It’s Time

BY DAN

It’s time to expand the Women’s National Rugby League. It’s time to embrace a professional era, pay the women properly, and allow them the same single-minded focus on their craft afforded the men. This will grow the game in the long term, if the leadership of the NRL is willing to take the necessary steps.

The Women’s National Rugby League has been stuck in recent years in a development phase. Initially there was a argument to keep the game at a four team, limited competition carried out towards the end of the men’s season. While it seemed likely that there would be the talent, and the demand, to support a semi-professional competition, it wasn’t certain, and so the NRL decided to be cautious. This piece by Sarah Keoghan highlights the stasis the game was put in by 2020.

It’s clear now that the talent exists to move beyond the four team competition. A range of existing NRL teams have put in bids for franchises for the women’s competition, suggesting they think the talent exists in their locales that would support a team. Even with little financial incentive to play top-line footy, the supply of talent is sufficient. Expansion into a six or eight team competition seems inevitable in the short term.

One of the biggest challenges to expansion of the competition beyond that is its semi-professional nature. The players have to take such a substantial time off work in order to participate in the existing limited competition. Expanding the number of teams, and games, would put more pressure on players to choose between life and footy, and threaten the capacity of the league to retain talent. It’s the same problem that players faced at the turn of the 20th century. We eventually solved that with professionalism. That same option should be offered to women.

If the NRL centrally funded the salaries of the NRLW teams at a reasonable level, women could win the same right to participate that currently exists for men, without an impact on club financial positions. I’ve no idea what the level of sufficient pay is – I’ve seen estimates of average wages for women netballers and cricketers average earnings of around 60k a season, and AFLW players earning around 30k a season. The salary cap for NRLW teams is currently 150k a year (from what I can tell). This would obviously need to be increased sufficiently to allow for these payments, and a pathway to equal pay.

By my count an average of 50k across 30 players is hardly outrageous, and would cost around $1.5m per club. More costs would come from operation, but I wouldn’t imagine they’d cost much more than 500k a season. The NRL could fund the entire salaries of a competition for around the same amount of money they’ll be out-laying in salary subsidies for an expansion side in the coming years.

It’s not equal pay for equal work right now; and over time it would take active efforts to ensure the pay gap narrows. But it’s a start, and the NRL has already indicated it’s keen to move to equal pay as soon as possible. This is a step that can be taken today, alongside steps like equal pay for representative footy that have already taken place.

Centrally funding this has its benefits. It allows the maintenance of transparent of payments and a salary cap to ensure the Broncos don’t just buy everyone. It will ensure financial certainty for clubs and players that will allow them to focus on their games rather than have to balance the challenges of employment and full-time sport. The quality of the game would increase rapidly – think of how full professionalism in the 1990s dramatically increased the quality of defence in the men’s competition. Being able to train every day will have that impact, and soon there won’t be conversations about whether the talent base exists to support an expanded league.

I’m sure someone will say the NRL can’t afford this and this is simply horseshit. This is simply a question of opportunity cost. The league can happily afford $15m a year to fund a women’s competition. It spends almost as much on subsiding one NRL team’s salaries right now. In addition it gave teams $2.5m last year in coronavirus support. This amount would be enough to fund a professional women’s team at every club; which is well beyond what we’re suggesting here. It doesn’t approach what the league is considering pitching to own the Super League. It also doesn’t approach the amount of money clubs routinely get from governments. And before you say “grass roots footy” ask yourself what you mean by that and why it doesn’t include women’s footy.

With a free-to-air broadcast deal coming expansion also offers another selling point for broadcasters. NRLW has robust ratings, despite being played in the dead zones of mid-afternoon. Foxtel could be the main broadcaster of the competition. They get money from the federal government to do just that and they have a women’s sport channel that will need content. For free-to-air broadcasters, the competition would probably provide niche, rather than mass support, (in the short term) but the changing nature of television viewing this could become a weapon, particularly if Foxtel was carrying production costs for these games. Monday nights would be a great spot for a feature women’s game during the regular season on free-to-air.

The league grow in the long-term would sufficient support. As the quality of the game improves with professionalism the potential demand for the game from both the public and corporate sponsors seeking access to a female dominated market would also increase. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but I am certain it’s achievable. What footy fan wouldn’t be happy for there to be more footy?

The good news is that the NRL seems to be on board, though they’ve yet to put the meat on the bones of their platitudes. It’s good to see this isn’t a controversial or new idea. It’s clear it can be done. There can be more teams and women paid professional wages. It’s a matter of will rather than possibility. Now is the time.

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