30 Mar, 2017 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2017

Opinion piece by Jerril Rechter, CEO VicHealth

First published in the Women's Agenda, 30 March 2017.Jerril Rechter

The AFL Women’s thrilling grand final last weekend has proven beyond a doubt that women’s sport has a strong and exciting future in this country.

I was one of the more than 15,000 footy fans at Metricon Stadium watching the Adelaide Crows and Brisbane Lions battle it out for the inaugural AFLW premiership cup. The atmosphere was electric and the teams certainly didn’t disappoint in what was a nail-biting fight to the finish. 

As I watched the Adelaide Crows nab a hard-fought victory, I thought about what impact the inaugural AFLW league will have on the next generation of young sports fans. 

The first AFLW season has certainly enjoyed amazing success. From the overflowing full-house debut match at Melbourne’s Princess Park to a grand final in Queensland attracting a bigger crowd than the men’s round one Qclash match, the popularity of the league is unquestionable. 

The cynics have been well and truly been silenced – AFLW is here to stay.

Thousands of women have fought long and hard to make the first AFLW competition a reality. Sport is a key part of the Australian identity and for many of us, men and women alike, AFL is our national game. 

Yet for too long women were kept on the sidelines, excluded from playing at an elite level. Thankfully those days are finally over.

The AFL is to be commended for its leadership in introducing ALFW, which has gone a long way in raising the profile of women’s sport and inspiring young women to get active.

If women have no place in professional sport it significantly hampers their likelihood of participating in sport at a community, state and national level. Indeed VicHealth’s research into community attitudes shows nearly three quarters of Victorians believe that female sport role models motivate women and girls to get physically active.

Almost half as many women take part in organised sport compared to men, and women are most likely to stop playing sport as teenagers. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is at this age when the sporting opportunities start to dry up for girls. 

Considering that more than two-thirds of Australian women are classified as being sedentary or having low levels of exercise we need to do more to get women and girls involved in sport.  With 75 percent of our population predicted to be overweight or obese by 2025 we need to take action now.

Women playing at the highest level of AFL sends a clear message to our community that gender equality matters, that women deserve to be on the field just as much as men. Gender equality is also a critical determinant of good health and wellbeing.

We know that the introduction of the professional women’s competition has influenced more girls than ever to sign up as juniors. It is exciting that the current crop of girl Auskickers could go on to be star AFLW players in the future. 

But we can’t stop here. It’s crucial we build on the momentum of AFLW, as well as learn from longstanding success stories like professional tennis, to push for true gender equality across a range of sporting codes. Which is why VicHealth recently launched the Change our Game campaign to continue to raise the profile of women’s sport.

Television ratings for AFLW prove there is a strong appetite for womens’ sport if games are aired in prime time. We need other codes to follow suit and truly back the talent and drive of their women players. 

Other sporting codes have the potential to taste similar success to AFLW if fans are given a chance to see women’s games in prime time viewing slots. 

The opening round of cricket’s WBBL proved a ratings smash in its own right, airing in prime time to an audience of more than 600,000. Yet once the men’s competition began, the women’s finals were played as curtain-raisers for the blokes. It has been reported that Cricket Australia is considering scheduling this year’s women’s finals separately to the men and I hope WBBL players get their chance to really shine.  

While it is great that netball fans can watch Super Netball on commercial television, it would be good to know why the games are relegated to 9Gem at the same time nine’s premier channel airs re-runs of old movies. Of course some women’s sports such as soccer’s W-League and basketball’s WNBL receive little coverage across all commercial networks which only does their players and fans a disservice. 

Now is the time for other sporting codes to capitalise on the success of AFLW or risk falling further behind. 

I want to see a day where women’s sport gets more airtime than racehorses. The attendances at womens’ games across many different sports shows that appetite from sports fans is there.

In an age where less Australians than ever before are playing sport it is crucial we do all we can to get boys and girls equally involved. Having more women in elite sport can only inspire more women and girls to be more active through sport, throughout their lives.

The huge popularity of the AFLW competition has proven once and for all that women rightly deserve their place on the footy field and in the upper echelons of the sporting world. It’s now up to all of us to build on this momentum to ensure the next generation of girls have truly equal opportunities in sport now and into the future. 

A future where women players are paid as much as men. Where women’s sport attracts the same level of media coverage as men. Where just as many young girls take up sport as boys. Where women’s sport has no gender – it’s just sport. Now, I’d really like to see that.

Jerril Rechter, CEO VicHealth