Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
There’s a very funny comedian in Australia named Jimmy Rees, and during COVID-19’s worst moments, he created a humorous running commentary on social media called “Meanwhile in Australia.”
I thought about Rees during a recent three-state tour of Australia with a group of Syracuse University undergraduate students taking a study-abroad course focused on Australian sport, history and culture. During our nearly three weeks Down Under, we heard from professors, historians and sport industry executives who provided an intimate glimpse at Australia’s sporting landscape.
By the end of the trip, I was thinking the course should’ve been called “Meanwhile in Gender Equity Australia,” because we saw and heard about a wide variety of fascinating initiatives that made my contemporary American students wonder about our progress toward this very logical (and gaining-traction) goal in the U.S.
One eye-opener was the revelation Aussie professional soccer execs had made the decision not to just name the women’s pro league “A-League W,” but would instead start identifying the men’s competition as the “A-League Men.” How novel to think of the male version of a sport getting the binary treatment (as opposed to the familiar adjective-loaded WNBA or LPGA).
A second was finding that Australia, one of the few countries in the world with four versions of football (Aussie Rules, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Soccer), had fully developed all four “codes” such that women can play these sports professionally. In the U.S., we are yet to see any great efforts by the NFL or MLS to build female versions under their corporate umbrella, which means the development of women playing football in America has been left to either USA Rugby, U.S. Soccer or the NCAA.
Another interesting case involved the continued development of the AFL Women’s, the Australian Rules pro league requiring 16 players on the field (per team) that finds no American equivalent, particularly not from the NFL. In fact, while we were visiting Melbourne, the AFL head office was still trumpeting a salary plan that would produce a near-doubling (+94%) of women’s salaries for the season starting in August. The AFL Women’s was also adding four new teams, which would mean jobs for approximately 120 players.
Additionally, the expectation from Gillon McLachlan, the AFL’s departing CEO, was that more than 40 of the game’s leading players would earn more than $100,000 per year, and the total bankroll for contracted players would exceed AUS$25.6 million ($17.5 million). Even better, most AFLW players will pay their bills as full-time footballers by 2026.
The AFL’s payout comes in conjunction with a deal reached in 2021 that raised the salaries of or women competing in Suncorp Super Netball, the premier netball competition, by more than 20%. The Melbourne Vixens and West Coast Fever recently played in front of a packed house for the premiership, and many of these Australian players are headed to Birmingham, England, as gold medal favorites in the 2022 Commonwealth Games (July 28-August 8).
“What we are seeing is the long overdue gender correction in sport,” said Jasmine Amis, media and marketing manager for the Cairns Taipans of Australia’s National Basketball League. “We all have to acknowledge implicit bias and exclusionary practices of the past, but in Australia we are addressing gender equity proactively and it is refreshing to know our country is progressive when it comes to women’s sports.”
All of the above is not to suggest America hasn’t gotten many things right. Title IX, now in the midst of its well-deserved 50th anniversary celebrations, put America at the forefront when it came to opening doors for professional female athletes—even though it’s a law that covers school participation and not professional sport.
Aided by the work of athletes like Billie Jean King and executives such as Donna Lopiano and Val Ackerman, the U.S. made gender-equity strides that still impress. But in the absence of a comparable alternative to the NFL (and the lingering presence of an NCAA approach that remained focused on men and football long after 1972 … and still does), there is still great upside—and much work to be done—for women athletes seeking professional careers on this continent.
The WNBA, WTA, LPGA and NWSL (plus the great USWNT) are evidence of success. But after seeing what’s happening in Australia, particularly via the AFL, A Leagues and NRL, is it feasible to suggest the U.S. can and should do even more?
Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s Faculty Athletic Representative to the ACC and NCAA. He is the former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League and his new co-authored book, Business the NHL Way, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in October.