Paychecks from the Patriarchy

Subsidizing sports for women? That’s a man’s job, baby!

Media hype: Australian journalists are the biggest cheerleaders for women’s football.

Under pressure from feminists, the Australian Football League (AFL) last year agreed to subsidize a league for women, to be known as AFLW. There had previously been amateur women’s teams playing this unique Australian hybrid sport, but no professional teams. The reason was simply that there weren’t enough spectators or corporate sponsors to pay the bills.

Australian rules football is the second-most popular sport Down Under (cricket is more popular) and AFL games draw an average attendance of more than 30,000 fans, with many millions more watching on TV. Advertisers and corporate sponsors like Toyota make the AFL a lucrative venture. The average annual salary for a pro player is around $300,000 and, while the league doesn’t disclose salaries, top players reportedly make over $1 million a year.

Carlton Blues player Darcy Vescio boasted that women’s football will “smash the patriarchy” in Australia.

If there had been an enormous market demand for women’s football in Australia, economists might predict that some shrewd capitalist would have organized a women’s professional league and cashed in by selling tickets to fans and reaping revenue from advertisers, broadcasters and corporate sponsorship. Because that did not happen, we may conclude that market demand is insufficient to justify the AFLW, which is why the women’s league is being subsidized with money earned by the profit-making men’s league.

Sic semper hoc. Quite generally, women’s athletics suffer from a shortage of spectators. Women’s tennis is popular, and the Olympic competition in women’s gymnastics and figure-skating draws a wide viewership, but in terms of professional team sports, women’s leagues are not profitable.

Explaining market economics to feminists is a futile exercise, perhaps. Feminist theory always sees a patriarchal conspiracy in any circumstance where inequality exists between men and women (except, of course, in those situations where women enjoy some advantage over men). Therefore, it was predictable that, after the AFL was bullied into subsidizing a women’s professional league, feminists decried the low pay of AFLW players.

“In 2017, there is no excuse for not paying players a full-time, living wage,” declared Sydney Morning Herald columnist Erin Riley. “After all, it’s the only way the competition will be truly competitive.”

Media enthusiasm for the AFLW’s first season, which kicked off last month, has been extraordinary. With a hyperbolic blitzkrieg of free publicity, the league’s opening game in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton drew nearly 25,000 spectators. However, tickets for this season’s AFLW games are free, whereas fans pay more than $50 to attend a men’s league game. Since the early wave of media hype for women’s football has faded, so also has attendance at games for the eight-team league. The Carlton team’s second home game drew fewer than 8,000 attendees, and when Carlton played an away game March 10 against Fremantle (a suburb of Perth), only 1,200 spectators showed up. Average attendance at AFLW games the weekend of March 10–12 was a mere 3,300, with a Saturday game in Melbourne being the only game to draw more than 5,000, even with free admission.

We can predict the feminist reaction: Blame patriarchy! And also, we might expect, heteronormative oppression will figure in feminism’s explanation for the failure of women’s football to flourish Down Under.

“My research demonstrated there are a lot of women who play football who identify as lesbian, ” Dr. Kellie Sanders told an Australian Broadcasting Company reporter. Dr. Sanders knows what she’s talking about. She has played football as an amateur for 10 years, and teaches at Deakin University. This is the summary paragraph of her 2015 research paper on the subject:

Relationships between girls and women have typically been explored through the lexicon of ‘friendship’ or, where there is a presence of sexual desire, ‘lesbian’. This article suggests the complexity and impact of female (same-sex) sociality, and its relationship to heteronormativity and power dynamics between girls and women runs deeper than the terms ‘friendship’ or ‘lesbian’ give rise to. Exploring social and power dynamics amongst girls and women, this article explores how gender is policed and negotiated within a framework of homosociality. Drawing on empirical research within a women’s Australian Rules football team, I explore the complexity of female same-sex bonds, the negotiation of gender embodiment and performance within female homosocial spaces, and the emergence of women’s own lexicons in making sense of their relationships with other women in this particular social sphere, further considering how this might be applied to other female homosocial spaces, including same-sex educational and sporting sites.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand what Dr. Sanders is describing in her academic jargon. Female footballers are often more than just teammates, and lesbianism in women’s athletics is not merely a sexist stereotype. Whether it’s because female athletes don’t like men, or vice-versa, the farther up the competitive ladder one ascends in women’s sports, the less heterosexuality one finds. Here in the United States, the situation in women’s university athletics is such that “varsity softball player” is nearly a synonym for lesbian. So many WNBA players are openly gay that it is almost shocking to discover that there are any heterosexual women in the league.

Of course, the feminists behind women’s football in Australia were aware of such stereotypes, and their eagerness to promote a “mainstream” image for AFLW could be construed as a concession to homophobes.

Dr. Sanders noticed that the league’s marketing featured “fairly feminine presenting” women. “I think the AFL tend to roll with a mainstream heteronormative of what constitutes gender … you see it in the men’s league as well — there is no consideration of homosexuality,” she told ABC reporter Kellie Scott.

There are no openly gay male players in Australian professional football, but at least two of the AFLW players — Collingwood’s Penny Cula-Reid and Melbourne’s Mia-Rae Clifford — are romantic teammates off the field.

No one claims AFLW is an acronym for “Awesome Football Lesbian Women,” but on the other hand, a Google search won’t find many names of the league’s top players connected with the words “boyfriend” or “husband.” More relevant to the AFLW’s future, however, Australian media’s gushing publicity for the women’s league isn’t enough to make the game commercially viable. The only reason women are getting paid to play is because the men’s league in Australia was more or less blackmailed into subsidizing women’s football.

Carlton AFLW fans wear shirts inspired by Darcy Vescio.

Carlton’s 23-year star player Darcy Vescio boasted on her Instagram page that the women’s league was “gonna smash the patriarchy,” which prompted a Melbourne designer, Erica Boucher, to create a T-shirt with that slogan. Vescio was certainly smashing in the season opener, kicking four goals to lead the Carlton Blues to victory over the Collingwood Magpies. Yet that game could never have been played — women’s pro football would not exist in Australia — if the men who run the AFL hadn’t agreed to subsidize it. Has any reporter in Australia asked why the patriarchy is paying for itself to be smashed?


Robert Stacy McCain is the author of Sex Trouble: Radical Feminism and the War Against Human Nature. A journalist for more than 30 years, he is a correspondent for The American Spectator and blogs regularly at The Other McCain. His ongoing research and reporting about feminism have been sponsored by blog readers’ contributions to the Shoe Leather Fund.