The AFLW and NRLW have taken different approaches in their early years. But 30 years from now it won’t matter how they started, only that they did, writes PAMELA WHALEY.
There is no right or wrong way for sports to develop a women’s competition. Thirty years from now, it won’t matter how it started, who recruited which superstar athlete or even how good the competition is in 2022 (even though it is excellent).
It’ll only matter that investment was a priority.
The NRLW has been around for five years and on Sunday two new teams will face off for their first premiership.
That alone demonstrates the growth and development of the women’s game in such a short amount of time, considering the quality of the competition has improved exponentially too.
It’s been a balancing act the NRL has managed imperfectly but successfully amid two Covid-impacted seasons and the addition of three new clubs to the competition in the past two years.
Newcastle and Parramatta were rushed into the competition last season when it was decided that the NRLW should expand from four to six teams for 2021.
Because of the limited lead in time, recruitment was hurried and difficult with players having already given their verbal agreements to existing clubs.
The NRL knew this, and to make the three new NRLW teams (including the Gold Coast) competitive, they introduced a salary cap and marquee system that financially rewarded the best players in the game for moving to new clubs. There was a lot of pushback at the time from players who did not want to move clubs, but over time it has encouraged a fairer and more even playing field in the women’s game.
Because to the head office, maintaining the quality of the competition has been the main priority for developing the NRLW product. A slow and steady build has been the backbone of the process. And in Sunday’s grand final we’re seeing the direct, short-term pay off.
For this season, the Knights were able to aggressively recruit by bringing both Southwell sisters Jesse and Hannah on board, as well as representative stars Tamika Upton and Millie Boyle. And as a result, the team has gone from last in the 2021 season to a genuine premiership powerhouse and favorites in the NRLW decider.
The Eels went about it in a slightly different way, developing a strong culture and building their team over the past year or so.
They recruited gun fullback Gayle Broughton from the New Zealand rugby sevens, with the enticement of a good culture and quality competition to play in. And in this game she’s been a revelation. Her ball-playing skills, speed and finesse have added a new level of excitement to the NRLW. Same with Jesse Southwell at the Knights, or Emma Tonegato at St George Illawarra, and several other cross-code players that the NRLW considers a huge win in its development plans for the sport.
Pathways are obviously important for the long-term and sustained success of the sport, but in the short term, being able to attract full-time athletes into a part-time professional system is crucial. And it’s only possible if the standard of the competition remains high.
So far, that has been the case for women’s rugby league due to the slow growth of the game. Five years ago the NRLW started off with four teams, expanded to six last season and next year will see a new competition with 10 clubs competing. Cronulla, North Queensland, Canberra and Wests Tigers have all been granted licenses to join from 2023. The door is open for more clubs to join in 2024.
From the NRL’s point of view, the key to making it work long term is maintaining a high quality, exciting competition that fans want to watch and professional athletes want to play.
But others may see it differently. Plenty have criticized the NRLW for being slow to expand compared to other sports in Australia.
Rival code AFLW went about creating a women’s league in a more aggressive way, with more clubs but less talent development, which means the standard will take longer to increase over the coming seasons.
They started with eight teams in 2017 and have expanded quickly to 18 for the current 2022 season.
The sport has copped its share of criticism recently from small-minded folk who can’t see the bigger picture, or won’t be around to eat humble pie when it all pays off.
Because when it comes to creating a women’s competition in a men’s space, competing for broadcasting and sponsorship dollars, there is no right or wrong way to go about it.
Play the long game or go hard early – it doesn’t really matter. The point is not what is happening now, but rather what will the future look like?
Think for a moment about what women’s sport will look like decades from now for either code. There will be women’s teams for each club and the pathways will be solid and thriving.
Growing participation numbers across the country tell us that.
No matter how the NRLW or AFLW competitions were started, the talent at the top will be elite – full of athletes who have had quality training from a young age, free to develop their skills and progress through a system that encourages them to succeed. Just like the men have always had.
Eventually, broadcasters will have to get on board as viewership increases too, and it will become the norm for sports-loving households to watch their team – men’s or women’s – on the weekend.
It’s not a utopian vision. This will be the reality.
Within the space of an NRLW season the Knights and the Eels have shown us that anything is possible and no suffering is forever. Development in this ever-evolving sport is quick.
Thirty years from now, it won’t matter how they got there, only that it got started.