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Women still fighting for territory in unequal AFL


As we approach the fourth season of the AFLW, the future of the competition seems secure. The competition, which wildly outperformed expectations from its very first game, has been a boon for the AFL. The gains for the clubs involved and the organising body have been significant, yet gains for the players have lagged behind — at least in material terms.

Sarah Hosking of the Carlton Blues tackles Jenna McCormick of the Adelaide Crows during the 2019 AFLW Grand Final at Adelaide Oval in March 2019. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos/Getty Images)The AFL's recent announcement that the AFLX competition would be scrapped after two seasons, despite heavy media coverage, was a strong indication of the league's commitment to women's football. Steve Hocking, AFL football operations manager, said upon the announcement that the 'AFL's on-field priority next year is to ensure the right emphasis and resources are in place to ensure the women's competition continues to build on the success of the first three seasons'.

After two seasons of AFLX, a fast, gimmicky, eight-a-side take on football, directly competing with the AFLW for attendees, ground access and media coverage, the AFLW will be the league's dominant February and early March football product for the first time since its inaugural season.

It's a positive decision from the league, but one that needs to be followed up with commitments to women's football that reflect the increasing scale and importance of the competition to the league. To borrow from Jerry Maguire, it's time to show the players the money. As the league has rapidly expanded the competition, from just eight teams in its inaugural season to 14 in 2020, players continue to be considered part-time employees, even during the season, and the average wage of an AFLW player remains a small fraction of the average male player's wage.

But while the league has grown rapidly in terms of number of teams, the growth of the season length has lagged behind. The total number of games played is increasing by adding more players into the existing competition, rather than allowing the existing players to play more games. This approach is great for clubs looking to add a women's team. It's not so great for the quality of the league or the capacity for existing players to play and earn more.

Exhortations for the players to be patient and wait for the competition to be firmly established before requesting a higher salary highlight the two-track approach to growth: it's quick and dramatic when in the benefit of the league, such as with the addition of new teams, but slow going when the benefits would more directly flow to the players.

In 2019, AFLW players were paid for ten hours of work per week in the season, and 13 hours per week in the preseason. These numbers are unrealistic, especially when teams travel interstate. They virtually guarantee players require additional employment. If the League wants the competition to continue to grow and improve, it is essential to allow players to devote sufficient time to their training and work in football, and to be fairly compensated for that time. This means being paid for all travel time, physio, recovery session, media and community appearances, as well as for game days and training.


"The market has demonstrated its interest in AFLW ... Paying existing players for more hours, and at a higher rate, should precede any further growth in the competition."


While progress has been made on pay — for example, players on the minimum player payment had their rate brought in line with male players in the same bracket — the gender wage disparity continues to be stark both because of low ceilings for even the most high-profile players, and a shorter season, which limits the total number of hours for which players can be paid. Framing pay in terms of rate per hour glosses over these significant differences between male and female players.

If the AFL has the capacity to rapidly expand the competition, to hold draft combines, and has the commitment to shelve the AFLX competition to focus on AFLW, it should extend that commitment to higher pay, to allowing players to work more hours, and to accurately represent the number of hours they work.

The average player payment in the AFLW has increased from $9250 in the inaugural season to $15,826 in 2019. By contrast, the men's competition averaged $371,000 per player in 2018. While it's certainly surprising that a disparity continues, the scale of it is bewildering. The average male player out-earns the average female player by 23 to one.

The market has demonstrated its interest in AFLW. The crowds have appeared. The clubs have clamoured to get their own teams. While AFLW skeptics still exist in corners of the internet, their voices have been drowned out by large, enthusiastic crowds saying yes, we want this. Yes, we like this. Yes, we will pay for this.

The decision to shelve AFLX was certainly a step in the right direction for giving the AFLW the attention and respect it deserves. But that step must be followed with a commitment that provides real, material benefit to the players who are doing the work. Paying existing players for more hours, and at a higher rate, should precede any further growth in the competition. Its success is built on the work of its players, and they deserve to be paid well for that work.



Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Main image: Sarah Hosking of the Carlton Blues tackles Jenna McCormick of the Adelaide Crows during the 2019 AFLW Grand Final at Adelaide Oval in March 2019. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Riley, AFLW, AFL, gender equality, sport



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