When considering the financial impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on sport you must remember we are playing darts with a blindfold — quite literally, in some isolation-crazed households.
With no end date in sight and no meaningful projections about when the curve will be sufficiently flat, we are left with guesstimates about the cost of lost media rights, memberships and sponsorships.
Yet the desperate measures being proposed to defy the lockdown with early start-ups, and the hit lists of potential cost savings, provide a measure of sport’s vulnerabilities and also its priorities.
The idea of putting all the NRL players on an island is just the most unintentionally hilarious consequence of years of profligate spending by self-interested club warlords.
More grim are the murmured threats by AFL and NRL clubs to axe their women’s teams, something that betrays not only the depth of the financial crisis but the indifference of some toward the still-embryonic women’s leagues.
Making an AFLW or NRLW club the first victim of a flattened sports economy will no doubt play well with those observers who have moaned that women’s football in various codes has been a financial drag on male competitions, those whose first response upon seeing an image of the crowd of 53,034 that attended the 2019 AFLW grand final at Adelaide Oval was: “Yeah, but they didn’t have to pay to get in.”
Presumably few such critics have been to a suburban ground on a weekend morning and watched the thousands of young girls now playing football, Australian rules, the two rugby codes and cricket — sports that were once virtually exclusive male domains.
They certainly have not been on the committee of a local club trying to find enough grounds and coaches to satisfy the demands of all the girls now wanting to play cricket or footy.
Accordingly, they would not understand the profound change in the sports participation dynamic caused by the growth of new women’s leagues, one best explained by the different ways boys and girls had previously been engaged by sports.
Put simply, boys have usually played the various kinds of footy and cricket just because they did. Personally, growing up in a small rural town, participation was not so much a matter of choice as a rite of passage.
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Changes in lifestyles, greater financial prosperity, advances in technology and a far broader choice of activities have changed the participation model greatly.
Yet that same entry-level rationale for those boys who do choose footy and cricket remains.
Heroes and role models continue to inspire continued participation as players or spectators, and inform the goal of one day competing at the top level. But scratch the surface and boys mostly continue to play the various football codes and cricket, particularly, because boys always have.
A similar dynamic has existed in what we might once have called “girls sports”. Girls would play netball, basketball, tennis, softball and field hockey because that was what girls played and not necessarily because they saw top-flight players do it.
A few played cricket, even fewer the various types of football because participation was not encouraged, and — in the case of rules that stopped involvement in football beyond early ages — was actively discouraged.
Then came perhaps the greatest change in the history of Australian sport’s participation, the institution of professional female cricket and football leagues — the WBBL, the W-League, AFLW, NRLW, Super W — along with improved promotion and better pay deals for the Australian women’s cricket team and the Matildas.
Women’s leagues have reshaped junior sport
The timing of entry, financial commitment and visibility of sports forming women’s leagues has varied. Football got a significant jump with mass junior female participation, while cricket led the way with increased pay.
But the impact of these leagues and their stars at the grassroots level has been enormous because they have altered the participation dynamic.
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Girls are not just playing the sports they always have, but are now constantly being shown they can play others.
In this regard, it is not too far-fetched to suggest high-profile female stars — such as the Matildas’ Sam Kerr, cricketer Ellyse Perry and the AFLW’s Tayla Harris — are more important in driving participation in their sports than their better paid and more celebrated male contemporaries.
Please do not misinterpret this. The female stars are demonstrably not more important in attracting the revenue sources that fund major leagues and professional teams, including media rights deals, sponsorship and gate attendance.
Women’s leagues are for now mostly loss making. But when you consider the vast number of girls playing cricket and various kinds of footy, they are also loss leaders — investments that create a significant benefit beyond the cost itself.
Several years ago the AFL produced a study that revealed participants who remained engaged in the game as players, umpires or volunteers beyond their teenage years were six times more likely to be lifelong consumers of the game.
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They are the membership ticketholders, TV eyeballs, purchasers of merchandise and others who underpin the game’s finances and who will continue to do so beyond the costly current pause.
This is why AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has been quick to contradict those club bosses privately speculating about axing their women’s programs, insisting all 14 AFLW clubs will survive.
The sports which find a way to cut their diminished financial cloths and stay the course with women’s leagues will be significant beneficiaries of their far-sighted approach.
Those who blink will find the short-term savings come at the cost of the growth they will desperately need in an even more challenging market.