The AFLW, the Australian Football League’s women’s competition, is experiencing increased interest from advertisers and sponsors as it reports strong growth in viewers and participants.
The sport, which is now in its third year of elite competition, has seen a surge in players, with 530,115 women participating across Australia, which accounts for 32% of the total participants involved in AFL nationally. It has also grown in popularity and is attracting bigger crowds and ratings than the men’s soccer competition, the A-League.
Nicole Livingstone, head of women’s football at the AFL, tells The Drum the organization is receiving regular approaches from commercial sponsors to get involved, even though its already halfway through the season.
“Since the introduction of the AFLW, the number of teams registered around the nation has grown by 138%. It’s really quite phenomenal the growth and it is continuing - we are seeing that growth across every state and all levels across the country," she says.
“In terms of numbers coming to games, The AFL men’s competition is by far the shining light in Australian sport, after once again breaking its attendance records in 2018. But when you look at the rest of sport in Australia, the other sports pale into insignificance compared to the numbers the AFL has, and when you look at the AFLW we slot in with those groups. We have had better ratings and better attendances than the A-League.”
Livingstone’s comments are in line with a recent report, which revealed more than half (53%) of the Australian population watch women’s sport, via TV or at live events, representing a 48% increase over the previous year.
While the AFLW set a new record for the number of people to attend a female domestic sporting event in 2018, which saw 41,975 people attended the game at Perth’s Optus Stadium, Livingstone says the sport is settling at crowd numbers at around the 8,000 mark, which is similar to many other sports, for both women and men.
“While we have some one-offs, like 24,000 for our opening round in 2017, or Geelong’s first game in season three which had close to 19,000, we are settling at around the 8,000 mark and that is very similar to the other female sports and some of the other male sports. Rugby League has also struggled to get attendance and people actually coming to games, so I think 8,000 people coming to a women’s game is something we should be shouting from the rooftops.”
The sport’s popularity has caught the attention of the corporate world too, with the AFLW signing a four-year broadcast deal with the Seven Network and Foxtel’s Fox Sports network. It marks an important milestone for the league which previously had one-year deals with broadcasters. As part of the deal, every AFLW game will be broadcast live on TV, which only helps to bolster interest in the game.
The AFLW also now boasts 17 sponsors – up from eight in 2017 - including naming rights partner the National Australia Bank, Chemist Warehouse, Cotton On, Kellogg’s, Gatorade, McDonald's, Virgin Australia, Woolworths and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which have also introduced the tagline, ‘We Fight Fair’.
“It’s no doubt that in the first year of AFLW our ability to leverage corporate support was through the AFL brand and strength of the men’s competition. Now we have a situation where we are almost halfway through season three and we still have corporate sponsors coming and saying ‘how do I get involved? I would like to have an association with AFLW’," explains Livingstone.
"That is happening right now and we are at week three of the nine-week season, so we are still receiving commercial interest with only six weeks to go. To be in a position that corporate sponsors are coming to us, that is a great position to be in.”
The growth of the AFLW and women’s sports, in general, comes at a significant time for sport in Australia. The scandals that enveloped the Australian men’s cricket team last year, which saw sponsors drop Cricket Australia and the players involved in the events, have been replaced by a wave of scandals across the National Rugby League with recent reports suggesting the sport could have lost more than $10m in potential sponsorships during the off-season alone.
Livingstone is not convinced these episodes have led to sponsors switching off from men's sports to support women’s sports.
“I haven’t seen any data about the impact of men behaving badly and sponsors pulling out and coming to women’s sport,” she says.
However, she does admit that the attitude to supporting women’s sports has changed. “I think it has evolved from ‘this is a good thing to do’ or ‘this is the right thing to do’, to now ‘this is a valuable thing for us to do as a corporation’.”
Yet despite all the positives, Livingstone is quick to point out the challenges facing both the AFLW - and women’s sports.
“I don’t want to paint a picture that it’s all rainbows and butterflies because it is still difficult for women’s sport and quite often, we are all competing in the market for the same type of sponsor and that makes it a very competitive market," she says.
“Women’s sport is judged on the same metrics as men sports and we are judged off people coming to games and watching on TV and when you look at big sports like the AFL you have around 1.5 million watching an AFL grand final and over 100,000 going to a game.
She continues: "It’s difficult because networks have a commercial reality and if you put us up against something like ‘My Kitchen Rules’ or ‘Married At First Sight’ we are not going to rate the same. And sport is traditionally on the weekend so these are very poor slots for the networks. Sometimes we find ourselves on secondary channels, which doesn’t have the same traffic, but that’s also when our streaming is very important.”
This year the AFLW launched a dedicated app and its own standalone website, as fans previously could only access its website through the men’s afl.com.au website. The standalone site and app offer streaming services, allowing fans to stream all the games.
“We understand that our audience at AFLW is very connected to social and digital media. So, compared to the AFL, we have really gone full-throttle into making sure we are connecting, promoting and saturating our content through social and digital media. We are really trying to make sure we think about how we can be innovative," explains Livingstone.
“That is the mantra of AFLW – how can we innovate? We don’t want to get bogged down by what 130 years of men’s football looks like, we want to make sure everything we do is best for AFLW and best for women’s football.”
To ensure it understands its fans, AFLW has conducted data research at its games to gain insights into the audience. It found in the first year of elite competition, 30% of attendees had never been to an AFL football match and didn’t support a team.
“They were turning up to support a women’s movement because they wanted to be part of it,” says Livingstone. “We collected more data on our opening round this year and found 44% of people that turned up to round one had never been to an AFLW match before.”
The AFLW, which is majority funded by the AFL, is also working with state and local governments across Australia to update the sports facilities to make them more accessible for women sports.
“The majority of our sporting facilities were built in the 40s, 50s and 60s with men in mind, they were not thinking about women participating in sport," says Livingstone."We are in a position now where our sporting facilities are not suitable for women. We’ve made a big dent in that but there is still a long way to go with something close to 70% of our venues around the nation, not being judged as female friendly."
With men's sports still attract the lion's share of sponsorship dollars, Livingstone says there is still work to be done to prove the value and worth of women's sports and players. And, she would know, as a former Australian swimming champion and three-time Olympic medallist, Livingstone is no stranger to the world of sports sponsorships.
“It’s really important for us to be showing corporate Australia that we are really of value to them. A key part of that is thinking about the difference we are making to the fabric of our nation and the difference we are making to women in our society. That is something that we are proud of, the fact that we now have these women flocking to football clubs like never before," she says.
“We are certainly seeing growth in women’s sport but we do need to see it become tangible in the economy of sport, where it is actually making a difference and putting women to be equally valued. Women’s sport has always been here in Australia and women have always punched well above their weight, we now need to try and get to a point where female athletes are equally valued."