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The AFL’s vision for AFLW is bold, but are players already at ‘breaking point’?

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This month, the AFL released what many invested in AFLW have long been calling for — a vision for the competition’s future.

The Women’s Football Vision, which looks forward to 2030, outlines several bold “aspirational targets”, including for AFLW players to become the highest-paid sportswomen in a domestic competition in Australia.

While the goal is no doubt welcome news for the players, what the document does not outline is a plan for how to achieve it.

Instead, it commits to broad-based actions such as a “strategy for the 18-team elite competition that considers economic sustainability”.

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The imminent release of such a strategy will be critical to achieving the player pay goal, given the fact AFLW players are currently paid much less than women in other domestic sporting leagues.

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From 2022 for example, Super Netballers will be paid an average salary of $74,000, with the best-paid netballers earning $91,500. Minimum salaries have also grown by 17 per cent to $43,000.

By comparison, this season of AFLW will see the league’s top players on less than the netball minimum wage — with just two players per club earning the maximum amount of $37,155. The majority (16 per club) earn $20,239.

For Paul Marsh, CEO of the AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA), further detail is therefore required on how the AFL plans to achieve the significant pay increase.

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“We absolutely [support the goal],” Marsh told ABC Sport.

“AFLW is fast becoming the number one female sport in Australia. So it’s appropriate the players are getting paid at that highest rate.

“What we would like to see though is a timeline that outlines when and how this will occur, along with the detail on the competition status.

“Our view, and the players’ strong view, is that we need to look at the expansion of the fixture now that we’re getting to 18 teams and how it all ties in together.”

Players at ‘breaking point’ from juggling commitments: AFLPA boss 

Of particular concern to the AFLPA is the vision’s lack of detail on a pathway to full-time professionalism, with the ongoing burden of the players being part-timers taking a toll.

“What we’ve got is a group of players now who have, since the competition started, been trying to combine AFLW with work and/or study.

“What a lot of them have been saying to us now for a few years is, ‘we need to know where this competition is going so we can work out whether we’re going to commit to it or not.’

“To know what they might be getting paid so they can plan their lives around that is important.”

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AFLW players lag behind other domestic women’s competitions in terms of player renumeration. (AFL Photos via Getty Images, Michael Wilson)

This issue was acknowledged by Nicole Livingstone at the AFL’s press conference to launch the vision:

“Right now, our players come into clubs after five o’clock and train,” she said. “So the furnace is up and they cram a lot into their day.

“So to actually look at the way that programming works with the AFLPA and the clubs, and how to best support the players to be the best athletes that they can be, is really important.”

Full-time professionalism a sticking point for CBA negotiations

Despite the AFL’s vision for its playing cohort to be the best-paid in the country, Livingstone was reluctant to agree that this would translate to AFLW players becoming full-time professional athletes.

“My language is a little bit different to full-time. The next step is to look at what ‘year-round’ looks like for our athletes. Right now they’re on six-month contracts, and I know they want to play more fully, they want to train more fully.

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“The aspiration is to move it to year-round with a holistic approach. 

These issues are set to be thrashed out at the next set of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, with the current CBA expiring at the end of the coming season.

Moving into those discussions, Marsh said the AFLPA and players had a clear position on the issue of full-time professionalism.

“We’re in the process at the moment of developing a players’ vision of the AFLW competition.

“We’re certainly wanting to get to a point where we reach full-time professionalism, which includes full-time salaries and 12-month contracts.

“We believe we need to be pushing towards full-time professionalism as quickly as possible … in our view, that’s going to keep the players in the game at a time when some are considering whether it’s feasible to continue.

“The competition will become stronger if players are able to commit themselves on a greater time basis to the game … This is about the industry backing this product to become as strong as it can possibly become, as quickly as possible.”

What is less clear, however, is how that goal will be achieved — from either an AFL or AFLPA perspective.

One option that has been mooted is for the AFL men’s and women’s players to adopt a revenue-sharing model, similar to the one struck between the Matildas and Socceroos in which players share aggregated revenue from sources like broadcasting, sponsorship and merchandise.

However, the AFLPA said that while it is not against this model in principle, it believes it will only work if the players’ collective share of revenue (across both the men’s and women’s competitions) increases.

“For AFLW to thrive it’s important that the industry believes in it and makes the appropriate investment — that is the responsibility of the AFL and clubs,” Marsh said.

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