Newly rebranded and toned down, the Legends (cough, Lingerie) Football League, which kicked off on Saturday night in Melbourne, seems to have struck a nerve. Suffice to say, if every letter writer, Twitter linker and petition signee translated into a bum on a seat at a women’s soccer or cricket match, their athletes would be well on the way to earning a liveable wage.
Consensus has it that the LFL not only constitutes a form of spiritual liposuction, but is emblematic of a country where organised sport is perched high on the misogynistic tree. The LFL however, is the symptom, not the malaise. It what’s we get when the Federal Government, the Australian Sports Commission and our national sporting organisations drop their respective balls. It reflects a nation of women increasingly disinclined to compete in, volunteer at and fork out money to watch traditional sports. To ignore this and to zero in on the garter belts, the yahoos in the commentary box and the half-soused punters in the crowd, is to miss the point spectacularly.
The ASC, which recently bemoaned corporate Australia’s lack of support for our female athletes, refuses to recognise Lingerie Football as a legitimate sport. But they – and the sporting organisations that come under its auspices – are equally loath to recognise their own failings when it comes to women’s sport. The Federal Government, which took six years to respond to a Senate report into the state of women’s sport in Australia, also stands accused.
The high drop-out rate of teenage girls in sport, the dearth of women on sporting Boards and the general health and fitness of the nation have never been ASC priorities. Their focus is on winning medals and producing world champions. This tunnel vision means they have lost touch with their grass roots. In the coming months, hundreds of thousands of Australian girls and women will line up for fun runs, open water swims, group bike rides and triathlons. But their links to the governing bodies of those sports will be tenuous at best. The potential talent pathways, commercial opportunities and incentive for TV networks to give these sports more airtime will thus be lost.
Suffice to say, if every letter writer, Twitter linker and petition signee translated into a bum on a seat at a women’s soccer or cricket match, their athletes would be well on the way to earning a liveable wage.
This disconnect between the rank and file and our governing bodies continues to manifest. The way Australians exercise, particularly its women, has changed markedly. ABS statistics tell us that the boom sporting/fitness activity over the last decade has been in gym training. Many of the larger fitness centres boast childcare facilities, women’s only areas and one-on-one training. They, more so than our sporting clubs, have tapped into what people really want. Likewise, there’s been an explosion in non-mainstream pursuits such as Tough Mudder, the Spartan Race and Crossfit. For years, our national sporting organisations looked down on these ‘fast food’ sports. But they offer an interesting contrast. They market themselves shrewdly and manage to make women feel empowered and welcomed. There are some incredible stories in their ranks. Deanna Blegg, one of Australia’s finest endurance athletes and this year’s Tough Mudder winner, has lived most of her adult life with HIV.
But surely, the critics howl, this is a top-down problem, with television setting the national sporting tone? Indeed, if your daughter is blessed with a semblance of sporting talent, it would be disheartening to come home from a netball game, athletics carnival or swim meet and behold the LFL frat party on 7-Mate.
But there are bigger issues to ponder. Whether you’re the Sports Minister, a male sports nut or a woman who couldn’t give two hoots about sport, everyone has a role to play. Even, perish the thought, men like Mitch Mortaza, the founder of the LFL. Reptilian as he is, women’s sport needs more people with his entrepreneurial flair. With sport increasingly at the mercy of clicks, advertising revenue and market forces, we need to think outside the square and position women’s sport differently. We need marketing directors, TV producers and CEOs of national sporting organisations with an appetite for risk. We need to appeal to the better angels of the male nature, whilst producing a product that is empowering, inclusive and palatable to women.
Men are central to changing the national sporting mindset. It can be as significant as a coterie group opting not to bankroll an AFL player’s rape trial after all. Or it can be simple as a journalist resisting the urge to unpack the adjectives and describe world champions as ‘glamour girls’ and ‘statuesque’. We need to chip away at a sporting culture dominated by our male football codes. In a country where maternity wards, birth notices, bumper stickers, work pods and funeral caskets are plastered with footy paraphernalia, it’s a colossal but not insurmountable challenge.
Women too, can affect bottom up change. The best way to support women’s sport is to actually show up and help out. More Australian women attend motor sport and harness racing than tennis or netball. What’s more, just 4% of girls/women over 15 are involved in a non-playing capacity, whether as a coach, scorer, timekeeper or administrator. Rather than scouring the sports pages for discrepancies or penning withering editorials anytime some dinosaur commentator makes a sexist remark, women need to buy tickets, join clubs, click on positive news stories and support our champions in a proactive and meaningful way.
Things change. In my lifetime, women weren’t allowed to run marathons, saddle up on Australian racetracks and step into boxing rings. But some things – the missed opportunities, the pointed fingers, the shrugged shoulders, the outrage and the Government recommendations gathering dust – stay the same. In the absence of anything proactive, we get the Legends Football League. As is generally the case with Australian TV, we invariably get what we deserve.