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A footy feast for men, so why must women's sports put all their eggs in one basket?

Opinion

Queensland is drowning in football but top-tier women’s sport has been shut down too quickly, which may have long-lasting consequences, writes Katrina Beikoff

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The difference couldn’t be more stark.

Thirteen days and 20 games in to the AFL’s “festival of footy,” with four rounds played continuously over 20 days, the game is dominating Queensland sports ovals, national sports pages, and grassroots Aussie rules is recording incredible growth across the state.

The NRL continues to overcome all potential border obstacles, and the weekend weather, to successfully complete an action-packed Round 13, even with Queensland’s teams suffering all manner of woes which has led to the Gold Coast Titans finding themselves at 13th on the ladder and the state’s top-ranked side.

The Super Rugby AU competition is closing in on a finals frenzy, with just four regular rounds remaining and the Western Force shifting its “home” games to the Gold Coast to abide by Queensland border closures and see out the season.

Amid this, in women’s sport, Super Netball is a lonely bright spot after the AFLW was abandoned when the virus hit in March with just three games left in the season, around the same time women’s NRL was suspended. In the netball, Round 3 will be played over Tuesday and Wednesday following Round 2 at the weekend which was rushed into play after the season as a way of eking out a season smashed to bits by COVID-19.

Elsewhere in women’s sport, what is occupying commentary? For a start, making waves across Queensland, there’s a name change for women in surf.  The long-running Surf Girl competition is getting a makeover. Surf Life Saving Queensland’s flagship program for women that has been running for 50 years will, from 2021, no longer be called Surf Girl, but Surf Woman of the Year.

There may not be a clearer example, in these coronavirus times when live sport is a much-needed positive as we battle the pandemic, that women’s sport has suffered disproportionately and continues to be seen as a luxury extra rather than a fundamental.

Griffith University-based human right lawyer, Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, who was behind the human rights game plan that was fundamental to Australia and New Zealand’s successful FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 bid, said Australia had given up too easily on women’s sport during the pandemic.

“I want to see us fight harder for women’s sport to get the same airtime and the same kind of centrality to Australian life that men’s sport does. I want to see us do better,” she said.

“I don’t think we should have given up the women’s AFL season, for example, the way we did. I think that was really disappointing and unfair.”

She said she hoped it wasn’t too long before women’s sport re-emerged from the pandemic coma, bringing female sports champions such as Ash Barty or Sam Kerr back to centre stage.

Waiting for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 – one of the largest events for women in the world – would be too far away and too many girls could be lost to sport, she said.

The cancellation of so many women’s sports is biting hard. The implications of so quickly shutting down elite women’s codes is already showing up in girls’ and women’s participation rates.

Many teenage girls who played sport before the coronavirus pandemic are not returning this season. Many may drop out permanently.

A survey of 1000 girls aged 11 to 17, released in the past week by Suncorp, found 30 per cent of girls had lost interest in participating in team sport. Around one in four girls said they had simply lost interest and, with the absolute conviction of teenagers, 60 per cent of the girls said that ‘nothing can be done’ to change their minds.

The finding was especially worrying as it was despite 86 per cent of girls saying they were aware of the benefits of playing team sport. Almost half of the girls said sport increased their confidence, and more than that said it made them feel happier.

Harris Rimmer said it was vital to return live elite women’s sport to Australia and Australian screens as soon as possible.
She said the Women’s World Cup could also be an important catalyst in recognising women’s rights and ability to participate in all forms of public life.

“Sport is a human right, it is part of our culture. It is a cultural expression. But I don’t think we naturally see women as sports champions, I think that’s still a stretch for many people.” she said.

“We’re still very narrow in the way we think about women’s sports. We’ve got to loosen up. As we get a little bit more equal in all aspects of life, we’ll have to see sport changing as well.”

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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