When the new AFL women’s league kicks off next year, it will be more than just something to fill the off-season void.
For a generation of female athletes, it will mean another door opening in the male-dominated world of professional team sports.
Earning a decent wage as a woman in sport has never been easy, and there are still barriers to participation.
Many of the future AFL women’s stars started out playing on male football teams because there were no girls’ teams, or didn’t get the chance to play until they finished school.
But netball great Liz Ellis can see small steps being made towards equality for girls like her five-year-old daughter Evelyn.
“The first Saturday of the Olympics, her and I sat and watched the television and we flicked between the women’s rugby sevens, the women’s basketball and the women’s soccer,” Ellis told AAP.
“They were the three things on offer. And she looked at me and said ‘Mummy, why don’t boys play sport?’ … I said ‘because they’re busy ironing’.
“That whole mindset has changed. Kids this age are looking at the television and saying ‘big girls play sport so of course I’m going to play sport’ and I would imagine that would translate to the schoolyard.”
Winning over girls like Evelyn is becoming increasingly important for the rival codes.
While netball remains a powerhouse, the number of girls playing Auskick grew 21 per cent in 2016 and soccer’s popularity continues to grow.
“We keep talking about the competition at the elite level but I actually think the competition is starting now for the junior dollar,” Ellis says.
“That’s good, because it will keep all the sports on their toes. They’ll make sure that their product is exactly what the marketplace wants.”
Increasingly, the market is demanding fair and equitable pay deals.
The AFL drew heavy criticism when it proposed paying most female footballers a $5000 salary for the 22-weeks of their inaugural pre-season and season proper.
A fairer deal has since been agreed upon, with the minimum wage lifted by 70 per cent from $5000 to $8500 to help players cover the cost of private health insurance.
The deal also covers football boots and runners, an interstate travel allowance, income protection insurance, out-of-pocket medical expenses and childcare for mothers of infants.
While the league is not expected to be profitable anytime soon, the AFL views its development as an important step towards engaging more female fans.
Netball has lead the way on compensation, increasing its minimum wage to $27,375 and including private health cover for all players, while female cricketers earn at least $18,000 if they play both the one-day and Twenty20 domestic leagues.
At the other end of the spectrum, some W-League soccer players receive an allowance of just $60 per week, while the struggling WNBL has no broadcast deal and no minimum wage for its players.
It’s a disappointing state of affairs for Lauren Jackson, widely considered Australia’s greatest female basketballer, who is pushing for change in her role as commercial operations manager with the Melbourne Boomers.
The WNBL has always had to fight to retain quality talent given the better pay on offer overseas, and Jackson says it’s no surprise players are being tempted to swap codes.
“Right now it’s happening because professional sports in Australia don’t pay women enough money to stay in one code,” she told AAP.
“Basketball is one of the only sports where you can go overseas as a woman and make lucrative money, enough money to mean you don’t have to work in the future if you don’t want to.
“The next couple of years are going to be crucial for the survival of the WNBL. I think there’s enough people that want to see it succeed that we’ll make it succeed … (but) systems are going to have to be put in place.”
Jackson isn’t sure if she would have been tempted to try her hand in the AFL women’s league. Her mum, a former Opal, played the odd game of footy alongside her big brothers in the Ovens and Murray amateur footy league but basketball was always the family passion.
Ellis personally reckons she would have made a decent ruckwoman, and says she’s not surprised by the code-hopping.
“Of course I would have had a go at it,” she says.
“I wasn’t surprised to see players sign up for it. I think it’s terrific. What it does is create that level of competition because it’s made sports like basketball and cricket all step up and say ‘right, we’ve got to look after our athletes’. I couldn’t think of a better thing.”
But while women’s sports have made progress in recent years, there’s still a long way to go.
Jackson describes a recent phone conversation with a close friend who casually referred to a young male tennis player as “acting like a woman” on the court.
“People don’t realise they’ve got these sort of attitudes but when you’re saying ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘you’re acting like a woman’, you’re offending the hell out of me,” she says.
“It’s so prevalent in our society and it’s just there. Nobody addresses it because nobody wants to talk about it. It’s this attitude that women aren’t as good as men.
“It’s something that we have to change for the next generation of kids so that they don’t have to face these problems and feel like a lot of women in sport.”