women’s sport in Australia and it has shown us how rapidly that argument is losing traction. Sport in Australia is big business. So, lets talk the business of the Australian Football League (AFL) and the new market product of women’s AFL.
For 150 years the AFL have been building a marketable product; from investment in and promotion of top-level AFL clubs through to growing the game at the junior levels of grass roots footy, that investment has culminated in a huge organisation. In 2015 the AFL boasted over 800,000 paying club members, drew over 16 million television viewers for the finals series alone, paid its players over $220 million dollars, and signed a broadcast deal with the 7 Network worth over $2.5 billion. At the broader community level in 2015, Australian football employed over 16,000 people (not including players and match officials), attracted over 15 million spectators, and over 170,000 volunteers donated the equivalent of $289 million dollars of labour to the game; and in 2015, Australian football contributed $5.7 billion dollars to the Australian economy.i
The AFL has a significant product indeed, a product that has taken 150 years to build, and until the last few years has not included over half of the population. That’s right, according the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women outnumber men. So let’s consider the product that the bigger half of the population can produce, and put that in context of not 150 years of investment, but a mere 35 years.
Women played a handful of games between World War 1 and the 1970s, mostly as fundraisers or social attractions, it was not until the formation of the Victorian
Women’s Football League (VWFL) in 1981 that an organised league existed for women, albeit for just 4 teams. In 2005 the VWFL celebrated its 25th birthday with 26 teams and just shy of a thousand players.ii In 2010 the AFL announced a review into the women’s game with the intention of developing women’s participation to a national level, and in 2015 the AFL recorded over 284,000 women playing the game. In just 10 years women’s football has gone from an obscure minority to making up a quarter of all registered players.iii
In 2015 the first televised women’s game attracted over 500,000 viewers and #AFLWomensGame became the #1 trending tweet in Melbourne. The match also earned $2.94 million in editorial value for the AFL (the advertising value received from free media/editorial coverage). iv Whilst some might argue that ‘of course people tuned in to watch, its a spectacle’, the ratings from last weekends women’s all-star match suggests that Australian sports consumers know what women’s footy has to offer, and they came back for more. According to the AFL, Saturday night’s exhibition match attracted twice that of last year with 1.05 million Australians turning their TV’s to the 7 Network; the highest television ratings the AFL received for the entire 2016 regular season.v The game also increased its exposure on social media, with #AFLWomensGame trending well not only in Melbourne, but as the 7th most tweeted topic worldwide.vi
It is worth remembering that the players that are earning all of this attention for the AFL are still amateurs. Imagine how exciting the competition will become once these women start receiving financial support and investment from the elite athletic resources of AFL clubs; it will allow them to focus on improving their skills, strength, and conditioning, lifting the women’s game to a semi-professional level.
Whilst Saturdays game showcased the best of the best, with only a handful of the marquee players not on the field, next years inaugural national league season will see that talent spread across 8 teams. Even so, the signs are extremely positive for the future of the competition. The largest group of females in Australian football is in the junior ranks with 181,000 girls participating in school-based programs in 2015vii. That grass roots base is in no small part due to the AFL’s recent investment in, and promotion of, the women’s exhibition matches. These numbers suggest that as this generation of juniors mature, we can expect even bigger growth in the volume of women engaged with the AFL, and the depth of talent across the elite level will subsequently explode in the coming years.
In the last decade female participation in AFL has grown by a massive 28,300%. Major sponsors are already getting on board with Toyota expected to receive naming rights in a multimillion-dollar deal, and National Australia Bank have already begun aligning themselves with the youth girls competition.viii It is not surprising that in 2015 the AFL announced that it would launch the national women’s competition in 2017, three years ahead of their original 2020 schedule. It’s not a publicity stunt, it’s just good business; the sooner the AFL can offer a national product for women the better it will be for their bottom line.
The commercial viability of a new product usually takes time to establish, often running at a deficit in the short term. Opening up into a new market is a long game and there will be growing pains, but we are not pioneers in this field and we can learn from the experiences of other women’s sports. The AFL is proactively investing in their grass roots and school-based programs to attract females to the game from the ground up, the key to sustainability for any sport into a long-term future. Given the unprecedented growth in female participation over recent years and the AFLs enthusiastic approach to the leagues development, the 2017 competition could start turning a profit from very early on and become the benchmark for other sports to strive toward.
So, to those that claim, “Women’s sport is not a marketable product”, you are wrong. It is just good business, and we did all this in only 35 years; imagine the product we will have in another 10.