Sport used to be a highly segregated arena, with some strictly men-only activities and more genteel ones deemed suitable for women. In England, women were actually banned by the Football Association from playing soccer in 1921. This ban was not lifted until 1971, and it has taken a long time for the female game to gain recognition.
Aussie Rules has always been more accommodating. The first female matches started in the late 19th century as charity events and exhibition games. Regular competitions were being played post World War II, and state-based leagues were set up towards the end of the 20th century. In 2010 a national league was established, and 18 teams now compete. It is now the most played and watched form of football in Australia, with more than half a million players. AFLW is now more popular than soccer and has average audience attendance of around 7,000 people. In addition, there are over two million people who watch on TV. People who like to participate in online betting in Australia can wager on the women playing Aussie Rules.
Australia now has seven professional women’s sports leagues. Like AFLW, women’s cricket has large audiences, stand-alone sponsorships and broadcast revenue. The cricket league is called The Rebel Women’s Big Bash, its matches are popular, and participation in cricket amongst young girls is on the rise. Interest in women’s sports grows when they are talked about more and seen on free-to-air TV stations. Women and young girls see themselves participating in high-level sports and realize they can participate too. Currently, many women’s sports are buried behind paywalls on subscription channels. However, social media has significantly impacted the popularity of women’s sports, with coverage on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
However, sport is not all about ratings and audience numbers – even though that is what attracts money and sponsorship to it. Participation is more than training and winning against another side for many women. Sometimes the battle is against nature and yourself. When Covid forced professionals to work from home, there was a massive spike in female participation in surfing. A group of young Sydney lawyers started to meet up and take on the challenges of the sea. Surfing was one of the fastest-growing participation sports during the pandemic. Over 196,000 people aged fifteen or over tried it for the first time, according to the Australian Sports Commission.
Swimming has always been popular amongst Australian women, and its popularity has been reflected in international competition success from The Olympics to Commonwealth Games and The World Championships. Australian women’s swimming participation has remained relatively stable, but the significant change is where people are taking their dip. In 2019 34% of swimmers took to the ocean, but this was up to 42% in 2021. More people are also using private/backyard pools rather than public pools for exercise. This is undoubtedly a direct result of the pandemic, and it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. Indeed, wild swimming is gaining in popularity around the world and is regarded as both a physical and social activity for many women. For example, in the UK, where the seas are colder, groups of swimmers called The Blue Tits meet up around the coast all year round.
Impact of Covid-19
Because men are more likely than women to be involved in club sports, their activity was more negatively impacted by Covid-19 than women’s sports. The most recent stats show that women are currently physically more active than men. Participation in physical activity was up in the population as a whole, but this was driven by women. Many women said that the national lockdown had allowed them more time during the day. In addition, many women took up non-club activities like yoga, pilates and general ‘keep fit’ activities. 28% of Australian women are reported to participate in physical activity seven days a week compared to 24% of men. However, only 15% of women’s participation in sports is at the club level compared to 28% of men.