Women’s professional sports teams in Australia have seen a rapid expansion in the last few years, but to ensure long-term sustainability a new research project aims to understand how women’s teams and their associated sport bodies view success, and help navigate a path.
"Women have waited a long time for many of the historically men’s team sports to offer a professional career path for the women’s game," says Tracy Taylor, Professor of Sports Management at the University of Technology Sydney.
"Now with the rapid rise of professionalisation, these teams are grappling with the inclusion of women-specific needs, both for on-field performance and off-field support, in areas such as adequate child-care provision and pregnancy clauses," she says.
The project, led by Professor Taylor and funded by a $267,000 Discovery grant from the Australian Research Council, will examine the way women’s professional sport is structured, valued and managed, both on and off the pitch.
With collaborators from Victoria University and Griffith University, the research team aims to examine women’s leagues in AFL, Cricket, Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union, which all operate in association with the men’s competitions.
"There is a lot of passion and enthusiasm around women’s sporting leagues, as well as high expectations about how quickly they will grow, but there is a danger in growing too fast," says Professor Taylor.
"In North America the women’s leagues were expected from day one to be drawing large crowds, getting sponsorship and performing at an incredibly high level – and were sold as just the same as the men’s game – and that led to unrealistic expectations and the closing of some leagues," she says.
The researchers plan to interview contracted athletes, their coaches, managers and administrators about their experiences, and co-design and develop strategies and policies to improve the support and playing experiences of women.
“The women’s leagues we are looking at are part of the national associations, but the models and frameworks that operate for the men’s teams do not necessarily transfer to the women’s teams. We want to understand what is working and what isn’t and what could be done better,” says Professor Taylor.
“It’s easy to forget that the current long-standing men’s professional sports teams had to struggle initially to professionalise and allow players to make a living out of sport. They have been through that journey and women can learn from those experiences,” she says.
Research with players in the new NRL Women’s Premiership has already occurred as part of a separate project about their expectations and experiences, both prior to and post the introduction of the competition, which kicked off in September 2018.
“In the case of the NRL, the framework for the competition had to be developed very quickly and the players only had a short amount of time to understand what teams were making offers, how the contract process worked and whether they had to relocate,” says Professor Taylor.
“Now they are adapting the framework to make sure they can grow sustainably,” she says.
Another area researchers will examine is the needs of professional players who are mothers, family carers or plan to have children, and what this means for their career and career progression.
“We’ll look at what support mechanisms are in place, what conditions are in contracts and how clubs adjust and facilitate a female friendly environment, particularly when facilities and resources are shared between men’s and women’s teams,” says Professor Taylor.
“The introduction of professional women’s leagues has been followed by an increase in team sport participation by girls, with current players looked up to as role models, so harnessing this enthusiasm to nurture grass roots talent is another important element.
“This project provides an opportunity to explore what success looks like for women’s professional leagues, and in the process create a new model that will position Australia globally at the forefront of changing approaches to women’s professional team sport,” she says.