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AFLW lines up for full-time battle

Football

Australia’s fastest-growing sport will showcase its premier event, the AFLW grand final, at Adelaide Oval on Saturday. When the final siren sounds, the bigger game begins – over the money for full-time professional women’s football. Michelangelo Rucci reports.

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Women’s football is big. Since AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan fast-forwarded the start of the national AFLW league from its original launch date of 2020 to 2017, the growth of women’s football has tested every superlative.

In 2010, there were 205 women’s football teams playing in community leagues across Australia. Today, after six seasons of AFLW competition creating strong exposure of the game, the number has grown more than 10-fold with 69,829 female players registered. The future certainly is bright with 71,390 girls aged between five and 12 involved in the game’s introductory Auskick programs.

The arrival of the AFLW  and subsequent senior leagues such as the SANFLW means these young girls no longer have to stop playing Australian football at 15. There is a pathway to a big league, just as there has been for men for more than a century.

The AFL pumps its chest on this growth saying: “The AFLW is the most supported women’s league in Australia, with 7.3 million Australians having some level of interest in the women’s competition.” It’s worth remembering this is the same league that in 2016 told the Adelaide Football Club that it was unlikely to earn a licence to field a team in the first AFLW series of 2017 because there was not enough talent in South Australia.

The need for more umpires (of which 10.5 per cent are now women working in both men’s and women’s football), unisex changerooms, volunteers, trainers, coaches and administrators for this growth has tested the sport, governments for funding and local councils for facilities.

“Growth can often cause pain,” said McLachlan last year in his keynote speech on the league’s vision for women’s football that includes all 18 AFL clubs from next season. He and his league executives are about to find out just how much pain.

Adelaide Oval on Saturday will host its third AFLW grand final when Adelaide seeks its third flag, this time in a play-off with Melbourne. In the stands, McLachlan and his AFLW chief, Olympian Nicole Livingstone will be relieved the season has reached this appropriate ending after being tested by COVID protocols that cancelled the 2020 final series and delayed this season’s semi-finals with the COVID outbreak at Collingwood.

The Crows’ Montana McKinnon and Ebony Antonio of the Dockers fly for a mark during the AFLW Preliminary Final at Adelaide Oval on April 2. Photo: AAP/Matt Turner

But the growing pains are to be felt by the modern curse of all sports: money and labour relations, in particular the need for a new “collective bargaining agreement” between the league and the players’ union representing 540 female players.

“We want professionalism by 2026 – we are very clear what we are going for,” says AFL Players’ Association chief Paul Marsh, who will present a six-point charter at the labour talks which have already had an 18-month prelude.

Full-time AFLW players – with some wanting equality with the men who last year earned an average salary of $372,224 – will create much debate, even among the the female players themselves. Some, concedes Marsh, will leave the game because the full-time commitment will work against their want to study or work or to raise families.

More interesting will be the reaction of the current AFL professionals if male players are told their hit on the league’s strained money pot has to be tempered to allow the women to have the first grab. And what happens if the men have to scale back their pay demands to help boost female salaries?

“I am not sure why the debate turns to the men having to take a pay cut, that doesn’t make any sense,” responds Marsh. “The men take 28 per cent of the AFL’s defined income. That still leaves 72 per cent that goes to the AFL and clubs (that can be used to fund a professional AFLW).”

How much do the AFLW players get paid now? Each AFLW team can contract two players who are paid outside the $538,107 salary cap allotted to each of the 14 clubs that competed for the premiership this season. Melbourne’s star recruit from Carlton, Tayla Harris, started the season with reports – which have been repeatedly dismissed – of her new contract being worth $150,000, a record salary in AFLW ranks. It is more likely to be $80,000, still a record pay cheque in this league.

The other 28 players are paid across four tiers – $20,239, $24,468, $28,697 and $37,155. There also is $100,000 to be shared across each club for commercial deals. This is for playing in a 10-round home-and-away series with a commitment to spend 10 hours each week at training during the season and 13 hours in the pre-season.

How does this compare with the semi-professional SANFL men’s league that has a home-and-away longer season (with 18 games for each of the 10 teams)?

The SANFL salary cap is $210,000. On average, players are earning $400 a game. The highest-paid SANFL players are contracted with a $15,000 base payment and $500 match fee; a $24,000 annual salary.

The SANFL pay scale – that was halved amid the COVID pandemic – has been determined by the local football economy being shrunk with the advent of two AFL teams in South Australia during the 1990s. It is very much based on paying the players what the game earns.

The AFLW economy today would not support full-time, professional contracts for the players. Livingstone accepts the AFLW must build its revenue streams – that recently included ending free entry to matches to charge $10 at the gate – to support the professional league wanted by Marsh in 2026.

“We have come a long way,” Livingstone said. “We know we have much work left to do to build the revenue required to deliver better pay outcomes for players. Our mission remains to accelerate the growth in women’s football economy to create greater opportunities on and off the field for our best women players and administrators.”

Fremantle AFLW captain Hayley Miller recently argued the case for all AFLW players to be on 12-month, full-time contracts in the advent of Marsh’s push for professionalism in 2026.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an AFLW player without another job of some form, especially during our six-month off-season, because it is virtually impossible to make our small AFLW wage work across an entire year,” said Miller who has put aside her work as a physiotherapist to concentrate on football. “(This) is simply not sustainable if the competition is to continue to grow and develop.”

This is the AFL in the early 1990s. The argument for full-time AFL players was first based on clubs and coaches needing the players for more training sessions to advance their skills, and more meetings to fast-track their development in a sport finding more and more tactics and thicker playbooks. Today, the full-time commitments of an AFL player include public and media appearances (when COVID protocols allow), social media presentations and endorsements for sponsors.

The growing pains of having AFLW players on year-long contracts willl then include needing more coaching and fitness staff and facilities at clubs.

“Support staff and coaching are a critical part of this debate,” Marsh said.

This also means more costs for a league that is still not paying its way. Marsh argues the AFL and its clubs need to see these extra costs as an investment in a women’s league that has “huge growth potential”.We are not that far off (the AFLW paying its way),” Marsh said. “We need to put a plan in place, be ambitious and all work together. (An AFLW that pays its way) is what we (AFL and players union) all want; it is what the players want. So it is time to commit (to the league’s growth with greater investment).”

Since its fast-tracked launched in 2017, the AFLW has been a summer league played between December and March with its finals fighting for attention – or “clear air” – while the men’s AFL home-and-away season begins.The AFLW will start Season 7 with four new teams – Port Adelaide, Sydney, Essendon and Hawthorn – to match the AFL with 18 men’s teams. But when does it begin? And how many games should be played in a home-and-away season?

“These are the questions of the moment,” says Marsh.

Melbourne defender and former Victorian netball captain Libby Birch will come to Adelaide Oval on Saturday hoping it is the last time an AFLW campaign ends while an AFL season is beginning. She wants AFL and AFLW to be synchronised.

“Being given ‘clear air’ away from the men’s game has been terrific to gain the momentum we needed with our fans,” Birch said. “But an 18-team AFLW should be the tipping point where we play our seasons together.

“Aligning the two leagues and the overall AFL product is a vision I believe is sustainable. It would maximise both the women’s league and the entire game.

“It would be considerably more cost-effective given resources would not be stretched as far, with the AFL, clubs and broadcasters working more collaboratively on the promotion of our game.

“We would showcase our AFL product over a six to eight-month period. This shorter, sharper, punchier timeframe would give our game less chance of being diluted by other sports. This has affected the AFLW significantly this year given we have had to compete with cricket’s Ashes and Big Bash League, the tennis and the Winter Olympics.”

The AFL has floated an August start, a quick three-month turnaround from Season 6 with some players, in particular Collingwood defender Chloe Molloy, taking issue with a shortened off-season. “Please push this to (August 2023),” Molloy wrote on social media when the August 2022 launch date was put on the table.

“The players are as tired as they have ever been,” explains Marsh adding COVID protocols have increased the strain on AFLW players. “I accept there will be players who will not want to (start again) in the middle of the year.”

The AFL would have Season 7 start on Friday, August 26, the weekend of the pre-finals bye in the men’s competition. Port Adelaide wants this date for a home Showdown at Adelaide Oval with rival Adelaide.

An AFLW series that begins in August and has the grand final just before Christmas appeals to the AFL. This avoid the heat of the summer, an issue that has concerned many players, including Crows champion Erin Phillips. It also keeps the AFLW players off harder grounds which may be contributing to the high count of serious knee injuries. There also is “clear air” from the AFL competition and major Australian sporting events, such as the Australian Open tennis championships.

“One venue, two games of football. I like the sound of that,” says Birch of AFL-ALFW double billings. But the prospect of AFLW-AFL double-headers – or even the AFLW and AFL seasons running side-by-side as is done in Australian men’s and women’s cricket – is increasingly unlikely.

Double-headers would demand a six-hour commitment to a day at the football, in an era when sporting bodies are being told to keep events to two hours.

And if we play men and women’s games at the same time,” says Marsh, “that would be 18 games each weekend – nine plus nine. We owe it to the competition and the players to maximise the numbers of eyeballs on games (both at the venues and on television).”

AFLW was supposed to have started in 2020 with six teams. McLachlan brought the league’s inception forward by three years and had the AFLW open with eight rivals. He argued in 2015 that the sport had more than enough talent to hold up a national league – and the extra three years of planning and preparation just gave administrators reason to over-think their tasks and would deny many players, such as Phillips at Adelaide, their dream to play top-level Australian football.

In just six years, McLachlan has set up in the AFLW a scenario that took more than a century to unfold in men’s football – the fight for money to allow professional careers.

“I have had a taste of what full-time football would be like,” says Miller at Fremantle. “And I love it. Imagine every AFLW player having the same opportunity.”

All this … in just six seasons of AFLW.

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