The AFL Women’s competition’s staggering television viewership in round one could be the precursor to a TV broadcast rights deal worth at least $20 million per season.
An average of 450,000 viewers tuned into the four history-making contests across the weekend, right on par with the 450k fans who tuned into each AFL match during the 2016 home and away season.
The incredible viewership will have both Seven Network and Foxtel executives grinning from ear to ear, with the networks only having to pay broadcast production costs in order to televise the competition.
It’s unlikely networks will have the same luxury in 2018, however, with the AFL to target a new TV deal that will significantly raise players’ salary.
Though the average of 108k viewers on Fox Footy was down on the AFL numbers from last year (190k), the 346k Melbourne viewers who watched the two live games on Channel Seven smashed the average Melbourne AFL audience of 275k in 2016.
While impressive, the most telling figures showed the AFLW’s drawing power over the A-League all across the weekend, with the round-ball competition only managing an average of 60k viewers across five games on Fox Sports.
The dominance was further accentuated by the Western Bulldogs-Fremantle match bringing in an average audience of 118k on Fox Footy alone, 25k more viewers than the Melbourne Derby, one of the A-League’s marquee contests, which was in the same time slot.
Drawing attention to the comparison between AFLW and A-League ratings is not a matter of degrading the round-ball competition, but rather using it as a point of comparison.
It acts as the base for finding the broadcast value of the AFLW.
The 10-team, six-month soccer competition recently received a significant boost when the FFA signed a bumper broadcast deal worth $346 million over six years, which also included the rights to show Socceroos, Matildas, W-League and FFA Cup matches.
That’s a lot of content for $57.6 mil per year, and Fox Sports has also enjoyed a small improvement in A-League viewers so far this season.
If Fox Sports is happy paying that price for a non-dominant sport in Australia, it will surely be willing to pay more per game for a product with proven higher drawing power.
Then there’s the clear success the women’s game has had on free-to-air TV.
Though it would be naive to pretend there won’t be a drop off in viewership after the first round – with some fans sitting on the fence opting to tune out – it would be difficult to see AFLW games drop below an average of 400k FTA viewers over the course of the season.
That would still be an extremely impressive number for a competition in its first season, and make it a simple task for the AFL to charge a fair amount for broadcast rights from both a free-to-air network and Foxtel, as it does with its men’s league.
It’s worth considering that Network Ten picked up the rights to the Big Bash League in 2013 for $20 million per season, with the competition having proved to be a ratings success on pay TV.
The new BBL broadcast deal is expected to be closer to $60 million per season when it is up for grabs in 2018.
An initial $20 million per year deal for AFLW broadcast rights would be fitting given the massive room for growth the women’s game still possesses, much like the BBL.
Once the AFL expands to 10 teams, likely ahead of the 2019 season, a renewed deal would allow both the AFL and television partners to assess the competition’s success.
As with any major broadcast deal, the major winners would be the players who would receive a considerable pay rise.
If we base the potential AFLW pay on the percentage all AFL players are paid in relation to the broadcast deal (51.7%), a $20 million a year rights agreement would see AFLW players receive a gross total income of $10.34 million – it is currently just shy of $2 million.
In an eight-team competition with 27 players on each list, it translates to an average of $47,870 per player.
That figure would still be an obvious far cry from the $300,000 male players are paid on average, but it would be a much better starting point than the current minimum and better reflect their financial worth.
During the AFL Women’s player payments tug of war in 2016, the lack of sponsorship and a TV revenue were the reasons behind the low payment offer according to AFL boss Gillon McLachlan, and general manager of game and market development Simon Lethlean.
“We don’t have a broadcast deal, we don’t have a sponsorship deal, at the moment we don’t have any commerciality around the league,” McLachlan said four months ago, soon before the AFLW minimum wage was raised from $5,000 to $8,500 for the season.
“We’ve got to start up, a complete start-up, so we’re investing millions of dollars next year in establishing a league.”
Lethlean shared a similar view, believing the competition needs support pillars before offering players a decent wage.
“The first is the governing body, then there’s broadcasters and sponsors, and the fourth arm is a talent base to sustain a professional league,” Lethlean said.
“There’s a lot of work to do to sustain a professional league in Australia.”
“The context of men’s pay and parity in that sense is not the way we’re looking at it. We’re looking at an equal opportunity for the best female athletes to play the game.”
Those comments suggest that penning a television agreement for the AFL Women’s competition is a priority.
The AFLW is already a commercial success, with and average attendance of 12,614 across the first four games and major news outlets making it the focus of their sports coverage.
NAB has come on as the naming rights sponsor of the competition in a deal believed to be worth $2.5 million a year, and all clubs have multiple sponsors that are generating revenue.
The missing piece of the puzzle is a groundbreaking television deal.