AFL should lift its game with girls to win hearts in Sydney
Flush with cash, the AFL is heaping shovel-loads into its new western Sydney venture, conveniently ignoring its more important community role in encouraging young people, and especially girls, to get more active.
In its most direct attack yet on Rugby League, the AFL has cracked open the war chest, backing it with legendary player and coach Kevin Sheedy and even sabre-rattling suggestions of high profile poaching of top local NRL players like Jarryd Hayne.
But it is worth considering two less reported issues from only days before the latest flurry of AFL promotion: the NSW Government’s latest investment in preventative health and new research that highlighted a shocking plunge in activity rates among young girls as they approach their teenage years.
Everyone should rightly be concerned about the health risks that teenage girls and young women expose themselves to by not engaging in exercise during these crucial years of their lives. Apart from the cardio vascular improvements, high impact sport is vitally important for girls to build bone density and fight off the effects of osteoporosis later in life.
It is important that our sporting endeavours provide the greatest outcomes for the community, which is why it is so disappointing that there are some very skewed priorities in the big codes, as shown this week by the AFL.
With little money available to sport, and a significantly small proportion of the income going in to any women’s sport, you would have to question the priorities of the AFL community development programme.
Rather than focusing on increasing children’s, and in particular girls’, participation in Aussie rules, the true focus of these programs is boosting fan numbers and increasing the AFL’s market share. The AFL has invested $100 million to accelerate growth in New South Wales and Queensland for 2007-2011 alone.
In 2007, $40 million dollars was ploughed into so-called development strategies such as the Auskick programme, increasing Aussie rules participation across all sectors — organised competition, inter-school championships, community development days and a 25 per cent increase jump in school children engaged in clinics.
That same year, a total of 28,980 young girls took part in the NAB Australian Football League Auskick, making up 18 per cent of all participants. However, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show a sharp drop in girls playing Aussie rules between the vital ages of 12 and 14, with a recent study showing that in 2006 approximately 6,300 girls between the ages of five and eight were participating in Aussie rules, but by the 12-14 years age group that number had plummeted to 1,200 — a participation rate of merely 0.3 per cent.
By comparison, in the same period girls’ outdoor soccer participation actually increased from 22,900 players between the ages of 5 and 8, to 30,000 players between the ages of 12 and 14 years. This was achieved with negligible television royalties, a minimal development budget and no large-scale school programs.
Given the enormous financial capacity the AFL has for expansion into Rugby League heartland, it is startling to see the very poor comparison of its Auskick programs for young women when compared with the results for soccer.
It is clearly time that the school sports program was reviewed to ensure that girls are given every opportunity and sports that promote women’s involvement, such as soccer and cricket are given every support.
Many in the community already invest significant money and time, particularly through the good offices of volunteers, in the provision of sporting facilities and organised sports, generally because the significant health outcomes for those who participate are clearly recognised.
We no longer live in an era of boys-only sports, and with the clear need to improve the health outcomes for young women, for their sake and that of future health budgets, there is clearly need for action.
It also wouldn’t hurt if the next time a government was offered the opportunity to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup they actually took it up rather than knock it back as perhaps a better way to get teenage girls involved.
Still, at least the AFL’s cash splash is getting us another local sporting team!
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