John Hewson
Give women a sporting chance

The phenomenon of the Matildas clearly caught our political leaders off guard, leading to a series of attempts to clamber on, if not capitalise on, the bandwagon.

Their ascendance in the competition launched an auction between the national leaders, with a flurry of offers of financial support for women’s sport. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton went first, launching with a “dunny bid” to commit $250 million for toilets and change rooms. Dutton couldn’t seem to shake himself free of the Morrison-era “sports rorts” language that proposed facilities for girls who had been forced to use men’s change rooms or “to change out the back of the shed”, as the former prime minister put it. Given the huge amount Morrison spent, such facilities could have been built several times over already.

Two state governments, New South Wales and Queensland, offered to erect tributes in the form of a mural at Sydney’s Stadium Australia and a statue at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, respectively.

And Prime Minister Anthony Albanese responded with $200 million for women’s sport. The details of how that money will be allocated are not yet decided, but it’s to go towards improved facilities and equipment, as well as sponsoring grassroots efforts to recruit and support girls and women in sport, and to make women’s matches available on free-to-air television.

It is a very important question, how to best spend money on sport (perhaps the players should be consulted).

Earlier this year, I attended an address at the National Press Club by Matt Carroll, currently the chief executive of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and one of our most experienced sports administrators, having held senior positions with NSW and Australian rugby, what was then Football Federation Australia, and Australian Sailing. The thrust of his remarks was to urge governments to consider sports funding as an investment.

He made two significant claims. First, he said, “our analysis, undertaken in conjunction with our member sports, shows that based on the federal government’s forward estimates, there is a $2 billion shortfall in direct investment in Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports in the 10 years leading to Brisbane 2032.”

Second, he said, “successive national sports plans under successive national governments of different political persuasions have done nothing to address the investment in sport to achieve the opportunities for the Australian community that they identified. The plans were without a means. At best, you could call them ‘aspirational plans’.”

Carroll’s speech was pretty much a blueprint for effective sports funding. To be clear, he was not seeking investment on behalf of the AOC, which is independently funded. He spoke with the experience of the committee, and its success in working with individual sports, in athlete development and medal tallies, in winning major events, in developing relationships with governments, schools and Indigenous communities and much more.

Carroll was at pains to emphasise sports needed a “strong and receptive partnership with the federal government”. A submission from the AOC and Commonwealth Games Australia to the government in May 2021, he said, advocated for “the sport industry to be embraced by governments in Australia as an economic portfolio”, and preferably with a specific ministry and department, not amalgamated with some other challenging area as has been done with aged care in recent years.

“We do not want to be the portfolio of marginal seats and political photo opportunities. We do not enjoy being the portfolio of coloured spreadsheets or whiteboards mapping electorates,” he said.

“As an industry sector we are fiscal contributors to the nation’s wellbeing through the critical role sport plays in our collective health, addressing the nation’s obesity crisis, chronic diseases, mental health and personal development. All issues … critical to the productivity of Australia’s economy.”

The success of the World Cup and the Matildas demonstrates Carroll’s point that “sport delivers economy-building major events, tourism, hospitality, infrastructure, research, and something that is most important, sporting excellence, building national pride and international status” – not to mention participation and aspiration.

Where to from here? Carroll emphasised, beyond the role of the AOC, it must begin with governments – all three tiers – recognising the role of sport and committing resources and investment. He laid out the key elements of a plan. What is needed from the federal government is a clear articulation of a national purpose for the sports industry. This should become the reference point against which all policy initiatives are tested – does the initiative deliver against the purpose?

Carroll has suggested the following critical elements of such a statement. First, acceptance and recognition of “the independence and autonomy of sports organisations” – which the Olympic movement describes as “responsible autonomy”. Second, a commitment “to a diversity of sports” that reflect both our multicultural nation and that of our Asian neighbours. Third, a commitment to sport “as a great enabler for people with a disability”. He also advocated embedding sport in the school curriculum, a recognition of sport’s contribution to community through active lifestyles, promoting social cohesion and mental wellbeing, and its capacity to create a unifying sense of national pride.

It should also be acknowledged that sportspeople provide inspiration, particularly Paralympians and Indigenous sporting stars. The final critical element was recognition that “sporting organisations understand their sport business best” and are best placed to develop and deliver the necessary results.

The big political announcements to date lack detail, but the government’s pledge for increased funding was for all women’s sport and not just football. Of course, the community expectation is that the money will back some specific initiatives to increase women’s participation. For this objective there are two models. In Europe, clubs pay fees to compete and raise sponsorship to cover their costs. In Australia, it’s pay to play.

Along with the Matildas, the Socceroos also clearly expect an increase in funding. From my experience in soccer administration, building from the grassroots by encouraging much greater participation is crucial.

And the Matildas star striker, Sam Kerr, has already declared plans to help do just that. This week she announced an Australian academy, Sam Kerr Football, for girls and boys aged from 3 to 14, which she aims to have up and running next year.

At the beginning of the Matildas’ World Cup quest, I posted on what is now known as X, expressing the view that the team should be entitled to equal pay, on par with the Socceroos. The response was staggering. More than 90 per cent of comments were negative, questioning the justification of such a move. It seemed to be purely ignorance and misogyny driving these responses.

The claim that the Matildas couldn’t draw the crowds or attract enough advertising revenue was the common theme. Talkback radio was full of condescending rhetoric along the lines of, “Great girls, good to see them trying so hard, but at the end of the day…” I wouldn’t be surprised if these commentators found themselves at the games, in the VIP suites above an 80,000-strong crowd, quaffing craft beers and scoffing mini dim sims, mulling over how badly they’d got it wrong.

The advertising dollars missed here would not be insignificant. Perhaps a rethink to allow more broadcasting of women’s sport in prime time needs to happen. Maybe half the country isn’t invested in sitting around most of the summer watching men’s Test cricket… Who knew?

John Hewson is chair of the Australian Olympic Foundation’s Investment Advisory Committee, which manages the independent funding of the AOC.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "A sporting chance".

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