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