Women storm the barricades
Netball, Aussie rules, cricket, football ... the days of playing for nothing are well and truly over
SHOTS ring out across the compound. Startled women scurry out of their makeshift beds. They would have had no more than an hour’s sleep. If any at all. But they have quickly learnt the drill – and are ready for their next gruelling task orchestrated by military personnel who take no prisoners. It might be working together to push an all-terrain army vehicle up a hill, or dragging themselves up a rock face that comes with its own waterfall. Welcome to the start of Queensland Firebirds’ pre-season training ... and to the new world of domestic women’s sporting outfits in Australia. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Only for the truly dedicated. And finally giving sportswomen the stage – and the recognition – they deserve. For netball’s champion Firebirds team, not every weekend is like the one spent at Kokoda Barracks at Canungra in the Gold Coast hinterland. But it shows the lengths the franchise and the girls, under the watchful eye of uncompromising head coach Roselee Jencke, are willing to go to for success. In one particular case, arguably the most gruelling 800m they will ever encounter, navigating their way, kicking and screaming, through an obstacle course full of pits and perils – 10-foot-high walls to climb over; cargo nets and deadly barbed-wire fences to crawl under; swinging rope bridges to cross; and ending with a 30m drop into Coomera River. “Military-style training can be quite intense, severe, very strenuous,” Firebirds physical performance manager Callum Koch tells News Regional Media. “But the camp ... without going into too much detail, was more about perceived risk. Putting the girls in situations where they were uncomfortable. “Rose’s motto for the camp was ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable’. It certainly shone through in the activities the girls did.” Newly appointed Firebirds captain Gabi Simpson and her teammates embraced the ultimate in boot camp-style bonding – even if at one stage it meant enduring a four-and-a-half-hour training session, beginning at midnight. With the loss of several experienced campaigners such as former skipper Laura Geitz, the Firebirds know how important it could be during the season. “It brought what is a new group together quickly,” Simpson says. “There’s no better way to bond than through some hard times together.
“The camp was really important for the younger girls to understand they can play a huge role in the team. There were plenty of times they showed that when the going gets tough they will stand up and take the game on.”
Back on more solid footing, the Firebirds are no less intense in their preparation for the first ever season of Super Netball. They won the last two titles in the now defunct trans-Tasman ANZ Championship and have standards to keep in the new-look league now featuring eight clubs from throughout Australia, and which starts February 18.
The competition previously comprised five teams each from here and New Zealand.
“There is a lot of great talent in Australia and it’s now evenly dispersed among eight teams, so we’re going to be seeing different combinations,” Simpson says.
“We are taking our history with us into this new tournament, but we’re looking forward to starting off what could be a great new adventure for the Firebirds.”
Koch’s brief includes strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, medical, sports science and research programs for the Firebirds, while also overseeing Netball Queensland’s Elite Development Program. He has arrived from one of the AFL’s two new franchises, Gold Coast Suns, where he spent five years.
“I’ve come to an environment at the Firebirds that has been really successful,” he says. “And it’s obvious as to why.
“Just the work that Rose does with the girls in setting expectations, what the girls owe to each other. She certainly doesn’t take short cuts. She’s very clear with what she expects.”
Koch admits he has been surprised by their level of dedication. “Particularly in regards to their netball and other endeavours they have in their life – whether it’s part-time work, part-time study,” he says.
“The girls do a really good job of managing that so it kind of complements their performance in the sporting arena.
“There’s a sense of humility, they understand the importance and the impact that they as sporting role models in the community can have. I think that’s probably been the most impressive part for me.”
For the Firebirds and the rest of the Super Netball teams it’s a full-time commitment … for part-time wages.
Players have 12-month part-time contracts, averaging 20 hours a week, with 10am to 4pm each weekday protected.
“We have a certain amount of time in the mornings and the afternoons when the girls are available,” Koch explains.
“We have to be really sharp in what we prescribe for their
...they’ll have to reassess. I’m hoping it will go berserk
training. They certainly understand it’s quality, not quantity.”
Netball’s domestic elite are at least now being rewarded more substantially financially for their (limited) time.
Players competing in the 2017 Super Netball competition will be the highest-paid domestic sportswomen in Australia. Each club now has $675,000 to spend on its 10 listed players, which equates to an average salary of $67,500. The minimum has more than doubled, from $13,250 in the ANZ Championship to $27,375. There’s increased sponsorship dollars and the Nine Network has become the official broadcaster, televising two games live each Saturday night in prime time.
It’s all part of what is truly a landmark year for women’s sport on the domestic scene,.
The new girls on the block, female Australian rules footballers, have already shown how hard they can play on and off the field before the AFL Women’s competition even began last night.
Their sport is fastest-growing for female participation in this country and demanded a league of its own after soaring ratings for exhibition matches on Channel Seven last year.
A match between the Bulldogs and Melbourne peaked at 1.05 million viewers nationally and averaged 746,000. With 387,000 alone watching in Melbourne it out-rated any non-finals Saturday night men’s game in footy’s heartland.
After months of negotiations between the AFL and the players’ association, the minimum wage rose from a starting $5000 to $8500. Marquee players will receive $27,000 (which includes marketing and ambassadorial roles) for the seven-round home and away season.
In stark contrast, the guys’ average wage hit $300,000 in season 2016, with a handful paid more than $1 million.
Brisbane Lions skipper Emma Zielke, whose side takes on Melbourne tomorrow, dreams of a day when the girls can be fully professional and “don’t have to have a job’’.
“The AFL are on the right track. They have to introduce the product before sending girls full-time,” she said recently.
“Once we’ve had a season they’ll have to reassess. I’m hoping it will go berserk and the AFL and the club will recognise that.”
Until then, players such as fellow Lion Sharni Webb are soaking up the experience of being in an elite sporting environment as opposed to suburban or country footy, grateful of the opportunity.
“It’s a big step up, but I think everyone’s really liking the professional side of things,” Webb says. “Recovery is so good. We’re taken such good care of. We’re not going home wrecked and tired and dreading the next session.”
The just completed second season of Women’s Big Bash League cricket has paved the way for female sport on free-to-air TV, peaking on Channel 10 with a national audience of 500,000 for the final between the Sydney Sixers and Perth Scorchers. In turn, minimum wages have more than doubled since WBBL|01 from $3000 to $7000, with a maximum set at $15,000.
“We always talk a lot about exposure, and nothing is as good as it can be. In the WBBL, we’re showing we can go as well as the men,” Brisbane Heat star and BBL|02 player of the tournament Beth Mooney said.
With increased pathways for sportswomen, football – aka soccer – and rugby league are both trying not to fall too far behind in the battle for participation.
Suffice to say, Football Federation Australia urged its women’s clubs to start dipping into their salary allowance a little more – set at a minimum of $35,000 and a maximum of $150,000. Some players had been playing for nothing. By comparison, A-League clubs spend at least $2.3m on their squads – 67 times more than their female counterparts.
The NRL, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of getting a women’s league up and running.
The battlelines may have been drawn, but the girls, however, aren’t about to start fighting among themselves. “Female sport is all very close knit,” Webb says. “I know girls who are in the Super Netball, I know girls who are in the Big Bash. We’re all getting around and supporting each sport, be it on social media or going to matches. It’s just cool building this culture of women’s sport.”
Battled-hardened Queensland Firebirds skipper Gabi Simpson can’t wait to the start of the new Super Netball competition.
From left, Sharni Webb of the Lions; Romelda Aiken at a boot camp for the Queensland Firebirds; Gabi Simpson with Kimberlee Green; Marianne Kapp of the Sixers.