It was coincidental, but the invitation-only so-called ‘town hall’ meeting* jointly hosted by FFA and PFA yesterday on building a World Cup legacy for women in football was not so curious in the light of new data also released separately yesterday by Roy Morgan about women’s sport participation.

While it could well be argued – not that PFA or FFA would want to hear the argument as dissenting voices were not the order of the day – that discussing a World Cup legacy before we actually won the right to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup may be somewhat premature, certainly the race for supremacy in women's participation in sport is not. 

According to latest research from Roy Morgan, more than 1.9 million Australians, men and women, play one form of football (Australian Rules, football, rugby league or rugby union), a decline of 12.1% from 2.2 million participants in 2013. We dropped below the 2 million participants in 2016 and have stayed that way since.

Roy Morgan reports that all four codes have lost participants since the last national count in 2013, with rugby union losing the most with a drop of 29.4% to 178,000. They state that football has lost 10% of its participants overall but is still the most widely played code in the country with 1.36 million participants in total.

Suggesting there is a relationship between TV viewership and participation, Roy Morgan analysis also shows that the two most watched football codes of Australian Rules and rugby league have had more modest rates of decline in participation, by 4.3% (to 604,000) and 8.7% (to 327,000) respectively.

Figure 1: Participation Dec 2013 to Dec 2017, Men and Women

However, against the trend of overall decline is the rising number of women's participation. 

Roy Morgan data shows that there are now 548,000 women playing regularly or occasionally in one of the football codes, an increase of 4.4% since 2013, and an 8.1% increase across all four codes in the past twelve months. 

Football is again the clear winner but, accoding to Roy Morgan, is ‘virtually unchanged’ from four years ago (at 402,000), but an increase of 10% from twelve months ago.

Australian Rules is the number two football code for women, with 155,000 women now playing regularly or occasionally, an increase of 30.3% from four years ago, and 23% from twelve months ago when AFLW was launched.

In rugby league, the increase has been by 8.3% to 91,000, but in rugby union is down by 25% to 24,000, consistent with an overall decline in rugby over four years. 

Figure 2:  Participation Dec 2013 to Dec 2017, Women only

“All four codes have traditionally been heavily slanted towards male participation, however there has been a clear recent push to increase female participation in football,” said CEO of Roy Morgan, Michelle Levine.

“The push to increase female participation is in fact vital to the continued health of all four sports as long-term trends show a declining rate of male participation.

“Analysing female participation in the four leading football codes shows mixed fortunes over the last four years with female participation rising strongly in Australian Rules and Rugby League, virtually unchanged in Soccer and down in Rugby Union.

“However, narrowing the time scale to the last year shows strong growth across all four codes as the push to increase female participation has really intensified.”

The focus on women’s sport this weekend comes from the AFLW grand final between the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane Lions today. In recent times, Melbourne City won the W-League competition for the third consecutive year, while the inaugural NRL Women’s competition will be launched in August this year.

Levine says it gives brands targeting women an opportunity to get behind the growing market for women’s sport, as well as seek government support.

The Australian Government recently announced a $5 million grant to FFA to prepare a bid for the 2023 World Cup. According to a spokesperson for the Federal Sports Minister, Bridget McKenzie, bidding for the World Cup “presents an opportunity to inspire girls and young women to engage in sport for fun and to improve their health.”

On that basis, and judged by the Government's own metric, we can and should expect women's participation across all sport to continue to increase. 

*  It's not really a town hall meeting if it's invitation only. 

Categories: Analysis | Women

women's participation, roy morgan research, w-league, football development

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