Game On

Af­ter a stel­lar year, what’s the fu­ture of women’s sport?

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LAST YEAR SAW A SHIFT IN PAR­TIC­I­PA­TION AND IN­TER­EST IN WOMEN’S SPORT – AND WHERE IT GOES NEXT IS THE BIL­LION-DOL­LAR QUES­TION. FIONA SMITH FOL­LOWS THE MONEY.

AnnAbel Suther­lAnd is keen on cricket. She is, aftfter all, the daugh­ter of Cricket Aus­tralia CEO James Suther­land so it might have been in­con­ve­nient if she wasn’t. The 16-year-old Mel­bourne Rene­gades player has rep­re­sented Vic­to­ria but her progress from back­yard hit-and-gig­gle games through club matches to the Women’s Big Bash League has been eye-open­ing for her fa­ther.

“I had a view we were pro­gress­ing well as a sport for all, as a sport for girls, but it wasn’t un­til Annabel de­cided she wanted to play cricket that I came to un­der­stand the ob­sta­cles,” says Suther­land. “Un­til she was 14, the only place she could re­ally play on a week-to-week ba­sis was in boys’ teams in our lo­cal cricket clubs. She wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­tim­i­dated by that but it was a sign of some short­com­ings for us as a sport.”

Annabel’s ex­pe­ri­ence strength­ened Suther­land’s re­solve to cre­ate what he calls “wel­com­ing places” for girls to play cricket in terms of teams, at­ti­tudes and fa­cil­i­ties.

By the end of this fi­fi­nan­cial year, Cricket Aus­tralia hopes to have cre­ated and fi­fi­nanced 1000 new girls’ teams, fol­low­ing its launch of the Com­mon­wealth Bank-backed Grow­ing Cricket for Girls Fund in 2016. Of the 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple who play the game, an es­ti­mated 28 per cent are fe­male, com­pared with about 12 per cent six years ago. This phe­nom­e­nal growth was pow­ered by the in­flflu­ence of the Women’s Big Bash League in 2015 and the Grow­ing Cricket for Girls Fund, which helps with the set-up costs of run­ning a team.

Suther­land is lead­ing cricket at a time when women’s sport is un­der­go­ing mo­men­tous change and play­ers have jumped gen­der bar­ri­ers to ex­cel in codes pre­vi­ously re­garded as men-only. At the same time, other sports codes such as soc­cer and rugby union have in­vested in pro­grams to ac­cel­er­ate women’s progress – mir­ror­ing the so­cial changes al­ready hap­pen­ing in busi­ness and gov­ern­ment – to­wards clos­ing the salary gap (more like a gulf) and pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing women’s teams.

Spon­sors, too, are recog­nis­ing the power of fe­male role mod­els and are keen to as­so­ciate with high­achiev­ing teams and star play­ers such as Ell­yse Perry, who gained elite sta­tus in Aus­tralia’s na­tional women’s soc­cer and cricket teams un­til she chose just one code – cricket – in 2014. Perry is a brand am­bas­sador for the Com­mon­wealth Bank, Fox Sports, Price­line, Adi­das and the SCG Trust, for which she may be pock­et­ing $250,000 per an­num, sug­gests one in­dus­try es­ti­mate.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fi­fig­ures from Aus­tralia’s Clear­ing­house for Sport, women make up 18 per cent of adult par­tic­i­pants in AFL, 14 per cent in cricket, 28 per cent in soc­cer, 14 per cent in rugby union and 23 per cent in rugby league. “I think the ge­nie is out of the bot­tle,” says Emma High­wood, head of women’s foot­ball for Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Aus­tralia (FFA). She says women’s soc­cer dou­bled its rev­enue in the past year and girls’ teams are the fastest-grow­ing seg­ment of the game, with about 250,000 women and girls now play­ing.

The code is also lin­ing up to be the fi­first tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated sport to achieve a 50:50 gen­der bal­ance. FFA has tar­geted 2023 as the year it hopes to reach that point to co­in­cide with the Women’s World Cup that it is bid­ding to host. “It’s at a tip­ping point but there’s still a long way to go,” says High­wood. She adds that broad­cast­ers are yet to pay for the rights to air any women’s sport, while in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars to ob­tain the multi-year rights to screen men’s sport.

Broad­cast­ing fees rep­re­sent the big­gest source of rev­enue for male sports so this lack of in­vest­ment puts women at a se­vere fi­fi­nan­cial dis­ad­van­tage when it comes to de­vel­op­ing games, play­ers and com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties. High­wood says she ex­pects broad­cast fees will start to be paid for women’s soc­cer in about four years, aftfter the next round of ne­go­ti­a­tions takes place. “The great thing now is that women’s sport is be­ing broad­cast, which is a mas­sive step,” she adds, “be­cause even two years ago, it wasn’t hap­pen­ing.”

Me­dia cov­er­age of women’s sport ac­tu­ally de­clined from 11 per cent of to­tal sports cov­er­age to 8.7 per cent over the 10 years to 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Sports Com­mis­sion. Since then, while data is yet to be pub­lished, the cov­er­age fi­fig­ure is ex­pected to have grown ex­po­nen­tially, in line with the in­creased in­ter­est in women’s sport. Cer­tainly, some fe­male

sports codes have been steadily chal­leng­ing (and chang­ing) per­cep­tions about their abil­ity to es­tab­lish large enough fan bases to at­tract ad­ver­tis­ers to broad­casts.

A record 29,158 fans at­tended the Com­mon­wealth Bank Women’s Ashes Se­ries last year, which also marked the fi­first time Cricket Aus­tralia had tick­eted women’s in­ter­na­tional matches. To­tal view­er­ship across the six matches broad­cast on Chan­nel Nine reached just over four mil­lion peo­ple. The live stream on Cricket Net­work reached 256,000 view­ers across the se­ries.

The AFL Women’s fi­first sea­son in 2017 at­tracted an av­er­age of 7000 peo­ple per game; 67 per cent of them were fe­male and, of those, 53 per cent did not have a prior re­la­tion­ship with the game, ac­cord­ing to spon­sor­ship strat­egy com­pany Bas­tion EBA.

“Now you are start­ing to see the demon­stra­tion of the reach that fe­male sport can pro­vide so the next tran­si­tion for me is how you start to con­vert that into an ac­tual dol­lar fi­fig­ure,” says High­wood.

Si­mon Gar­lick, CEO of Bas­tion EBA and for­mer CEO of the Western Bull­dogs AFL club, says the sud­den growth in in­ter­est in the com­mer­cial as­pects of women’s sport has sur­prised many of those in­volved. “I think the sky is the limit,” he says. “There is no rea­son why this can’t con­tinue to grow. Where [women’s sport] ends up is not the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion, it is prob­a­bly the bil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion.”

But women are com­pet­ing for those spon­sor­ship dol­lars from way be­hind the men’s start­ing line. The com­bined in­vest­ment in men’s and women’s sport is said to be about $700 mil­lion per year but only eight per cent of to­tal cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships went to fe­male play­ers, ac­cord­ing to 2013 Aus­tralian Sports Com­mis­sion data.

Nev­er­the­less, some codes are fifind­ing creative ways to bring money into their women’s games as they de­velop a busi­ness case for broad­cast­ers and their ad­ver­tis­ers. Net­ball Aus­tralia, for in­stance, has ne­go­ti­ated a fi­five-year rights deal with Nine En­ter­tain­ment and Tel­stra that will pro­vide a one-stop shop for com­pa­nies want­ing to spon­sor the sport and ad­ver­tise on tele­vi­sion and on­line around the games.

Net­ball Aus­tralia CEO Marne Fech­ner says her sport, which has 1.2 mil­lion play­ers across the coun­try (15 per cent of them male), is max­imis­ing its “com­mer­cial rev­enue op­por­tu­ni­ties” with the deal, which in­cludes rev­enue shar­ing. With net­ball dom­i­nat­ing women’s sport for more than 100 years, Net­ball Aus­tralia is also able to charge a ticket price for some of its elite events, such as the pre­mier Sun­corp Su­per Net­ball games. “We tripled our com­mer­cial rev­enue in 2017,” says Fech­ner.

Spon­sors are loos­en­ing their purse strings and Gar­lick says their in­ter­est in women’s sport has at least tre­bled over the past three years. At­tract­ing the most spon­sor dol­lars are the AFL Women’s com­pe­ti­tion, Sun­corp Su­per Net­ball, Women’s Big Bash League and Aus­tralian women’s soc­cer team the Matil­das. “It’s an in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing prospect,” says Gar­lick. “It has now gone be­yond the sta­tus of a nov­elty or the flflash in the pan that some have sug­gested in the past.”

Gar­lick points to one of his clients, Nis­san, which spent six months as­sess­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties be­fore de­cid­ing to in­vest in net­ball. “They were look­ing at arts, cul­ture, en­ter­tain­ment, any sort of prop­erty. Net­ball came out be­cause of what it could pro­vide for that brand,” he says. “It has tran­si­tioned into a com­mer­cially as­tute, highly pro­fes­sional sports or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­vides a propo­si­tion that brands like Nis­san – as well as Sun­corp and Sam­sung – think is com­pelling enough to in­vest in se­ri­ously.”

For spon­sors that can’t afff­ford the big money re­quired to put their brands on jer­seys in the na­tional men’s teams, women’s sport can offf­fer good value for a far more

rea­son­able out­lay. De­clan Boy­lan, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and founder of Seven Con­sult­ing, says his man­age­ment con­sul­tancy de­cided to spon­sor the Matil­das be­cause they are “the best team in Aus­tralia”. The Matil­das are ranked fourth in the world and have the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in their sights, hav­ing beaten cur­rent cham­pi­ons the United States, along with Asian heavy­weights Ja­pan and peren­nial favourites Brazil, in warm-up games. Boy­lan says that in 2016/17 his com­pany asked its 91 em­ploy­ees to vote on whether they should sup­port the team and 95 per cent agreed. The staffff profi­fit-share scheme means that the money spent on spon­sor­ship afff­fects their pock­ets di­rectly.

Boy­lan says the Matil­das also have the bene­fi­fit of be­ing un­tainted by any scan­dal. “These are folks who have worked their ab­so­lute rears offff to get where they are. They don’t have Lam­borgh­i­nis or Porsches or mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar con­tracts to reach that level but they spend an hour, an hour and a half, aftfter ev­ery game sign­ing ev­ery au­to­graph, ev­ery shirt and ev­ery plac­ard that the fans can throw at them.”

As well as bene­fi­fit­ing from the growth of women’s sport, spon­sors can also light a fi­fire un­der those sports in­sti­tu­tions that are slow to de­liver for women. Last June, con­struc­tion com­pany Build­corp dis­con­tin­ued its mil­lion-dol­lar nam­ing-rights spon­sor­ship of the Na­tional Rugby Cham­pi­onship in re­sponse to a lack of ac­tion in cre­at­ing a women’s com­pe­ti­tion – which the com­pany was pre­pared to spon­sor. “It looked like we, as a com­pany, were sup­port­ing a com­pe­ti­tion that only sup­ported the de­vel­op­ment of men,” ex­plains Build­corp’s prin­ci­pal and co-owner, Josephine Sukkar. “It be­came brand dam­ag­ing.”

When Rugby Aus­tralia an­nounced in De­cem­ber that it would host and un­der­write a Su­per W 15-a-side tour­na­ment, Sukkar says she couldn’t wipe the smile from her face. “Aus­tralia is bid­ding to host the next Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2021 and our women need as many op­por­tu­ni­ties as they can to par­tic­i­pate in club rugby games and higher-level Su­per Rugby games. Rugby Aus­tralia is or­gan­is­ing test matches for the Wal­la­roos, the Women’s XVs team, to play against,” says Sukkar, who is also a mem­ber of the Aus­tralian Rugby Union board nom­i­na­tion com­mit­tee and the pres­i­dent of Aus­tralian Women’s Rugby.

Build­corp is cur­rently in dis­cus­sions about spon­sor­ing that com­pe­ti­tion and is presently the ma­jor sup­porter of the Aus­tralian Women’s XVs team. Sukkar says she takes the same tar­get-based ap­proach to ad­vanc­ing women in sport and the gen­der pay gap as she does in busi­ness: “We are all re­ally se­ri­ous about ‘go­ing to do some­thing’ but now what I’m im­me­di­ately fo­cused on is, ‘How long are you plan­ning on tak­ing? This is tak­ing too long.’

“I am never giv­ing up on the dead­line and I’m al­ways work­ing to­wards it, oth­er­wise we are never go­ing to get there. It’s like me set­ting a bud­get in my busi­ness and, if we miss it, say­ing, ‘Oh well, we will get there one day.’”

Annabel Suther­land of the Mel­bourne Rene­gades (above); Laura Lang­man and Jamie-Lee Price in ac­tion at last year’s Su­per Net­ball grand fi­fi­nal

“Where [women’s sport] ends up is not the mil­lion- dol­lar ques­tion, it is prob­a­bly the bil­lion- dol­lar ques­tion.” – Si­mon Gar­lick, CEO, Bas­tion EBA The Wal­la­roos cel­e­brate aftfter scor­ing a try against New Zealand’s Black Ferns in Christchurch last June

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