Opinion

Wanna make the world a better place? Watch the footy on TV

Close to two million people tuned into the first match of the women’s State of Origin on Thursday night.

The match reached 1.98 million viewers, with an average audience of 941,000 for the two-hour broadcast. Over a quarter-of-a-million of those even stuck around for the post-match wrap-up – which, given it is just commentators summarising the game we all just finished watching, is pretty impressive, all told.

It certainly trounced the AFL’s Thursday night game over on Seven, which had an average audience of 561,000. In fact, the women’s Origin was second only to Seven News in the ratings for the evening. And Seven News beats everything, every night. Therefore, like The Simpsons and The Beatles, it is an outlier and doesn’t count. So, the women’s footy won the ratings! Yay!

The live game itself (it’s not just a TV show!) at Suncorp Stadium had record attendance of 25,492 – an incredible turnout, especially given it’s a school night.

This is all very good news for Nine, because this is the first ever three-game women’s State of Origin series. All three games will be aired free-to-air, live, in prime time – and will prove to be yet another ratings smash for women’s sport on Australian commercial TV. Sorry if that sounds like an ad. This next part won’t. 

Since coming under the NRL banner and rebranding as State of Origin in 2018, the Women’s NSW vs QLD grudge was decided by a single yearly match. Last year, someone in their wisdom decided to expand this out — into a best-of-two series.

Now, as it turns out, two is quite a neatly divisible number, and NSW and QLD won one match each, leading to the 2023 series being decided by points. 

QLD won the first match, then NSW won the second game to tie the series – thrilling! — after which QLD won the series, on points… cue both teams displaying a curious mix of joy and defeat. It made for confusing and deflating television.

Not this year, though. Record attendance, ratings success. Best of three – which is a saying for a reason. 

Earlier this week, as part of the pre-Origin promotion, player Maddie Studdon was on Today, reminiscing about that inaugural 2018 State of Origin match, where she captained NSW to victory.

In order to clinch that historic victory, Studdon was forced to quit her job at the Port Botany wharves, where her bosses – who weren’t the NRLW, by the way, but some wharfies – were sick of her taking time off from driving trucks in order to compete at an elite level in front of tens of thousands of screaming footy fans. So, they gave her an ultimatum.

As she tells it: “It was hard to get time off work for so many rugby league commitments. It was a good job on the wharves in Sydney, I loved it out there but it was so hard to juggle the shift work with footy.”

With the women’s national championship and the first ever State of Origin falling in the same calendar month, “I wasn’t too sure if they would let me then have the time off for State of Origin.

“I had a meeting – I went in not knowing if they were going to sack me. With Origin coming up, wanting to go into it with a clear mind, I resigned instead.”

Here’s a photo of her decision paying off.

Not financially, mind. And, of course, the decision shouldn’t have had to be made. Reaching the pinnacle of a sport that draws massive paying crowds and TV audiences alike – or keeping the job you need in order to survive.

Things are getting better, though.

Last season, the NRLW players all signed a $6 million collective bargaining agreement, the first of its kind in the league, that will see the minimum wage for each player hit just over $50,000 a season by 2027 – that figure currently sits at $34,000. I said ‘better’, not ‘good’. Not by any stretch.

Last season, the average wage for NRLW players was $37,500. This is what’s known in certain circles as Baker’s-Delight-in-1999-a-few-arvos-after-school-type-money. 

Sadly, as the NRL acknowledge, albeit boastfully, this level of pay “puts the game’s female stars in a similar or better position to their counterparts in most other Australian sports”.

Kalyn Ponga, the highest paid player in the NRL, gets pays over $58,000 each game. Each game. 

None of this is new, of course. But the quickest, surefire way these NRLW salaries will start rising and approaching anything within passing distance of parity is through TV ratings. So, it’s great that we are all tuning in.

When NFL and NBA TV rights exploded in the US during the 1990s, so did player salaries. This model has been replicated in every successful domestic sporting league in the world. Including the NRL. Including the AFL. Which the NRLW beat in TV ratings this week, remember? 

This week, the ACMA released figures showing that commercial TV stations in Australia paid 17% more for sporting rights in 2023 than they did in 2022. Considering this is an Olympic year, this figure will leap again. The NRL is currently pulling in $400 million a year, combined, from Nine, Fox Sports and Sky TV New Zealand in broadcast deals that run out after 2027. Then, they will skyrocket again. So will player salaries. 

Last season Nine broadcast 45 of the 48 games in an extended NRLW season on its free-to-air station, while Fox launched a dedicated NRLW show. Women’s football is getting the support from the TV networks. 

Despite the retrospective tea-leaf-readers, nobody predicted the insane ratings success of the Matildas World Cup run last year. This is clear by the fact that Optus Sport were able to win the entire broadcasting rights, for just $10.4 million, on-selling the free-to-air rights to Seven for between $4-5 million. This will never happen again. The networks are now, finally, backing women’s sport – which is great.

By the time those footy deals are being renegotiated for 2028 onwards, the NRLW may well be drawing comparable TV ratings to the NRL. When that happens, it will be hard for the NRL to justify paying the women players less than the men anymore. They will, of course, but it will be harder to justify. 

The quickest way to parity is TV ratings.

So, next time you see me sitting in front of the television, watching footy and drinking beers on a work night, remember, I’m just doing my bit for equality. 

Enjoy your weekend.

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