Gendering the Australian Sports Market

The aim of my research

No elite level women’s team sport has been successfully commercialised in Australia. Politicians and sports administrators tend to blame the media for that failure. Former Sports Minister Lundy calls it a vicious cycle, poor media coverage makes it almost impossible for women’s sport to attract sponsors, which limits the revenue available for developing a sports entertainment product, and prevents (most) women from earning a living wage as professional athletes. I don’t want to minimise that argument, but I wonder if it hides a problem with the way our National Sporting Organisations are governed. I researched Basketball Australia to find out.

The 1940s-1950s – it’s a man’s world!

In this period men were breadwinners, working to provide for their dependent wives and children. Women were housewives, dedicated to maintaining the family home and raising children. Not surprisingly, basketball was developed as a game for men, and controlled by men. Women, when they were eventually allowed to play sanctioned basketball, played ‘men’s rules basketball’. While Basketball Australia agreed that a women’s committee could organise competitions, it was men who controlled the high profile duties, deciding whether a women’s team would compete in the world championships, national team selections, organising state championships, and communicating with the international administrator FIBA, including the International Women’s Commission.

The 1980s-1990s – were sisters really doing it for themselves?

It looked like the women’s movement of the 1970s had changed things. Men and women were playing basketball in equal numbers, and Basketball Australia had approved an elite level women’s competition. The President of Basketball Australia was saying the right things too; “The Women’s National League…is equally important as the Men’s League” (1984 Annual Report) and, “our sport has to be progressed in the Women’s and Men’s sectors on an equal basis” (1985 Annual Report). But there was nothing equal about it. While the Men’s League (NBL) was promoted for its athleticism, sex appeal was used to market the Women’s League (WNBL). The athletes wore lycra bodysuits, and promotional material displayed the curved lines on a basketball as a female body. In exchange for decent venues and broadcasting equipment, the WNBL  also became the opening act for the NBL. Women’s basketball skills were made invisible through distraction and comparison.

Screen Shot 2013-11-16 at 5.03.50 PM

Source: WNBL 1998/99 Annual Report

The Annual Reports explain the different motivations for establishing the elite leagues. The NBL was there to build a profitable and professional national sports entertainment product to showcase basketball (1984/85/88). While the WNBL was there as a feeder league to; “assist with the preparation of the Australian national teams” (1993). Basketball Australia was supporting Australian, rather than Women’s, basketball.

The 21st century – deja vu!

Contemporary feminism’s focus on gender diversity, to challenge traditional hierarchies of power, looked to have been embraced by Basketball Australia. Female directors, including as Chairperson, and a female CEO in 2012, were a good sign. When you look closely though, the value of that diversity has been constrained. In 2001, the WNBL was subordinated through an organisational restructure. It reported to the Competition Manager, who reported to a General Manager, who reported to the CEO, who reported to the Board, while the NBL Commissioner reported directly to the Board. A legal restructure during 2007-2009 also marginalised the WNBL. The constitution of Basketball Australia made the development of the NBL and WNBL a moral rather than legal obligation, so the ability to influence the Board became important. It defines the WNBL as a stakeholder, and the NBL and State Associations as voting members. That means that the NBL, and State Associations, can elect and appoint directors, and guide the strategy, priorities, and budgets of Basketball Australia. While the WNBL can exchange views with the directors once a year.

The implications of my research

This continuous culture of sexism within Basketball Australia makes it appropriate to consider its strategy and decisions in the context of gender. In 2009/10 the Chairperson said, “The key to progressing our sport is through commercialisation…the NBL has therefore been a priority as it is our showcase and our public barometer”. Basketball Australia has actively managed the NBL towards the sports entertainment market. It has worked with the NBL to generate revenue from corporate sponsors; broadcast rights; and merchandising. It manages the NBL on a self funding basis, so all of the revenue is used to develop the NBL’s sports entertainment product and to pay its players. In contrast, Basketball Australia has passively managed the WNBL towards the community market. It has focused on sponsorships that reduce the cost of running the WNBL rather than those that raise revenue; it encourages an amateur ethos, emphasising loyalty, and the prospect of lucrative overseas contracts, rather than paying players a living wage; and it depends on free media publicity rather than funding promotion. Basketball Australia has effectively gendered the sports market, to the detriment of the WNBL.

Change change change?

Focusing on the media’s discriminatory treatment of women’s sport is therefore unlikely to result in the successful commercialisation of the WNBL. Basketball Australia’s culture and governance also need to change. Maybe change is on the way – here’s what Basketball Australia said a few weeks ago about its plans for the WNBL. Have a listen and let me know what you think.

Further Reading

For the different techniques of domination and control experienced by women’s elite sport:

Hjelm, Jonny, and Eva Olofddom, ‘A breakthrough: Women’s football in Sweden,’ Soccer and Society, 4:2-3, (2003), pp.182-204.

Stronarch, Megan, and Daryl Adair, ‘‘Brave new world’ or ‘sticky wicket’? Women, management and organisational power in Cricket Australia,’ Sport in Society, (Vol.12, No.7, September, 2009), pp.910-932.

Taylor, Tracy, ‘Gendering Sport: The Development of Netball in Australia,’ Sporting Traditions, Vol. 18 No.1, (November, 2001), pp.57-74.

For an analysis of different kinds of sports market spaces:

Stewart and Aaron Smith, ‘Australian sport in a postmodern age,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, (17:2-3, 2000),pp.278-304.


6 comments on “Gendering the Australian Sports Market

  1. Really interesting topic, Jodie. I agree that there is a propensity to blame poor media coverage for the lack of commercialisation. Undoubtedly, the relative lack of coverage doesn’t help in terms of recognising female sporting achievements and providing role models to younger players, but there are other areas that require improvement.

    I’d be interested to know whether there has been much research conducted on NSO governance specifically relating to female sport?

    Most NSOs are aware that they need to attract females to their sport, but many fail to back it up with genuine reforms. Earlier this year, Cricket Australia implemented a payment program (similar to netball), but most other NSOs are quite behind.

    Also, great to read the background information on the development of women’s basketball – interesting to see the correlation between the women’s movement and changes made by Basketball Australia during the 1980s and 1990s.

    • Hi Edwina, thanks for your feedback. The only research I could find for NSO’s administration of women’s sport in australia was cricket and netball – they’re listed in the further reading list. What’s especially annoying about BA is that they get recognised for being ‘forward looking’ in their governance, especially in relation to leadership diversity.

  2. Hi there,

    I also agree that there needs to be a change in the way women’s sports are treated in Australia. The only sport that I can think of that treats the sponsoring of both male and female sport equally is tennis. I think the popularity of a sport plays a huge role in determining who will sponsor a certain sport or team and what station will air it on their station. I find it extremely sad that there is little or nor recognition of all the hard work women do to reach the professional level of any sport, and once they get there they can barely live off the income they are given.

    • Hi Andjelina, thanks for your comment. I think tennis is really interesting, the women took control of ‘their sport’ when they corporatized the WTA back in the 1970s, and it partnered with the grand slam tournaments – negotiating over time for equal prize money. Of course they don’t get equal prize money or media coverage for non grand slam tournaments. It appears that the individual sports like tennis, golf, & surfing get better media attention and sponsorship than team sports. I’m not sure what to make of that.

  3. jonathannicoll says:

    Hi Jodie,

    Your topic caught my eye (being an avid basketball fan) and was very thought provoking about the double standards that exist in many Australian sports. Around the world there is a lack of acknowledgement for women’s sport in comparison to many of the men’s sporting teams. AS you said in your piece much of the women’s sport is then marketed (the small amount that it is marketed) by trying to show this sex appeal rather than the actual skills and talents of the women. I find it rather odd that these skills are not put on display more often in the marketing scheme, as you will be searching long and hard to try and find a male equivalent of an Ellyse Perry, plays both Australian cricket and soccer, in men’s sporting life. I think that it’s a good move by Basketball Australia in acknowledging that they are going to take small steps forwards to try and build up the brand of WNBL.

    Thank you for a good read and fingers crossed that Basketball Australia makes the right moves to try and promote this sport as much as possible.

    • Hi Jonathan,
      You’re right about the unexploited potential of women’s sport and athletes in Australia. Hopefully BA’s renewed energy and the ASC women’s unit led by John Wylie will drive positive change.

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