STEVE GEORGAKIS and JADE WARD. The first week in February 2017: A Landmark for Women’s Football Codes

Histories are silent on any real influence that women have had on their respective sport. This is because involvement in these sports have historically emerged from the connotations that such sports were about providing opportunities for men to develop a masculine character.  

A strong feature of Australian historical scholarship has been documenting the various Australian football codes, and this is not surprising because they have been central to Australian identity. Founding anniversaries for example feature significantly. Rugby League celebrated its centenary in 2008; Rugby Union and Australian Rules and Rugby Union in 2009 and 2016 respectively. These histories also celebrate periods when their respective sport flourished or when it was threatened. Historians of Rugby Union point to issues such as cancelling competition during WWI and the end of the amateur era. Australian Rules historians document the move from a Victorian competition to a National Competition or the significant Indigenous presence in the code. Rugby Union historians have focused on the links of their code to the working class or the Super League war. Soccer Football historians have focused on the link between their code and ethnicity. All of these histories are silent on any real influence that women have had on their respective sport. This is because involvement in these sports have historically emerged from the connotations that such sports were about providing opportunities for men to develop a masculine character and become men and ultimately these foundations have led to the various football codes being predominately run and played by men. Women found themselves on the sidelines as organisers and to some extent supporters of their husbands, sons or brothers.

Historians of football will now point to the first weekend of February as a landmark in women’s sport. This landmark is cemented upon two events that took place this past weekend. First, all four football codes, at the elite level, were on show simultaneously. The Olympic winning and much heralded Pearls competed in the International Rugby Sydney 7s competition; the Jillaroos took on the Ferns at the Auckland 9s competition; the two W-League semi-finals took place with a host of World Cup players on show. Second, the start of the AFL attracted record breaking TV audiences and crowds at both the various matches with police having to lock the doors and turn people away. These record breaking numbers indicates a significant change in the Australian sporting landscape as it pertains to women’s sport, especially when considering not too long ago a report apportioned by the Australian Sports Commission found that only 9% of all sports media coverage was dedicated to females, suggesting that there was a lack of audience interest in women’s sport among other things.

Further and perhaps more importantly, is that the performance of these female athletes in their first-round matches of a hyped up and brand new AFLW league did not disappoint its groundbreaking crowds, with many calling their performance ‘inspiring’ to say the least. If you are still not convinced, a quick search of AFLW league on Facebook will provide you with an entire list of pages and posts demonstrating interest and support for these women and their competitive league at the elite level. If the events of this weekend demonstrate anything, I think Carlton star Darcy Vescio nailed it when she said “It’s just a sign of how far we’ve come and how much there is in women’s footy at the moment, and how much it’s going to grow.”

Notably, what has become clearly evident from the events of this past weekend is that if the various male football codes want to prosper in the competitive Australian football landscape they will need to feature and cater for the ‘other half’ in a much more sustained and consistent manner then in previous history. In particular, they will need to be seen as promoting and providing for elite player development. Additionally, the promotion of the Australian women’s football will also address of a number of misgivings and issues in women’s sport in general, including:

  1. Issues associated with sexuality.

Traditionally, sport, especially the various football codes have been founded upon turning boys into men. Equipping them with all the toughness and masculinity required to be a respected and successful man in society. This ultimately meant that women who dared to venture in to the realm of male dominated sport opened themselves up to various assumptions about their gender identity and sexuality. Therefore, girls and women had to decide to live with the label of ‘tomboy’ ‘butch’ or ‘lesbian’ and the challenges it brought with it or find another more ‘gender appropriate’ sport such as dance or gymnastics. As a result, it’s argued that many girls were excluded from the world of sport and football. Although, in recent times this has begun to change, the landmark events of this past weekend are evidence of just how far society has come and how much has changed. Girls and women now have a chance to play in their chosen sport not only because pathways to elite level sports have started to be developed for women but also assumptions about women playing in predominately ‘male’ sports appear to less common. Its argued that this weekend female athletes were viewed and I dare say respected as merely elite athletes in a similar way to their male counterparts complete with all the ‘hard hitting, rough and toughness’ you would expect from a men’s match as, one Collingwood supporter commented. True to the AFLW launch video, this past weekend saw Australians treated to ‘women riding high’ and ‘making a name for themselves in Aussie Rules football’. The events of this landmark weekend, demonstrated that Australia may be ready to see women competing in sport as nothing less than the elite athletes they are, sexualities and gender stereotypes aside. Women ‘kicking balls’, ‘going places’ and ‘making Australian sporting history’ is no longer something Australian’s would ‘like to see’ but something that we witnessed on the first weekend in February 2017 and will continue to witness if women’s sport continues on the track it’s on.

  1. Gender pay gap discrimination.

Like most men, the aim for women is to play professional sport. Sporting codes cannot merely rely on an athlete’s passion as a driving force in their decision to play a particular elite level sport. Prospective female players now have the option to shop around for the sport that pays the most. Thus, if sports wish to contend for the most gifted athletes they need to be prepared to pay the going rate. Additionally, at a time in society when women are to be respected, with disrespect and violence against women verboten, sporting codes must also be prepared to demonstrate their support and respect of women through equal pay. Sporting codes need to seriously consider equal pay among men and women for equal amounts of work as a necessary business decision if they wish to succeed in the future. While it is acknowledged that the commercialisation of sport means that the gender pay gap may take some time to address, this past weekend has demonstrated that reducing this gap is one thing that the various sporting codes need to be prepared to tackle if they wish to prosper as not only a business but also in the future Australian sporting landscape. The overwhelming interest by Australian’s over the weekend is evidence that if sporting codes fail to address inequalities in pay then they risk losing not only their most skilled players to other teams/codes but with them, members of the wider Australian community and ultimately their place as a legitimised sport in the Australian sporting landscape.

  1. Providing a pathway for aspiring girls who otherwise couldn’t find one or dropped out.

A number of the stars of the first round of AFLW had come across from other codes. For example, Carlton’s Brianna Davey had previously resigned to playing soccer as a child as there was no pathway for women to play elite level AFL and Adelaide’s Erin Phillips previously played in the WNBA, even representing Australia in the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the Australian Opals. The introduction of the AFLW league has opened this up for Brianna and no doubt a number of other young girls out there who not only have an interest in AFL but now have role models to look up to and aspire to. This will only increase the place of AFL in the Australian sporting landscape, but such movements supporting women in the AFL need to be consistently sustained at least if it is to continue to grow and cement its place as a major sporting code in Australia.

  1. The quest to be Australia’s national sport.

Ultimately, all football codes in Australia are now in a very real fight to broaden their appeal to the wider community. In recent years, the various football codes have produced blueprints outlining their intention to become “Australia’s premier sport”, with some codes having more success than others in doing so. However, after this past weekend, there is no doubt that if each code is to be a real contender in the fight to become Australia’s premier sport, they are going to have to harness female involvement in sport at the elite level. Thriving women’s competition introduces more people to the sporting codes who otherwise might not have had an interest. Codes and teams will need to invest in their product offering better facilities, coaching, training and pay for female athletes if they are to entice talented players into their sport and legitimise it as Australia’s premier sport. While most countries have one hegemonic football code which dominates (usually football) in Australia there are four which vie for supremacy. What the past weekend has demonstrated, is if they want to thrive in Australia they will need to do more for their elite female footballers or be left by the wayside.

Steve Georgakis is Senior Lecturer of Pedagogy and Sports Studies 
Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.  Jade Ward, a researcher is also from the University of Sydney.

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