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Talking women's footy with Molina Asthana, AFL South East Commissioner

Talking women's footy with Molina Asthana, AFL South East Commissioner

By Molina Asthana and Belinda Wilson

Leadership 

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Molina Asthana is a Commissioner with the AFL South East Commission. Molina is also the Principal Solicitor, Commercial, Property & Technology at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, and sits on the LIV Council.
 

BW: Molina, you have had a long history of involvement with football administration

MA: I have. Other than my formal role as Commissioner with the AFL South East Commission, I have been an AFL Ambassador for the last three years and was awarded Regional Ambassador of the Year Award in 2015. I also received a Fair Play Award in 2016. These awards recognised my contribution and initiatives in promoting the game within the multicultural communities. I have also been on the AFL focus group for multicultural engagement for the last two years.

I have assisted Carlton Football Club with their Carlton Respects Program and Richmond and Essendon with their India strategy.

I have started my own not-for-profit called Multicultural Women in Sport to use sport as a means of empowerment, wellbeing, integration and community involvement for migrant women who might otherwise not be given this opportunity, or not see it as their "place" to join in with mainstream activities like sport.

Why do you think there has been such a surge in interest in women’s footy?

Women’s football has been around for a while now, but it was brought to the forefront with the launch of the AFL women’s league (AFLW) this year. Footy has always been a family game with women watching the sport in equal proportion. However playing the game was not something that young girls were encouraged to do by their families, with netball being the preferred option.

The launch of the women’s league created a lot of role models like Darcy Vescio and Daisy Pearce and it is now seen as a viable career option for women, despite the current pay disparity. I was at a AFLW game during the season and it was amazing how many women came with their girlfriends and their kids to watch the game and in the debate on being given an option, they would rather send their daughters to footy than ballet!

Even the AFL has been quite surprised at how female footy has exploded since the launch of the league it’s fair to say they were quite underequipped during the first few games to deal with the demand. What has happened is quite spectacular and will hopefully continue to grow.

Of course, AFLW has glamourised the game to a large extent but there has also been a lateral shift in attitudes, particularly of families in encouraging girls in their families to pursue the game.

The growth is also the result of the money injected into various sporting programs and the support by the media in giving women’s sport a platform for people to be able to watch and enjoy it.

Are the actual rules of the women’s AFL game any different to the men’s game?

Most of the rules are the same except that the teams play 16-a-side format (with six players on the bench), use a smaller football and play four 15 minute quarters plus time-on.

These rules were amended as a result of independent studies by Deakin University and RMIT that helped the AFL form the view that the women’s game would be enhanced by reducing the number of players on the field as well as the size of the football.

The surge in popularity around the new league is exciting, but how can we make sure that this is more than just a fad?

There are two aspects to this question. One is to do with fan engagement. This largely depends on the quality of the game, media coverage, cost of the game (which will need to be assessed over time) and innovative ways of promoting the game by the clubs.

The other aspect is about playing the game. This issue boils down to women’s participation in sport in general. A lot of women drop out of sport after 16 years of age. To sustain their interest in the sport and to ensure that this not a mere fad, it needs to be a viable career option. The players need to be better paid, improved facilities have to be provided at local clubs as well as ensuring accessibility to the game for all attendees. Pathways into playing still need to be created for women in remote areas and for women from diverse backgrounds.

In my view, it is unlikely that the interest in women’s footy will to go down so quickly. It will plateau in time, but at the moment I can only see further growth. The licences will be extended to other teams in the future, the season may run longer and there will be many more players so there is a growth trajectory in place for the at least the next five years. Of course after that there will be sustainability issues as I mentioned before, and the AFL, along with local and AFL clubs will have to find ways to increase the fan base and maintain the level of interest.

It is interesting that the question about it being a fad is even raised. We would never think of any sport played by men as some sort of a fad that may pass with time, whereas we tend to think that of a women’s game, when it should really only be part of mainstream sport. These perceptions need to change for the sustainability of women’s sport.

You mentioned the pay-disparity issue, what is your take on this?

Richmond’s Dusty Martin signed for $1.1 million a year for seven years, so just compare that to what an AFLW player is paid. Under a pay deal struck for the 2017 seven-match (plus Grand Final) season, marquee players receive a financial package of $27,000 (inclusive of $10,000 for their marketing and ambassadorial work), priority players get $12,000, and the remaining listed players take $8,500. Obviously there is a massive pay gap between the male and female players.

The pay difference has been justified by the AFL on the basis that that there is currently not enough money being made from the women’s games (from broadcasting, advertisements, merchandise etc.) and that this revenue will take time to build over years. AFLW player Kirby Bentley (Dockers) who has been around for quite a long time says that players balance the low pay with being instrumental in the growth of the game. Kirby believes that the game is bigger than the players and for that reason they are reconciled to lower pay for the time being.

Conditions have improved for female players but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The AFL clubs are obviously better equipped than grassroots sports clubs, however adequate facilities such as separate change room facilities, availability of training facilities and the like does remain an issue. Clubroom space is always a juggling act as the men's teams use up the most of the space. I have been told by some players that they are forced to train at night as during the day the club facilities are being used by the men’s teams and other men’s leagues.

There is also lack of equality in media coverage. The recent State of Origin game is an example of poor publicity and media coverage with only 10,000 people attending the game and very little information being made available about the game beforehand.

The most disturbing thing though are the negative perceptions of women in footy, mainly by those that are challenged by the shifting paradigm. Earlier in the year, Dale Simmons, club president for the Cervantes Tiger Sharks, launched a sexist social media tirade against the first ever female AFL umpire Eleni Glouftsis. The most controversial recent incident of this kind was Collingwood President Eddie McGuire’s comments made about The Age’s football journalist Caroline Wilson.

Critics of the AFLW competition have said that the games are not as entertaining as the men’s games and that the calibre of talent is not as high in women’s sport as it is in men’s. With AFLW becoming so popular, some of these critics of women in footy have been shut down, and rightly so.

I believe that what women in football have achieved is more commendable as they have done so without the same pathways, resources and opportunities when they were young girls, as compared to boys the same age.

How has the AFLW league been different for women?

Women’s footy is more inclusive and welcoming. There is a richer sense of diversity in women’s football. In contrast to male players, AFL Women’s players have been able to come out easily and talk about their sexuality without fear of being ridiculed or ostracised. In fact this aspect of women’s football has been one of the most positive.

Player Emma Swanson says that because it’s a new sport for women they can be who they are and that there is not as much scrutiny on them as there is for male AFL players. Who can forget the kiss between Erin Phillips and her partner Tracy when Erin won the AFLW competition's inaugural best-and-fairest award? For me, that was the defining moment of women’s football.

Women’s football is creating different kinds of role models as compared to the men’s game: women who are bold, fearless, confident and comfortable with who they are. For men it was a macho image that brought with it everything associated with masculinity, including aggression and arrogance, which are not always positive attributes.

 


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