The Gender Pay Gap for AFL/AFLW Athletes is a Misnomer

Players in the Women’s Australian Football League (AFLW) are currently without a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). While this is a less-than-ideal situation, especially with fewer than seven weeks before the 2023 season begins, there are many factors for the AFL Players Association (AFLPA) and the AFL to consider before agreement.

Most of the female athletes, who are currently contributing many hours to the craft of their sport, around 20 hours per week, are also working another full-time, or multiple part-time, job(s) to supplement their income. This is much the same way that players did prior to the establishment of the AFL, and as players in the WAFL, SANFL and VFL still do today.

It’s been a long time coming for female athletes to finally get the opportunity to play Aussie Rules, not only at a semi-professional level, which it currently is, but also at an amateur level.

It was not that long ago that girls had to give up footy once they reached the age of 12 or 13 because there was no division in which they could play. Just ask AFLW pioneer and champion, Erin Phillips, who dominated boys footy before the age of 13 but then had to take up basketball because the AFL pathway ended for her. Port Adelaide legend and AFL Hall of Famer, John Cahill, once said that Phillips was the most dominant 13-year-old footballer he’d ever seen.

In an interview with the Herald Sun, Phillips said “After I turned 13, I wasn’t allowed to continue playing with the boys. It was really hard to understand at that age — they were all my friends! It was just because I was a girl. Strategically, Dad introduced me to Rachael Sporn. Dad’s vision was to change who my hero was, because he knew that there was no pathway in football. If I wanted to play sport, it had to be different to the one I was so passionate about.”

In the end, Phillips went on to have a remarkable career in basketball, winning two titles in the WNBA and representing Australia twice at the Olympics, before returning to her true passion at the start of Aussie Rules in 2017.

It’s great to finally see young girls and women have the opportunity to play such a magnificent game. This has all transpired in the last decade. By contrast, it took the men’s game 100 years to move from amateur to semi-professional, and 20 years more to achieve professional status.

While I’m an advocate for equal pay for equal work, there is a long way to go before the AFL can afford to pay female athletes something close to what the men get paid. The sports entertainment industry is a performance-based business, after all. The best players in the men’s competition get paid more than 10x what rookies get paid – there’s no equality there.

Between men and women, there are differences in physical capabilities, which is obviously evident, especially in one of the most physically challenging games in the world. But at this stage, by far the biggest difference between the men’s and women’s competition is in regard to skill and spectacle. This is something that needs to be considered in pay negotiations, because the gender pay gap in the AFL is actually because of a skills gap.

From an entertainment perspective, watching AFLW is more akin to watching a Boys’ Year 10 high school match. I say that with all due respect – I don’t mean to offend – it’s simply because most of the women currently playing in the AFLW didn’t have the opportunity to play much footy during their youth.

Now, I’ll admit that the above statement might be controversial (and difficult to prove) because a match has never been played between the two – at least as far as I know. But if the pinnacle of women’s AFL is unlikely to beat a Boys’ First 18 high school team, then it’s very difficult for the AFL to justify paying AFLW players huge incomes at this stage of the competition’s development cycle, particularly when the viewers aren’t there yet. If they were, it would probably be a different story, regardless of skill.

In the last week, the AFL warned clubs that AFLW viewership has decreased by 70 per cent since its first season, which seemed to be a very conveniently-timed warning given the ongoing CBA negotiations. This is about the only time you’d ever hear the AFL admitting such a thing.

So while the AFL should be applauded for finally opening up the game to women, right now there aren’t enough eyeballs watching the game to pay players at something close to the men’s game.

It’s going to take time – but it’s also possible that it might never reach parity. The determining factor will likely be how much interest or value does the women’s game generate, at all levels of competition, for the game overall? This will require some nuanced understanding and accounting.

The men’s competition will likely need to underwrite AFLW incomes for years to come – only time will tell – as women’s tennis and golf can afford to pay their players seven-figure sums, though those sports are not as physically demanding as Aussie Rules and there are many more viewers watching, particularly on TV, which funds the game to a large extent.

That’s not to say this is not going to change in the future because the opportunities for girls to play Aussie Rules through their developmental stages, from Under 8s through to Under 18s, has only existed for a very short time.

For this reason, I believe that it’s highly likely within the next ten years, the standard of AFLW is going to increase by an order of magnitude – likely to a comparative standard as WNBA.

On a camping trip around Australia in 2022, I was truly shocked by the number of young girls (high school age) walking through small towns in Queensland and New South Wales, still wearing their AFL guernseys and carrying their boots after a game on a Saturday afternoon. It was extraordinary.

And the growth of the game in the heartland states is going bonkers as well – surely much to the delight of the AFL hierarchy. With this, and time, surely comes a significant increase in the AFLW playing standard, and with it, more viewers and better pay.

The AFL’s negotiations with the AFLPA must consider the effect that all of this has, and will have, on the AFL treasury. It’s already brought more viewers and increased memberships to clubs. We see participation rates of female involvement in footy increasing across the board, not only in playing, but also in administration, coaching and umpiring, both at junior and to a lesser extent (so far) professionally. This all adds value to the game and will only increase over time.

As a result, I believe that the entire competition (men’s and women’s) is going to be in even better financial shape in the next ten-plus years as a result of the introduction of AFLW, and the supporters, viewers, sponsors, advertisers and income rewards will surely follow, hopefully to the point of making AFLW athletes some of the highest paid sports people in Australia.

But in the meantime, both the AFL executive and AFLPA need to take a balanced approach to the negotiating process, preferably increasing AFLW salaries to a point where players can survive with a full-time living wage – not needing to work second and third jobs – giving the AFLW competition ample opportunity to be the best entertainment spectacle it can be, while not overpaying too much to put the game in jeopardy.

Whether the competition’s at a point where that’s achievable will be determined by the bean counters at AFL HQ and the Players’ Association. It’s a very fine line to tread but one that will surely pay off in the years to come, for both the game itself and players in the AFLW, if they can strike the right balance in the next CBA.



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