15 Jun, 2016 Last updated: 15 Jun, 2016

Today’s announcement by the AFL of an eight team women’s competition ahead of next year’s inaugural season is a watershed moment for women’s sport in Australia.

First published on HeraldSun.com.au (15 June 2016)

It will mark a significant place in our history books as women are rightly given the opportunity to play professional football alongside their male counterparts. VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

The AFL has shown considerable leadership in its commitment to introduce an elite women’s league from 2017, which will help raise the profile of women’s sport, inspire young women to get active and provide a stage for some of our best female athletes to shine.

Until now, there has been much speculation on the details of the league, including the number of teams it will comprise and which teams would be lucky enough to win licences.

With the eights successful teams announced - Adelaide, Brisbane Lions, Carlton, Collingwood, Fremantle, Greater Western Sydney, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs-  the focus will no doubt now turn to corporate sponsorship, both for the competition and the teams.

In the elite AFL context, the establishment of any club, league or event will inevitably attract big dollars in sponsorship investment.

This presents significant opportunities for decent salary caps for players and at a big picture level, to help give the league and importantly the female players the exposure and commercial gravitas it deserves.

However, Australian sport is rife with the promotion of alcohol and fast food, including high-fat content foods and sugar sweetened beverages likes soft drinks, iced teas and sports drinks.

The AFL and the eight teams have an opportunity to show leadership and broker a sponsorship deal through the women’s league that sends positive messages to the community and the young audience the game will no doubt inspire.

It would be disappointing to see the establishment of this new league used to generate further revenue from alcohol and fast food companies.

So too would be accepting any sponsorship that reinforces gender stereotypes about women.

Rebel Sport was named as the major sponsor of the Women’s Big Bash League cricket competition ahead of its inaugural season last year- a gender neutral sponsor that promotes healthy lifestyles.

It’s the kind of sports sponsorship we need to see more of.

In Australia we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Almost two in three Australian adults and one in four children is overweight or obese.

Excess weight, especially obesity, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, some musculoskeletal conditions and some cancers.  Children with obesity are likely to remain obese as adults, putting them at even bigger risk of chronic illness and early death.

The World Health Organization blames in part, the unhealthy food and beverage market that saturates children’s environments, like sporting matches, for the alarming rates of childhood obesity. 

Numerous studies have also drawn links between the marketing of unhealthy products and consumer behaviour, particularly in the case of children.

In addition, the Global Drug Survey this week found a quarter of Australians have either hurt themselves or others as a result of their alcohol consumption, highlighting how deeply embedded our harmful alcohol culture is in Australia.

Fast food and alcohol companies inevitably hit back at these criticisms, arguing they’re not targeting children.

Research shows though that children perceive the sponsors of their sports as ‘cool’ and having their favourite athletes endorsing and wearing clothing with logos of these brands only intensifies that perception and ‘brand loyalty’.

Of course, the end game of any fast food or alcohol sport sponsor, no matter what they argue, is to increase sales of their products or services and therefore increase their profit, which is at complete odds with the health benefits of playing sport.

On the flipside, it’s difficult for clubs, leagues and codes to juggle the commercial reality with their social responsibility.

Ultimately, sponsorship is a big business transaction that often results in large amounts of crucial financial support – often put straight into developing and growing the sport - in return for promotion and endorsement of the sponsor’s product or brand.

The waters are only muddied further by the fact that a three-tiered sporting system currently exists in Australia where sponsorship is sought at grassroots, state and national levels in varying capacities.

For some local teams and clubs, sponsorship from a fast food or alcohol company can mean the difference between whether or not a club or team plays for the season.

VicHealth is starting to explore the complexities of these issues with our current state sporting partners to help them understand their responsibilities and navigate the challenges.

For a major organisation like the AFL, with far bigger bargaining powers than a local sporting club, there stands a real opportunity to show leadership in the sponsors they select and help promote healthy lifestyles.

Given the shocking rates of violence against women, of which gender inequality is the root cause, and the culture change work being done by the AFL, governments and organisations across the country,  consideration must also be given to what kind of gender messages the women’s league sponsors will send to the players and spectators of the sport.

Sponsorship from brands or companies that reinforce gender stereotypes would be disappointing and counter-productive to the work being done to eliminate such attitudes.

Australian sports clubs, leagues and codes must begin to make more responsible sponsorship decisions, to ensure the right messages are being sent to our children.  

The type of sponsors which end up on the field, jerseys and advertising hoardings of the new women’s AFL competition will tell us a lot about how far we’ve come on these complex, but critical issues. 

Jerril Rechter

VicHealth CEO