A Tale of Two Leagues: Dissecting the AFLW and NRLW Growth Strategies
The eighth AFLW season launches this weekend, its second in the spring time slot on the sporting calendar, while the NRLW is rounding the halfway mark of its sixth edition. The rival women’s football leagues have employed differing strategies to promote – but share many of the same obstacles to achieving – sustainable growth.
EXPANSION STRATEGY: TORTOISE AND THE HARE
One of the clearest divergences between the elite women’s Australian rules and rugby league competitions’ early years was the pace in which they expanded. The AFLW kicked off in 2017 with eight teams, increasing to 10 in 2019, 14 in 2020, and finally 18 in 2022, with every club that fields a team in the men’s AFL premiership represented by an AFLW counterpart.
In comparison, the inaugural 2018 NRLW season featured just four clubs. It did not expand until 2021 (a season that was delayed until early-2022 by COVID-19), when three teams were added and the Warriors dropped out. Another four were admitted this year to make up the current 10-team format.
“I don’t think any strategy in the long-term is detrimental, they’re just two very different strategies,” says Ladies Who League’s Mary Konstantopoulos, who is an ambassador for GWS Giants (AFL, AFLW and netball) and was a member of Parramatta Eels’ NRLW advisory committee for the club’s first two seasons.
“The AFLW went big and quickly, and there were criticisms that the quality wasn’t what it needed to be – that’s a whole separate issue to unpack.
“My preferred approach – and it could be because I work in risk – is the slow and steady approach.”
Maintaining the quality of the product was the NRL’s primary objective in its formative seasons, installing a salary cap and marquee player system to ensure parity for the fledgling premiership. Konstantopoulos believes the NRLW is shifting towards the AFLW model, however, accelerating its 2023 expansion to 10 teams from the initially slated eight – and that has had its side effects.
“I don’t think (the NRLW’s 2023 expansion) has had too big an impact on the evenness of the competition, but where we’ve really seen it start to have an impact is when marquee players get injured as the difference between your top player and your 30th player is a lot wider.”
South Sydney Rabbitohs and Penrith Panthers missed out on a license to join in 2023 but signalled their respective intentions to reapply at the next expansion phase, as have Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and the Warriors. Despite dragging the proverbial chain in comparison to the AFLW, it appears only a matter of time before every NRL club is also represented in the NRLW.
CLEAR AIR OR CONJUNCTION?
The competitions have also deviated from one another in terms of aligning with the men’s premiership’s schedule. The first seven AFLW seasons unfolded between January and April, overlapping only briefly with the AFL premiership. The AFLW moved to a late-August to late-November schedule in 2022 and will run from September 1 until the grand final on December 3 this year. The inaugural 2017 AFLW competition featured several double-headers with men’s pre-season matches, but that concept was shelved from 2018 onwards.
In contrast, the brief four-week NRLW competition from 2018-20 ran in conjunction with the four-week NRL finals series. The expanded 2021 competition was pushed to February-April the following year by COVID disruptions, but the 2022 and ’23 NRLW premierships started at a time that allows the grand final to be played on NRL Grand Final Day.
Meanwhile, a high proportion of NRLW matches are played as double-headers with NRL matches.
“I love that the NRL and NRLW grand finals are played on the same day, and the double-headers, but I think the reality is that people don’t have as much time as they once did,” Konstantopoulos reasons.
“If you’re doing an AFL and AFLW double-header, you’re pretty much asking people to be in the stadium for six or seven hours – it’s a really long time and a big day out for a family.”
The NRLW’s alignment strategy is logical. It has helped promote a sense of equality and unification, whereas the AFLW could be seen as separate to an unfavourable extent. Meanwhile, the explosion in popularity of women’s rugby league originated from associated international events in the past decade: women’s and men’s Test match double-headers, the iconic Jillaroos versus Kiwi Ferns series at the NRL Auckland Nines, and concurrently scheduled men’s and women’s World Cup (2017 and 2022) and World Cup Nines (2019) tournaments.
On the other hand, the simultaneous schedule can make it harder for the NRLW to enjoy its own spotlight, while it has its drawbacks for one of the marquee events on the women’s rugby league calendar, as Konstantopoulos explains:
“To be honest, if I look at the NRL model and where it’s been held back, I don’t think the NRL’s thought closely enough about what the annual schedule looks like for women’s football as a whole. A prime example is the women’s State of Origin, which was played before the (NRLW) pre-season started. I don’t think (the first Origin) was at a quality we’ve seen in the past, because it had been six or seven weeks since they’d played (in localised club competitions).”
“We need to put some thought into that if we are to keep the men’s and women’s seasons aligned. I prefer that the women have some clean air to be perfectly honest. I like that about the AFLW. The NRL and NRLW, at the moment, there are overlapping games – I feel you’re cannibalising your own market there.”
“I’m someone who watches men’s and women’s. At this early stage, why are you making me choose? The WBBL and the BBL (Australian T20 cricket domestic leagues) are completely separate and the WBBL is one of the most watched sporting leagues in the country.”
TUNING IN, TURNING UP
Arguably the AFLW’s biggest concern is dwindling crowd and television viewership numbers.
Timeslots, broadcast quality and football fatigue – partially created by rapid expansion and an increased number of games – have been pointed to as the chief contributors to an alarming drop-off in TV ratings. As per The Age, the AFL reported to its clubs that viewers were down 70 per cent last year on the inaugural season (180,000 per match in 2017 and just 53,000 in 2022).
The NRLW has no such worries: according to Sydney Morning Herald, around 200,000 viewers per game tuned in on Channel Nine and Foxtel during the season staged in early-2022 – an increase of 50-60 percent on the previous campaign in 2020.
Rugby league, played as it is on a smaller rectangular ground with little happening away from the ball, is widely regarded as a better product for the box.
“The experience is different for both sports,” says multi-code fan Konstantopoulos. “I struggle to watch AFL on TV, I like getting a better picture of it live. Rugby league is perfect for television.”
A decline in live attendances, then, may be a more immediate worry for the AFLW.
Crowds for the competition’s first three seasons averaged around the 6,000 mark, with a record turnout of 53,034 for the 2019 grand final at the marvellous Adelaide Oval. The average attendance last season was 2,686, with only 7,412 watching the grand final in person – which was staged in the relative obscurity of Ipswich, Queensland.
In the NRLW, double-headers with NRL matches naturally attract bigger crowds; standalone fixture attendances have been comparatively modest. But crowds for women’s State of Origin matches – which are exclusively standalone – paint a rosy picture: 6,824 fans turned out for the first clash at North Sydney Oval in 2018, while 18,275 filled Townsville’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium for the most recent representative encounter this season.
THE PAY GAP
Player salaries are unsurprisingly the most pertinent hot-button issue facing the AFLW and NRLW – and women’s sport generally. The unenlightened contend that if the competitions don’t generate enough revenue, players can’t (or shouldn’t) be paid more. The obvious flipside to the chicken-or-the-egg argument is that if athletes have to compromise their sporting performance by working part-time, simply to make ends meet, the overall standard won’t improve – and consequently revenue-generating potential may be impacted.
Both competitions have made progress in the area of pay. The most recent AFLW collective bargaining agreement (CBA) entailed total player payments of $717,122 per club in 2022 – up from $576,240 in 2020. Meanwhile, the four-tiered system featured an increase in salaries for players in the top tier from $29,856 in 2020 to $71,935 in 2023; for players in the fourth tier, the increase was from $16,623 in 2020 to $39,184 in 2023.
The NRLW CBA agreed to in principle in February (but still yet to be ratified) proposed a salary cap increase from $900,000 in 2023 to just over $1.5 million by 2027 – including a minimum wage increase from $30,000 this season to $50,600 in four years’ time.
Despite acknowledging the positive steps, Konstantopoulos says that both governing bodies have ground to make up if they are to fairly compensate their athletes.
“I don’t think of them in comparison to each other, because neither one is good enough,” she asserts.
“They may have improved and the respective competitions are doing what they can, but the reality is that for women in both competitions, they’re still working part-time jobs.
“I spoke to an athlete recently who is working three casual jobs at the moment to pay her rent, plus going to training at night. It becomes like a washing machine: work, train, work, train and try to get enough sleep. This is the real area that needs to be addressed. We talk about the quality of the competition – I know when I’m not mentally feeling my best, I don’t perform my best, whether that be in my job, or exercise or whatever.”
“These athletes are pretty much always living in a state of financial insecurity. We’re asking them to continue to grow their game, to continue to be excellent role models, all while juggling these competing things in their heads. I applaud the AFLW and NRLW for pay increases, but it’s still not where we need to be…and those two sports are a lot further ahead than others.”
Talk to any sports journalist in this part of the world, and they will gush about what a joy it is to deal with the overwhelming majority of female footy players: how generous they are with their time, the thoughtful and insightful interview subjects they are, how serious they take their roles as ambassadors for their sport.
That’s in contrast to the hit-and-miss lottery of getting some quotes from their male counterparts (many of whom, it should be noted, are fantastic). The reasons behind that disparity deserve their own article, but it again highlights the disproportionate responsibilities placed on women’s NRLW and AFLW players – essentially expected to be full time professionals while in many ways being treated as part-timers – in relation to the male counterparts, who have largely been mollycoddled in the six-figure income bosom of elite sport since their teens.
“(Female athletes) don’t see it as a burden, but the responsibility of growing the game – with fans and members and the community,” Konstantopoulos sympathises, “players all love to do that, but that’s on top of training, working and everything else they’re doing, so they’re bearing quite a load.”
“I see a lot of AFLW and NRLW in my Twitter and news feeds. Compare that to say, rugby union, where you pretty much wouldn’t know the Wallaroos exist if you went through your socials.
“And the NRLW CBA still hasn’t been signed, they’ve effectively played a whole season without one – that’s not good enough.
“It’s the same in all sports, AFLW don’t have one yet, netball is struggling with theirs. It’s a common challenge.”
PERCEPTION AND ACCEPTANCE
One of the most bewildering impediments to AFLW’s rightful recognition as an elite competition continues to be negative attitudes from some sections of the public, which can range from indifference to outright discrimination and misogyny.
Pathetic attempts to denigrate women’s Australian rules plague comments sections ad nauseum. In an example of social media at its cesspool-esque worst, an instantly iconic photo of then-Carlton Blues star Taylah Harris kicking a goal became a trigger for vile online abuse and threats to the player and her family.
While that sexist element is always going to be difficult to eliminate entirely, it is far less prevalent in the NRLW – a cross-code disparity Konstantopoulos is unable to explain.
“In the NRLW, the standard is quite good and we have some exceptional athletes; but there are exceptional athletes in the AFLW as well.
“I wonder if it’s because we still have people in the AFL media questioning the AFLW – I don’t think we see that as much in the NRL space.”
The likes of Port Adelaide Power premiership winner turned media personality (the label ‘shock jock’ is often used instead) Kane Cornes frequently provides small minded answers to AFLW-related questions no one asked – in turn hindering its path to wider acceptance.
A key component to sustainable long-term growth of any sport is grassroots development and providing pathways.
In women’s Australian rules, that investment is predominantly driven by the AFL, which pledged $5 million to improve participation and representation for girls and women in community football in June 2022.
While the NRL and rugby league’s governing bodies in each state have an enormous role to play, NRLW clubs have predominantly taken the lead in the pathways space.
“You can always do more, but I think what is really heartening is some of the clubs and their real commitment to developing a pathway for their players … at Wests Tigers you can play from 13s all the way to NRLW,” Konstantopoulos says.
“The Bulldogs, who don’t have an NRLW team yet, are building really strong pathways. I think that’s the key to the growth of the competition and making it sustainable, that those clubs have those pathways.
“Then the quality will continue to improve as well because you don’t have players like, for example, (long-serving Jillaroos rep and NRLW foundation player) Kezie Apps, who took the game up in her mid-twenties.”
THE FIFA WORLD CUP EFFECT
The unprecedented runaway success of the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, appears destined to have significant flow-on benefits for the wider sporting landscape. The extraordinary success of the football showpiece should act as a stick of dynamite to blow up the roadblocks of apathy to women’s sport’s progress and acceptance – but it’s also up to other codes to raise their own bar.
“There’s evidence now that if you build it, they will come and if you invest appropriately people will have that interest,” Konstantopoulos muses.
“There’s the constant trope that no one cares about women’s sport and no one watches it – I don’t think that’s appropriate or acceptable anymore given what we’ve seen over the past month (in the FIFA World Cup).
“The challenge for the other sports is to think about what new benchmarks they can set. In cricket, the (Australia-hosted) ICC T20 Women’s World Cup in 2020 set a new benchmark and (the FIFA World Cup) is our new benchmark now.”
GOALS AND THE BOTTOM LINE
Money won’t solve all your problems, as the hackneyed saying goes, but investment is the clear way forward for the NRLW and AFLW developing into the sporting juggernauts they have the potential to be in the years and decades ahead. That ongoing commitment of cash is the obvious solution to alleviating the obstacles standing in both competitions’ way, as Konstantopoulos outlines:
“For the moment, I want full time athletes – it doesn’t have to be million-dollar contracts, but full time athletes. If we keep expanding, we keep asking these women to play more and more football. So we have to keep increasing pay – you can’t introduce, say, another four teams and expect it to be okay.”
“Facilities is the other big thing. I was with the Wests Tigers the other day and they were talking about how they weren’t yet in a position to play both men’s and women’s at Leichhardt (Oval) because they would have get changed out the back in sheds.
“AFLW as well, players having to change in Portaloos and having to run across the grass with towels to have showers. It’s just another layer of insecurity these athletes have to deal with. If you want a sustainable women’s competition, we have to have the facilities to support high-performance sport.
“In the NRL, the governing body holds a lot of power. Even if there was a club that wanted to make their athletes full time they can’t because of the salary cap, so they’ve really got to take the lead on this, as well as I suppose the clubs in their various states, lobbying to make sure they have the right facilities.
“Quite frankly, if you don’t have the facilities, you probably shouldn’t have an NRLW team.”
Article written by Will Evans