Yesterday, to great fanfare, the AFL announced the successful teams who have bid for a license in the new National Women’s League. It’s front-page news, with much accompanying celebration. But while we now know which existing clubs will field a women’s team, there are still too many unanswered questions. One of the most crucial of those is whether the athletes will be paid a full time, living wage. And so far, the signs aren’t good.
For the league to be successful, a full time, living wage is essential.
Female players need to have the time and space to devote themselves to the game and to be professional athletes. If we expect them to perform as professional athletes – both on the field and off – they should be paid enough so they don’t need secondary jobs.
The average men’s AFL player gets $300,000 a year. Based on the early information, which is not definite, the average women’s AFL player will be paid less than $15,000.
Even at the lower end of the AFL payments scale, rookies are paid a living wage. Without ever playing a senior game, an AFL rookie in 2016 is paid $57,100 per year base payment. If a player is a nominated rookie, eligible to play seniors, that jumps to $63,460 with a $3650 match payment per match.
Paying a women’s team playing list of 26 players the AFL’s minimum for a rookie would cost just under $1.5 million dollars per season, or just 14.5% of the current total player payment for the men’s teams.
Part of the reason payment is so important is that it will allow the league to be more inclusive. Expecting women to be able to take a three-month break from their jobs seriously limits who will be able to participate: there will be talented footballers who can’t take those financial risks. A fair salary will help ensure Australia’s best female footballers are able to play the game.
When the need for full time payment is raised, there have been suggestions that this will come in time, once the league is successful in securing TV ratings and sponsorship, payment will come. But having a high-quality competition and elite athletes is an important part of that success. This requires investment up front.
Everything we’ve seen so far has suggested substantial market demand: from the TV audiences of previously televised games to the unexpectedly high interest from clubs in having a women’s team, to the media coverage of the announcement. This suggests that investment would see returns. Already, the dramatic increase in girls’ and women’s AFL teams around the country is suggesting the market is growing.
To fully take advantage of the growing market, players need to be professionals
Just as the GWS and Gold Coast players who were recruited in the year before their team entered the men’s competition were paid, and as players in loss-making teams across the league continue to be paid, so too should women’s players be paid a fair and living wage whether or not their team makes a profit in the first year.
The AFL has shown its capacity to invest and support teams that don’t make money at first recently, with the introduction of the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns. On top of direct transfers from the League to the teams, the League spent over $90 million on promoting the game in these new markets in the years surrounding the introducing the new teams. The AFL has shown conclusively it can dedicate substantial money up-front with the view to long-term payoff. This should be no reason that team cannot operate at a loss in the short term.
The AFL Players’ Association has a role to play here too. As the union for players, they should be pushing for nothing less than a full time living wage. And the negotiations shouldn’t end there. Just as there are health and welfare and retirement funds for men’s players, so too should their be for women’s. Our concern for player welfare shouldn’t be restricted to the welfare of men: women’s players will need support both as they transition into and out of roles working in football.
The clubs that have been given a women’s team license also have a role to play by making sure they accurately value the contribution of a women’s team and provide opportunities for supporters to express that support financially. If women’s matches are just included in current membership packages, if there are no additional women’s team support options, and if there are no women’s team merchandise available, it will be difficult for fans to show their support for the women’s teams financially, and easy to undervalue what women’s teams add. Clubs need to make conscious efforts to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Actions speak louder than words
But perhaps the group with the most power to make a difference is the male players. They are currently in the midst of their own negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement. The single best thing they could do for women’s footy is make a fair and living wage for female footballers a non-negotiable element of that agreement.
Collective bargaining works because it combines the power of the labour force. At the moment, men have the vast majority of that power. They can use it for the benefit of women as well as for themselves.
Because it’s easy to say you support women’s footy, but action is harder. It’s time for players to put their money with their mouths are.