Australian women go pro on back of investment boom
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Lisa De Vanna once had to wash her sports bras in the sinks of cheap hotels to save money but the footballer is now relishing the good times as a surge of investment transforms women's professional sport in Australia.
Over the last few months, De Vanna and her team mates in the 'Matildas' national soccer team have become the toast of the nation, playing to bumper home crowds even as their male counterparts struggle to qualify for the World Cup.
The 2-1 defeat of Brazil in Sydney last Saturday drew some 15,000 fans, more than one of the weekend's playoff matches in the hugely popular men's Australian Football League and a rugby union international between Australia and Argentina.
Another victory over the Brazilians on Tuesday attracted an even bigger crowd and, on Wednesday, Victoria sports minister John Eren proudly trumpeted that the state would host two Matildas friendlies against China in November.
The recent success of the Matildas has played its part in the explosion of interest but it also echoes the development of women's professional leagues in cricket and Australian Rules football, the popular indigenous sport.
The large swell of support for a once-neglected outfit has been surreal for De Vanna, who after playing the 2007 World Cup had to return to her job as a petrol station attendant.
Until quite recently, conditions were still "crap" for the country's top women players, the plainspoken De Vanna told Reuters, using a more profane term to describe her early playing days.
"I came in when they just had the (professional) contracts," the prolific 32-year-old striker said in an interview.
"I was still wearing boy's clothes, still washing my undies and bras in the sink. We didn't have internet, we were staying in budget hotels.
"It was really tough back then but what we had was the love for the game and that hasn't changed.
"What's changed is that we've got the proper support to be better athletes and it took a very long time for it to happen. But you've seen the outcome."
Basic salaries for women footballers in the domestic W-League remain modest, even if they are expected to double to A$15,500 ($12,300) next season.
Top internationals, however, can expect to earn a respectable A$130,000 a year, giving young girls hope of carving out a full-time professional career -- aspirations that were until recently only the province of talented boys.
Cricket is another sport with growing opportunities for women.
Under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement, the average pay of international cricketers will more than double to A$180,000 in the 2017/18 season, according to figures from governing body Cricket Australia (CA).
State players, on average, can expect A$55,000 and will be able to top that up by playing in the third season of the women's Big Bash Twenty20 league.
Underlining confidence in the women's game, tickets for this year's women's Ashes cricket series against England will be sold for the first time rather than given away for free.
CA has made significant investment in women's sport and chief executive James Sutherland is "very confident" it will ultimately pay for itself.
"I'm not under any illusions that success will come overnight," Sutherland told Reuters.
"That’s not the case. Beyond the economics of building demand and having the game pay for itself, either way, it’s still good economics to be investing into women’s cricket in the way that we do.
"(It's) increasing the profile of the game and creating a clear and obvious pathway for young females to pursue as they have so many choices."
Another pathway that has opened up only recently is in the women's Australian Football League (AFLW), which proved a roaring success in its inaugural season this year.
The AFL, the governing body of top flight Australian Rules football, had planned to launch the competition in 2020 but took the plunge after huge crowds turned out at exhibition games.
Debbie Lee, women's football operations manager at the Melbourne Demons club and a key architect of the AFLW, had to pay to play her 300-odd games in the full-contact sport but women players can now earn up to A$40,000 a season.
Free-to-air TV broadcasts of games have helped boost the tournament but its development is largely driven by a new wave of fans, Lee said.
"There's a whole swell of support from a new generation of young people who are asking, 'Why shouldn't women play football? Why shouldn't have they have these opportunities, the same opportunities as men?'"
New competition between the women's sports is welcomed across the board by national federations, who see a chance to tap into new markets while fulfilling pledges to boost equal opportunity.
But the rivalry may eventually get heated as the battle for talent heats up.
Just like in the men's sports, where rival codes fight bitterly to retain and lure marquee players, the movements of top women athletes are now covered closely in major newspapers.
Former Matildas goalkeeper Brianna Davey played domestic soccer for Melbourne City last year but switched codes to play as a defender for Carlton in the AFLW.
"It's going to be really interesting," said Lee. "Other sports will realise if they don't have a good deal, they'll lose their players."
($1 = 1.2568 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)