The Opals are a consistent gold medal threat, but in almost 40 years, Australian women’s basketball has seen little progress in conditions, benefits and pay. As women’s leagues in rival codes thrive, Homecourt’s Adam McKay speaks to the players and explores the steps that can be taken to give the Opals – present and future – the shine they deserve.
With a push in recent years by many of Australia’s major sports to provide more opportunities for women at the top level, it’s easy to forget that basketball has been doing this for decades. Australian football’s AFLW (2017), rugby league’s NRLW (2018), and even long-running competitions such as Soccer’s W-League (2008), come decades after the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL), which was founded in 1981. Basketball has blazed trails as a sport inherently open to both men and women; it has been at the forefront of gender equality well before many others, which have established their female leagues in response to the evolving expectations of society. But despite a substantial head start, women’s professional basketball has in fact been overtaken by other codes in recent years, and currently faces many challenges.
In 1984, the WNBL was in its infancy, yet there was a genuine acceptance of women in basketball and excitement around the potential of the league. At least this was the feeling in Brisbane where Jenny Froling played for the Lady Bullets. Froling, who is now a mother to three professional players (Harry, Sam and Keely) and one currently attending college in the US (Alicia), recalls a time when, despite being expected to train three times a week and travel for games, no players were paid.
The Lady Bullets played their games as curtain-raisers for the men’s team, the Brisbane Bullets of the National Basketball League (NBL). However, their affiliation with the men’s team came with expectations.
“The men’s program was the main event,” recalls Froling. “We often played before the men, but we did actually have to bring the food for the after-game function for the men.”
Players were also asked on occasion to help as ushers for the men’s game; quickly showering after their own game ended and donning a pink polo to fulfil their responsibilities. Although preparing food and working as ushers was a specific arrangement for the Bullets, and in no way represented a league-wide mandate from the WNBL, it does point to a different time in society when women had far less opportunity than what we see today.
Fast forward to modern times, and conditions have improved; not only in sport, with the introduction of many professional women’s leagues, but also in the workplace and in society in general. Despite this progress, basketball, as is the case with wider society, still faces many challenges in bridging the gender gap. Female athletes often have to balance work and study with playing commitments, and enjoy only a fraction of the individual sponsorship and endorsement opportunities on offer in comparison to men.
Cayla George, a center for the Australian Opals and the WNBL’s Melbourne Boomers, believes addressing this divide starts with visibility.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Despite having a world class product on the court, George feels other sports have overtaken basketball in recent years in terms of their top-tier women’s leagues. While these sports enjoy free-to-air television deals, the WNBL has only been able to achieve an agreement to air games on pay TV through Foxtel, and currently has no confirmed deal for the 2020-21 season. George believes this lack of visibility impacts areas such as sponsorship, and greatly reduces the value and earnings potential for the WNBL and its players. Without significant money coming into the league, allocating the kind of resources that would see women’s basketball thrive at the top level is a hard ask.
Empowering players to grow their online presence through mediums like social media is an approach championed by George, who believes improved engagement and reach can in turn add value to the WNBL and perhaps attract the kind of attention that would bring the league closer to the elusive free-to-air television deal.
“I’d love to see the hype around the players grow,” George says. “For there to be household names in households that aren’t particularly basketball savvy.”
While the WNBL stagnates, the NBL has seen a significant upswing in recent years, thanks mostly to a large injection of cash and resources from owner Larry Kestelman. As the gap widens, it is clearer now more than ever that women’s basketball is playing little sister to the men. Despite this being the case at the professional league level, the Opals have consistently outperformed their male counterparts, the Australian Boomers. The Boomers have never medalled at a World Cup or Olympic games, however The Opals have achieved three silvers (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Beijing 2008) and two bronze medals (Atlanta 1996 and London 2012). On top of this, the Opals have won three bronze medals, a silver, and a gold at World Cup level, with the gold coming in 2006 in Brazil. In contrast, the highest the Boomers have managed is fourth at the international level in both Olympic and World Cup competitions.
“For us women, it’s even harder,” George laments. “Across everything; not just basketball, not just sport… across everything. We’ve really got to push and grind even more just to get any form of recognition.”
One sport which has overtaken basketball through the establishment of a viable professional women’s league is football. In a similar system to what players like Froling experienced in the 1980’s, both male and female programs coexist under one club banner, meaning shared resources for both AFL and AFLW players. In fact, AFLW has lured many basketballers across, including players such as former WNBA champion Erin Phillips, and WNBL champion Tegan Cunningham to name just two. Cunningham works for Basketball Australia and, having experienced what both codes have to offer, has a unique perspective into the challenges that basketball’s peak national body faces in elevating the WNBL to the next level.
Cunningham remembers that during her time as a basketball player she was often asked to pay for physiotherapy and seek reimbursal from her club. In contrast, being under the men’s program at her current AFLW club, the Melbourne Demons, means better access to doctors and physios. Cunningham also acknowledges that being under the AFL banner garners attention and greatly assists areas such as television and sponsorship deals. This collective approach between both programs is something Cunningham credits for the recent success of AFLW, and suggests that WNBL clubs may find it harder by remaining independent. The lack of financial stability in women’s basketball also results in players being offered only one-year contracts. Cunningham explains that this impacts the year-round care players are able to receive as they are not contracted to the club during off-season periods.
Football also seems to have surpassed basketball in the welfare of players away from the game. With resources comes support, and Cunningham appreciates the amount of help AFLW players receive in pursuing study or building skills that can benefit them in their lives after football.
“The welfare stuff is important,” Cunningham comments. “Especially in female sports because we don’t have the luxury of being the men and being on millions of dollars. I think the approach as a whole for the athlete is really important.”
So, if the answer to creating a more prosperous WNBL and better conditions for players is a coming together of the NBL and WNBL, what would it take? Larry Kestelman took ownership of the NBL in 2015 after seeing the league’s regression, and although he tactfully acknowledges that the WNBL is currently run by Basketball Australia, Kestelman is open to the prospect of taking it over should he be approached.
Despite all the challenges the sport still faces, it should be acknowledged that there has been progress, albeit incremental. A recently renegotiated minimum player payment now sees WNBL players receive at least $13,000 per season, which is up 73 percent from the previous arrangement, and is at least in the same ballpark as the NBL figure, which stands at $17,000 for development players. The recent announcement that owners of the NBL’s Sydney Kings, Total Sport and Entertainment (TSE), will take over ownership of the WNBL’s Sydney Uni Flames also gives hope that there can again be a coming together of men’s and women’s programs, and that the women’s game can benefit through sharing resources in areas such as sponsorship and marketing. In fact, in a throwback to Jenny Froling’s days at the Lady Bullets, TSE has proposed playing some double headers at Qudos Bank Arena between the Flames and the Kings. Should this model prove successful, it may pave the way for more collaboration between the programs going forward, although it must be noted that three out of the current eight WNBL clubs play in cities that do not have an NBL team.
Last month’s announcement that Sydney will host the 2022 Women’s World Cup also provides a beacon of hope and opportunity to rally around the anticipation and excitement the tournament will generate over the next two years. There’s no better platform than the World Cup to promote the excellent product that is women’s basketball, but the challenge is how those at the top translate this excitement into better conditions and tangible outcomes for current and future female athletes.
Many obstacles remain, however women’s basketball has never been in a better position to pounce on the opportunities presented to it at a time where society is hungry for equality.
Cayla George sums up what most people who have had any experience with the game would feel at this time,
“I’m just a player wanting the league and the players in the league to be recognised for the amazing, elite, professional female athletes that we are.”