For the first time in 30 years, women are starting to make their mark on Australian gridiron.

But, is the Australian Outback program really, one team with one dream? We really need to talk gender equity for the women.

Gridiron in Australia in itself is an unknown sport, yet it has been around for the last 30 years. It’s played in every state, with 72 clubs around the country – participation numbers pale in comparison to AFL, rugby league and soccer with a modest 3000 members. Its place in Australian society might seem minuscule to some, but for the first time in 30 years, women are starting to make their mark on the sport. On the field, the Women’s World Cup is being played in Canada on June 24th. In the background, women are finally starting to be represented on club and state level executive boards and it’s definitely starting to change the game.

The womens competition is still very young, only in its 5th year, but there are around 500 girls in 4 states and territories (QLD, NSW, VIC, ACT) playing gridiron alongside other mainstream sports like netball, rugby, soccer, AFL. Despite women representing 16% of total members, there is currently no female representation on the governing body board of Gridiron Australia and women make up less than 0.1% on SSO level executive boards.

Gender equity. Its is a hot topic around the country, it’s important that smaller sports have an understanding of how women can help guide a sport to be more accepting of change, provide insight into another market to tap into and generally improve governance on typically volunteer-dominated boards and sports like gridiron should be committed to doing so.

Mary K from Ladies Who League spoke about the role of female leaders on The Changing Game Podcast episode earlier this year
“…it is so important for young girls to see [women in executive positions] because I truly believe that you can’t be what you can’t see.. it never occurred to me that I could perhaps play rugby league so it’s very important that we have females in positions of influence in our sports, not just in boardrooms but on the field and umpiring so little girls can look up and say ‘Hey, that’s something I can do one day’ it’s no longer really a dream for them its a reality” – Mary Konstantopoulos, Ladies who League.

The politics of sport, it’s a common occurrence across the country and is one of the reasons that the development of the women’s game as a whole has stalled from a national perspective. Gridiron Victoria (GV) is boasting the largest number of women playing in the country and the most developed league however, it is currently not affiliated with Gridiron Australia (GA). This means that the women won’t be able to represent their state or country (GV women are allowed to compete in this year’s World Cup due to a negotiation tactic used by GA to entice GV back into affiliation) but they also aren’t able to compete in bi-annual national competition with NSW, QLD and ACT.

The women that have been involved in recent years aren’t privy to the issues and politics of the past that caused the rift between Gridiron Victoria and Gridiron Australia and honestly, I don’t think they care. All they want to do is play football, have the opportunity to play against the entire country, and contribute to the growth of the women’s competition across Australia.

Phil Wishart from the Office of Sport mentioned on The Changing Game podcast that the rise of the AFLW, Super Netball and the WBBL will mean sports will need to fight harder to keep and retain female players, that sports need to have talented players, a dedicated pathway and role models to support the attractiveness of women’s sport as an entity.

GA has done great things to ensure the women’s competition is now at an international level, however, the argument exists if Australia was ready for this yet. Was a top-down approach, build it and they will come attitude the best method? Or would more development in coaching, strategic planning, mapping out a stable pathway and promotion of the womens competition be more effective?

From a governance perspective, strategic planning is key in ensuring competition is viable long term. In the Gridiron Australia Strategic Plan 2016-2019, elite pathways for women have been left out with development focused on Senior and Juniors only. Understandably; women have never been apart of the sport, so the future is unknown to see if it will be a long-term competition. But Gridiron Australia needs to be committed to providing both genders and all members with the same opportunities as there is no funding and all athletes pay their own way through every level of the sport.

UPDATE: Gridiron Australia was unable to commit to allowing women to attend the Outback Outreach program when questioned at the National Coaching Conference held last month.

The question was posed on Twitter to see if the public thought that Australia could suitably ‘fit’ international niche sports in the current sporting landscape – if the male versions of these games can’t sustain an audience here – what does Gridiron Australia need to do to ensure continual growth of the sport?

The results show an almost 50-50 result, although taken on a small scale should be an enough of an idea for GA to invest heavily into marketing and promotion at all levels to grow the game nationally.

The Women’s World Cup (WWC) is the first time Australia will be seen on an international level, and while it may not get the broadcast deals, sponsorship or media exposure (and the girls have to pay over $8000 to represent their country) Gridiron Australia have done great things from a national level to ensure the Outback team will be competitive.

In recruiting the former NFL coach for the Arizona Cardinals and the first female ever to be hired on coaching staff in the NFL; Dr Jen Welter has been breaking boundaries on women’s sport for years, and who best to lead the Outback into their first international competition than a member of the very first ever, gold medal winning, Team USA in WWC 2010 and the two coaches in Anthony Stone and John Konecki that lead Team USA to their medals.

Listen to Jen addressing leadership to the Outback Women during 2017 Selection Camp
Jen Welter – Breaking down leadership and inspiration

The rise of women’s gridiron has been an amazing journey to watch, but we definitely aren’t done yet. If politics and gender equity of niche sports can be fixed to allow all women in the country to have the same opportunities, it will be an improvement in our game that gives other women in the country more reason to get involved.

Women’s gridiron is a powerfully strong sport that combines individual skill with strategy, trust with teamwork. It builds character and gives the women that play it many more reasons to continue.

Women’s Gridiron Leagues of Australia caught up with some of the girls around the country at the last selection camp and asked them “Why do YOU play football?” Check out the video here!

Written by: Stacey Speer – Womens Gridiron Leagues of Australia

The Australian Outback, one team? one dream…

Stacey Speer

Stacey Speer from Women's Gridiron Leagues of Australia

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