Women’s AFL League Set To Kick Off In Australia In 2017 But Will It Address The Pay Gap?

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AFL fans in Australia, get ready because the 2017 season is going to be its biggest yet. Starting in February, the AFL is launching its first Women’s League which will consists of 8 teams and span the course of 2 months. Just for comparison’s sake, the current version of the men’s league has been around since 1897, so yeah, it only took the league 120 years to recognize men are the only gender playing this sport…

Teams from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (the state where this particular code of football is the most popular and where it originated) applied for licenses and entered teams. Players from the remaining territories of Canberra and Northern Territory were incorporated into teams from NSW and SA respectively to ensure women from all over the country had a chance to enter.

This year, to get fans excited about the women’s league, a series of 10 exhibition matches were played which gave the AFL commission a fairly good idea of what to expect come Feb 2017. At the beginning of September, an All-Stars game was played between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons, which saw the Bulldogs win 14.6 (90) to 7.9 (51). The match trended on Twitter, and there were more than 6000 people who braved the cold Melbourne winter weather to watch a foretaste of what’s to come in 2017.

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Since this is a story about women and sports, we’re pretty sure you know what’s coming – the inequality, most notably in pay. Sure, this is a new league and the ALF commission as a business needs to know the money they are investing is worth the risk, like any investment. But if the metrics on something like this include the standard audience interest, broadcast sponsors and ratings, perhaps they should be revising they salary parameters already.

The All-Stars game was the last in the 10-game exhibition match series before the league starts, and it should be the game they look to as an indication of what is to come. In an article reviewing the game for Independent Australia, journalist John Passant, who attended the match with his young daughter, outlined the gender pay gap issue which is going to haunt the AFL unless they do something about it first.

“It was the most watched Saturday AFL game this year. (And yes, I know there were no other games on that weekend and it was the first time on one of the main TV channels.) Nevertheless, the figures are impressive. According to Holly Byrnes in news.com.au, viewing peaked nationally at 1.05 million and averaged 746,000. In Melbourne, the average was 387,000 viewers — more than any men’s Saturday game this season,” he wrote.

With the pre-season officially starting in November, John points to the abysmal pay the women will be getting: $5000 for 22 weeks work. That’s 5k in TOTAL.

“At $225 a week, this is less than the dole, which at $263.80 a week for a single person without dependents (before a proposed $4.40 cut) is itself more than 30% below the poverty line of about $400 a week,” he said, with the dole being the Australian equivalent of welfare or social security benefits in the US.

“To put that pay in annual terms, most of the women players will be paid the equivalent of a yearly salary of $11,909. The minimum wage in Australia is $34,980 a year. Prorating this minimum wage figure to 22 weeks, instead of $5,000 for 22 weeks, these players at a minimum should be paid $13,800. Similarly, for those on $10,000 – and retaining the pay relativities – their pay on an annual basis would be $27,600. For the marquee players, it would be just under $59,000,” he added.

The AFL Player’s association initially rejected the low pay rate and fought for more, but the commission would not budge.

With the wage gap hovering at 16% in Australia, it looks like the AFL is set to contribute to this, rather than work to chip away at it. By comparison, the average male AFL player earns $300,000 a year, where as the salary cap for women is only $200,000. Out of the 18 clubs in the men’s league 10 of those run at a loss, according to John’s article. So it is bizarre to think the AFL Commission is willing to financially continue propping up unprofitable clubs rather than launch the women’s league with the same amount of money.

In a statement to the press, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan defended their decision, saying: “We are starting a new competition, we’ve accelerated that, we’re investing in it, and we need to build the league… every woman I’ve spoken to understands the journey we’re on.”

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Hey newsflash Gillon, “understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with the low pay or agree with it!

While he made sure to mention how much money the AFL is spending on facilities, coaches, etc, and added that between 3-5 years the women could command better full-time salaries those who are stuck with the low $5000 pay for the league will use a significant amount of that money to pay for their own insurance. This is reportedly a common practice among the male AFL players, but then again, they are earning FAR more than 5k a season…

As John Passant writes, the AFL has a wonderful opportunity to lead the way on equal pay, but instead they are just reinforcing the status quo on a much wider scale that just competitive sports.

“Women predominate in part time and casual jobs. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women make up 72% of the of part time workforce, despite only making up 46% of all employees; 54% of casuals are women. Women’s workforce participation rate is 54%, compared to 70% for men. The AFL is following and reinforcing this rather than challenging it,” he wrote.

The real test will come in February when a handful of major broadcast TV and radio networks start showing the games. Will the women continue to gain high ratings as they did in the exhibition matches? If they do out-match the men, or at the very least garner comparable ratings, they may be in a position to leverage that for more pay.

In the US we have seen how certain women are doing this. The women’s national soccer team are fighting to get equal pay, after their accolades have overwhelming proved they are not just equal to the men, but better than. They have won 3 world cups, whereas the man have won a grand total of 0, and their 2015 World Cup Final match between Japan was THE most watched soccer game in US broadcast history. So remind us, why should the total pay for the women’s team for winning be $2 million, compared to $35 million for the men’s team which only reached the round of 16 in 2014.

In Tennis, a number of female players fought for better pay and now it is one of the only major world sports where it’s banner events (the four grand slams) offer equal prize money for men and women. When it comes to women’s teams in Australia, John Passant mentions the nation women’s team, the Matildas, who have also fought to be recognized as a fully professional team, with a minimum pay increase from $21,000 to $34,000 AUD.

It is a shame that the AFL Commission has not looked at the bigger landscape of female professional sports and chosen to do something groundbreaking. They could’ve really taken the lead on this, but instead it will fall on the women to prove (again) that they can draw the audiences and deserve to be paid.

“The thing for us is that we want this to be a fully professional league, next year it’s part time and eight matches but our job is to make this professional for the women as fast we can. We encourage sponsors and broadcasters to get on board and the faster we can get there the better,” said AFL general manager of game and development Simon Lethlean.

In the meantime, the AFL Commission should know that there are MANY eyes on them, including the mainstream Australian media, to ensure they do the right thing and are held to their word.

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