NRL’s female fans dwindling as it deals with ‘off-season from hell’
Lyn Gannon says she is no longer so proud to admit she is a “diehard rugby league fan”. (Supplied: Lyn Gannon)
Marina Go was staggered when she realised the sheer volume of sex videos of rugby league players doing the rounds on social media.
The former chairwoman of the Wests Tigers remembers how the moment came in a casual conversation last year with one of the club’s coaches.
“He said to me, ‘Marina, there’s a library of them. There’s a library of them’. I was horrified,” Ms Go said.
While she is at pains to point out the coach was not talking about the Wests Tigers players, that moment of realisation — and many others since — have left her exhausted.
“If you’re fighting for change and it’s not what they want then actually you’re banging your head against a brick wall,” she said.
“You reach a point where you don’t feel like you can make a difference anymore.”
After four years with the club, Ms Go this week walked away from her role as chair. There are now no women on the board.
Fears female fans dwindling in wake of sex tapes
In her case, the fight for change was about respect for women in rugby league — and the brick wall was a reinforced edifice three layers thick.
She pointed to a lack of action by the NRL, the attitude of clubs and the seemingly never-ending stream of players facing court for offences against women.
The final straw was a dawning realisation she was losing the battle against deep-seated attitudes among the men in the game.
“I just felt disrespected by the NRL as a senior woman in the game,” she said.
“I just looked around and I thought the numbers of women are dwindling, not growing.”
But rugby league’s women problem is not just at the top.
After the recent spate of sex tapes — and what even the game’s chairman Peter Beattie described as “the off-season from hell” — there are growing fears the game is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of female fans.
“I’m not as proud as I once was to admit that I’m a diehard rugby league fan,” said Cronulla Sharks supporter Lyn Gannon.
The 56-year-old grandmother is the chair of the Sharks members’ council and can see first-hand what the stream of scandals is doing to the club’s supporter base.
“The Sharks have 24 per cent female membership this year out of a 50 per cent population,” said Ms Gannon.
Mothers play a crucial role in determining whether their children play and watch rugby. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
“What does that say? To me it says it’s not something that women are attracted to.”
And that is the last thing a club desperate for members — and funds — wants.
The scandals strip the game’s credibility, fans stay away, women are turned off, they choose other sports with better role models for their sons and daughters, and sponsors steer clear.
Ms Gannon’s love affair with the Sharks began 50 years ago when her father used to take her to games as a six-year-old.
“I had players who were teachers at my school,” she said.
“There were coppers and tradies — these were respected members of society. I think the players themselves have lost that respect among the wider community.”
Hopes for the NRL’s No Fault Stand Down initiative
There has been one significant change.
Every woman the ABC spoke to for this article expressed support for the NRL’s new “no fault” stand down policy.
This has already seen suspensions handed down to St George Illawarra’s Jack De Belin — who is facing a charge of aggravated sexual assault — as well as Manly’s Dylan Walker and North Queensland’s Scott Bolton.
Ms Go said the move was a necessary one after what she sees as years of inaction.
But the next step, she said, is to put women into senior positions in the game, starting with increasing the number of women who work at the NRL itself beyond the current 28 per cent.
“If the NRL was genuinely concerned with changing the culture, they would be looking at head office, they would be looking at the clubs,” she said.
It is a common refrain among the few senior women in rugby league circles that one of the problems facing the game is that the players simply do not have women as role models.
Coaching and administration roles are typically dominated by men.
Rebecca Frizzell, the co-owner of the Gold Coast Titans and the former chair of the club, has made a change at the Titans, putting women into leadership roles within the football department.
“They play an incredibly important part in the overall culture of the club and that is modelled, I see, in the way our players behave,” Ms Frizzell said.
“Because they’re working with women. They’re seeing them in these professional roles. They’re not just seeing them as support mother-type figures.”
The road to representation
There are two women on the eight-member Australian Rugby League Commission — lawyer Megan Davis and media executive Amanda Laing.
But Ms Go believes it is not enough.
“There shouldn’t be a panel without a woman on it, there shouldn’t be a committee without a woman on it,” Ms Go said.
“We should be involved in the stuff about how the game’s going to look and feel and the broadcaster changes and the finance committee and all that kind of stuff.
“It’s just all the guys,” she said.
A spokesman for the NRL told the ABC there were two women on the executive team under the current CEO, Todd Greenberg, and others on the next tier of leadership.
The spokesman said the NRL was working on an “emerging leaders program” and said it anticipated “a strong presence of women in this group”.
The spokesman said it was important to have women in leadership roles, particularly because mothers play a crucial role in determining whether their children play and watch rugby league.
And there is the rub.
If rugby league does not solve its women problem, it risks alienating half the population.
“From a female point of view, it’s a bad look and there are so many options now,” Ms Go said.
“I think the NRL is going to lose to AFL, cricket, soccer who are doing a better job of appealing to women.”
For Ms Gannon, the impact is more palpable.
“I’m no longer proud to say I love rugby league,” Ms Gannon said.