Australian sports go in search of female fans

Female fans of Australia's national football team show their support during a friendly against South Africa in Sydney - 26 May 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australia's top sports have realised that getting more female spectators makes economic sense

In an increasingly ferocious fight for audiences, Australia's professional sports world is looking to women to increase viewers and funding.

"Normalising" the role of women in professional sport - whether as players, spectators or club and competition officials - makes business sense, a sports conference held in Sydney last week has heard.

Cricket, for example, risks becoming a dying sport if a new and bigger audience isn't embraced.

Senior manager of Cricket Australia's Big Bash League (BBL) Anthony Everard told the Asia Pacific World Sport and Women Conference (APWSW) that T20, a shorter and faster version of Australia's so-called favourite sport, was specifically introduced to attract women, children and a wider ethnic mix to cricket.

He said the aim was to make BBL a "favourite form of entertainment for families" by attracting women who may have never attended a cricket match.

Football is also looking to women for a fresh impetus, says David Gallop, chief executive of the Football Federation Australia (FFA). He told the conference there has been a spike in women playing in over-35 competitions.

Women are attracted to soccer because it is a game where you "play the ball not the man" and in which physical and body shape are no barrier to entry.

"We want women and girls to feel the same as men," Mr Gallop says.

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Image caption Cricket officials say the T20 version of the game was partly introduced to attract women

The FFA is trying to make the environment at A-League matches more female- and family-friendly, but Mr Gallop admits the atmosphere at games has received a "bad rap", thanks to some violence between rival teams.

The FFA is also promoting young female stars from the top division of women's association football in Australia, the W-League, and structuring economically family-friendly membership packages for both the men's and women's competitions, he says.

Australian Rugby Union's (ARU) chief executive officer Bill Pulver admits there are too many men dominating sport at all levels.

Mr Pulver's attendance at the conference followed recent news that Wallabies player Kurtley Beale had sent a sexually degrading text message to the national team's former business manager Di Patston. Ms Patston resigned and Beale was fined A$45,000 (£25,000; $40,000).

Delegates were impressed Mr Pulver attended the conference but they were critical of the ARU's handling of the crisis, because Ms Patston lost her job while Mr Beale kept his position in the Wallabies.

Mr Pulver says Australia's women's Sevens team is the ARU's most successful, ranked number two in the world, but admits this has not been well advertised.

And although the ARU has two female board members out of seven, Mr Pulver says he has yet to see a single woman in the room among the 27 members at International Rugby Board council meetings.

'No brainer'

Getting more women involved in sport is a "no brainer", he says.

"The economic benefit of normalising women's roles in our game is enormous. We want to create an inclusive rugby community."

Chasing female eyeballs and dollars is a matter of economic survival, agrees managing director of sporting equipment company Rebel Sport and the sole female board member at A-League club Sydney FC, Erica Berchtold.

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Image caption The Australian women's Sevens team won gold at the Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing this summer

"It makes sense to target women because women make so many of the household decisions about spending and family outings," says Ms Berchtold.

Following an Australian government decision to set a target of a minimum of 40% of Commonwealth boards being female by 2015, the Australian Sports Commission has determined that national sports organisations should "seek to achieve a target of 40% female representation over a similar timeframe".

The top seven sports that receive more than A$5m in government funding each year risk losing up to 20% of that funding if they do not comply.

Sports that do not reflect the values of their sponsors also risk losing financial support if they fail to embrace gender diversity, says Johanna Adriaanse, an APWSW conference speaker and co-chair of the International Working Group on Women in Sport.

Cricket Australia, the ARU and the FFA have one or two female board members each. Ms Adriaanse says that based on international corporate governance, one or two women is not acceptable.

"One female board member is token, two is a minority, three starts to change the conversation," she says. "A minimum of three is a critical mass of women that can influence the culture of the organisation."

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