Why the AFLW should soon be monetised

Last week, it was announced that the Fremantle Dockers will play in the first ticketed event for an AFLW match.

Tickets are expected to set fans back only $2, though the money raised will instead be donated to charity rather than contribute to AFLW costs.

Fans may be required to pay for entry into AFLW matches soon. Image: Rob Leeson

Following the undeniable success of the AFLW’s inaugural season, it is time for the league to start considering how best to further monetise the fledgling competition, so that the organisation can continue to build and fund a sustainable talent base of women to uphold a professional league.

With increasing sponsorship, merchandising and – most importantly – broadcast deals, the obvious next step in further monetising the competition is by having the fans start to pay for tickets to attend the games.

All matches for the 2017 NAB AFL Women’s competition were free entry, and will remain so for the 2018 season.

With the AFL Women’s eight-round season situated awkwardly throughout the men’s pre-season JLT Community Series, there were a total of six double-headers held across the three weeks of overlap.

While tickets to those pre-season matches were sold for up to $30 for a reserved adult seat, gates were opened to the public for free entry to the AFL Women’s game at three quarter time of the preceding JLT Community Series match.

Though clearly a deliberate tactic by the AFL to try and ensure attendees of the men’s game stay to witness the unfolding women’s competition, the disparity between the two leagues had never been more obvious.

There was also a stark contrast between two divisions: the continually maligned pre-season competition matches, with teams often far from presenting their best 22, versus the rising talent of the women’s league who were quite literally playing for their livelihood in their debut season.

Something had evidently clicked with the broader supporter base, however, and across the 29 matches of the AFLW season, a total of 198,020 supporters attended games at grounds including IKON Park, Whitten Oval and Metricon Stadium.

That number would surely be expected to grow heading into the 2018 season and again following the league’s expansion the following year, if the fixture continues to innovate and the competition standard progresses.

However, that shouldn’t automatically mean supporters be expected to start coughing up similarly excessive ticket prices for the still-developing AFLW league matches.

In reality, ticket pricing for the AFLW should increase gradually and in accordance with the standard of the competition and level of widespread interest, and in doing so continue to encourage new fans to be drawn to the games.

Entry fees themselves do little in comparison to inject money back into the clubs and their players, however.

To supplement this, the AFL and its clubs should look to introducing affordable AFLW memberships which guarantee entry.

By doing so, revenue is guaranteed regardless of attendance, and it’s a method that will help to build loyalty throughout the clubs’ supporter base.

It’s easy to assume that many existing AFL supporters wouldn’t be as willing to pay for two separate memberships to their same club however, so including entry to AFLW games as a paid add-on to existing AFL club memberships seems like a more feasible alternative, as some clubs have already elected to do.

This system would also provide the league with an indication of the fans’ willingness to pay for AFLW games, and help demonstrate its growth potential.

Luckily, in Australia we can look to many strategies employed by other sporting leagues to promote professional women’s sport in traditionally male sporting codes, such as Cricket Australia’s domestic T20 competition.

Like the Big Bash League, the WBBL too has been an unprecedented hit with supporters.

Likely aided by the successes of the national women’s team and the competition’s increased free-to-air coverage on Network Ten, the remaining matches are also able to be streamed on the Cricket Australia LIVE app.

Now heading into its third season, the WBBL is also no stranger to the double-header concept, with 14 of the events featured over the course of last season.

A similar fixture will continue to be implemented throughout the upcoming tournaments, seemingly with one major difference.

Ticket prices in past seasons increased significantly from the standard price of a single men’s match for each double-header, and crowd numbers to the curtain-raiser women’s games fell well below what was likely expected, especially given the dominant turnouts of the subsequent men’s games (in 2016, 80,883 watched the first of two Melbourne derbies between the Star and the Renegades and the Melbourne Cricket Ground) and the consistently strong televised broadcast figures.

This season, tickets for the double-header matches will remain at the same cost of a single men’s game in the hopes of attracting significantly larger crowd numbers, and in turn encouraging fans to attend standalone WBBL matches at the various international and first-class grounds across the country.

Looking offshore, there’s a more radical ticket sales initiative that was trialled in Scotland.

In 2014, the Albion Rovers Football Club introduced a ‘pay what you can’ system after looking for a method to boost their supporter base.

Though the club admitted the scheme to be a huge risk, season ticket sales tripled in just five days following its launch.

While die-hard supporters continued to pay the usual full-fare of a match ticket, many were also purchased as donations and offered to local underprivileged children and schools.

The incentive, typically utilised in restaurants and at theatre events, was not designed to drastically increase the size of the club’s supporter base or the amount of money that the club generates in the short-term, but rather to raise the club’s profile and strengthen ties within the local community.

It’s an approach the AFL could well adopt in the hopes of generating further young female talent and present fans with a choice – morally as well as monetary – to offer their own contribution to the women’s game.

As stated previously however, ticket sales alone won’t guarantee the growth of the rapidly expanding competition.

As Girls Play Footy reported earlier this year, from 2018 television broadcast rights to the AFLW could be worth at least $20 million per season, following its staggering viewership this year.

The Seven Network and Foxtel currently only have to pay minimal broadcast production costs in order to televise the competition throughout the inaugural season, with a new deal set to significantly increase players’ salary.

As these pieces of the financial puzzle fall into place, with corporate sponsors also mounting around the league and individual clubs alike, the gender pay gap between the men’s and women’s leagues are set to close substantially.

For the game to evolve into a truly professional and successful sport, its participants – coaches, players, support staff – obviously need to be remunerated for their services and cannot rely on minimal pay and volunteer participants.

But as has always been the case, there’s so much more at stake in this deal, and the selflessness and forward-thinking women around the game recognise that they are forming the foundations of the league to ensure its longevity.

Though eventual ticket sales to AFLW games may do little to raise funding for the growth and development of the game, it’s important that fans continue to throw their support behind the competition, and paying for tickets is a small demonstration of their willingness to see just how far this league can evolve.

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