Double Take

7 May 2019

Sport is an integral part of Australian national identity. Some of our proudest moments as a nation have been Ian Thorpe’s swimming success in the 2004 Olympics or the triumph of Australia in 1983’s America’s cup, and our sporting star players ascend to become national heroes.

But something has been missing from this shining image for a little too long, namely, our female athletes.

A large part of Australian culture is rooted in the values and rituals behind sportsmanship: honestly, camaraderie, strength in the face of adversity – but these characteristics aren’t restricted to a specific gender.

As social changes in Australia slowly evolve the national makeup, more diverse representation in sports is slowly but surely making its mark too. Women in sport in Australia have been making huge strides across a multitude of games, and the public is starting to take notice.

Nonetheless, not all of this new attention has been good.

Despite the awe-inspiring successful of the AFLW (Australian Football League Women’s) this year, the season has attracted an abundance of nasty comments from men on social media who view themselves as the makeshift gatekeepers of Australia.

These are the people who refuse to believe the shift in Australian culture, away from the ‘old boy’s club’ mentality where women are expected to be domestic caretakers.

What will it take to reach a point of equality for Australian sports? It is important to note however, that the AFL as an institution has been around for 122 years and has a long and storied history, whereas the AFLW only kicked off in 2017. It is inevitable that it will take time for the AFLW to catch up, but I am sure that that point is inevitable.

Regardless, there are still some concerning elements about gender equality in sports; with the most strikingly obvious one being pay.

A common counter-argument to why women in sport do not deserve equal pay is that at the end of the day, major sporting organisations are profit-driven enterprises. There is simply not enough interest from the public that generates revenue for them, and in turn, for wages for the female athletes.

While the AFLW Grand Finals was a very special day, not only in cementing Erin Phillips as one of the next generation’s Australian sporting legends, but also in the phenomenal audience turnout. Before the finals, the AFL stated that an audience of 30 000 would be a “massive endorsement” for the future of the female sporting league. But the crowds turned out to support the players, with an inspiring and roaring success with over 53 000 viewers in the stadium, a drastic increase from the 7000 stadium viewers of the finals from the year before.

During 2018, AFLW athletes received between $10 500 to $20 000 for the top-tier players. Maybe then, the salary of AFLW athletes should increase by over seven-fold to reflect the exponential rise in finals viewership? After this 700% increase in salary, this would mean the top AFLW players were getting around $140k, which would still be less than half of the average salary for AFL male players…Yikes.

Another counter argument made by the male guardians of the internet is that women do not deserve equal pay because the quality of gameplay is lower in women’s sports.

However, this is a cyclical problem; as women’s leagues are paid less for the same sport, it means that it is not feasible for athletes to survive on this salary and hence are unable to quit their day job. Thus, it is not possible to train full time and even harder to get the team together to practice and strategize, meaning that inevitably there is a lower standard of gameplay.

Fun fact: Serena Williams is the only female in the world’s 100 highest paid athletes. The other 99 are all male.

Another component of the modern-day female athlete is – perhaps unfortunately – social media. Between 2011 and 2013, only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship, an area worth $427.2 million, was allocated to women’s sports, but nowadays this figure has increased substantially. Now, many of the world’s most famous female athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Simone Biles have won million-dollar sponsorships along with their Olympic gold medals. But for the less globally renowned, female athletes feel pressure to appear conventionally hot to garner mid-tier sponsorships to fund their careers.

Where to, from here? The vast majority of the disapproval around women in sport are from older generations, with outdated values and expectations of women in sports. Perhaps the big leagues can learn from University level sports, where the athletes of both genders compete in equally high rated national competitions. 

It may have been an undervalued and underappreciated history, but for women in sport, it’s only getting better.

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