Updated: Dec 31, 2020
In case you missed it – and unless you’re living under a rock, you probably didn’t – the Richmond Tigers took out the AFL premiership in the last fortnight, beating Geelong by 31 points at the Gabba in Brisbane.
And also, in case you missed it – and many likely did – that same Richmond Football Club announced that its entry in the Victorian Football League for Women (VFLW) would not be playing in the 2021 season for its February start, citing financial complications arising from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“The impact of the COVID pandemic has been significant and we have had to make the difficult decision not to participate in the next VFLW season,” Kate Sheahan, the club’s head of women’s football, announced in a club-based statement in late August.
While the pandemic has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on individuals and companies around Australia for the last seven-plus months, falling on the premise that the pandemic has affected the most successful Australian Rules football club of the last several years to the point where it cannot field a side at one level has its critics, sceptics and doubters.
“Every AFL club has taken a financial hit due to Covid-19 and budget cuts have been widespread. Richmond is a powerhouse in Australian sport; the Tigers have been AFL premiership winners in two of the past three seasons [to mid-2020] and recently boasted over 100,000 members for the third consecutive year,” Rebecca Beeson, a player on Greater Western Sydney’s AFLW team, wrote in The Guardian shortly after Richmond’s announcement.
“But when a club like Richmond cannot find the finances to field a VFLW team, what precedent does this set for the future of the women’s competition?” Beeson added.
Which thus fuels the scepticism.
Since the VFLW’s inception in 2016 and Richmond’s debut in the competition the following year – even at the expense of more grass-roots suburban clubs – Richmond improved from 13th in a 14-team competition in 2018 to fourth on the ladder in 2019, and that rapid improvement was to bode well for Richmond’s senior women’s side at AFLW level, a side desperately needing improvements and reinforcements after a winless debut season in the competition in 2020.
But the question now is whether Richmond, to back up their claims, can afford to finance its VFLW side, given the improvements in its on-field fortunes.
And given their previous two AFL flags, the club has reaped financial benefits from them, in terms of memberships and sponsorships.
The club’s 2017 premiership – its first since 1980 – afforded the club an additional 24,949 members through the 2018 season, breaking the 100,000 mark for the first time in the club’s history. That 24.8 percent increase overshadowed the club’s mere 4.6 percent rise in memberships from the year before.
Fast-forward to the season just completed, and even with a dip in memberships by approximately 3,000 fans, Richmond – which had topped the 100,000-member benchmark for the third consecutive year – trails only the West Coast Eagles as the AFL club boasting the biggest paid-up fan base.
With regard to sponsorship revenue, Richmond pulled $13.6 million in 2017, a 22.5 percent jump from the year before, and in 2019, the club made over $16.3 million in that area, an increase of over $900,000 from 2018, for an added rate of 5.6 percent.
As mind-numbing boring as numbers are, those figures boil down to two basic conclusions:
AFL premierships represent massive monetary influxes for clubs
and when one examines membership and sponsorship revenue in terms of millions of dollars, for an AFL club, the concept of being unable to finance the operations of one team within that club seems implausible
Additionally, when Sheahan had announced Richmond’s decision to shelve the club’s VFLW operations for the 2021 season, she mentioned that the club’s existing VFLW players – on a 41-woman roster, with six of those players AFLW-listed – would be set for realignment, along with entertaining the possibility for its AFLW-listed players to take part with remaining clubs in the VFLW competition.
“This decision will ensure we can focus our resources and energies on delivering a high-quality AFLW program in 2021 and beyond,” Sheahan said.
Now if the decision to not fund and thereby suspend operations for its VFLW team boggles conventional wisdom, then simultaneously maintaining the status quo for its winless-in-2020 AFLW team without a direct feeder system in place should defy logic altogether.
Henceforth came the decision by the club on October 28 – just four days after its men’s side won its second straight AFL premiership – to handball its VFLW team to Port Melbourne for the 2021 season, with no license fees nor a transfer of them required, as a means of Richmond washing its hands of the situation, and saving some of its profit money on operating a VFLW team.
Despite the AFLW thriving as a form of on-field entertainment in a top-level competition for women’s footy players, with teams and personalities capturing the attention of the sporting public and imaginations of fans, and not forgetting how it is inspiring increased record footy participation numbers of girls and young women, one perception pointing towards the Richmond-to-Port Melbourne VFLW situation remains – about the financial drivers, and financial greed, of the football code.
“From the perspective of a female player, this follows the usual narrative that the future of the men’s game is the AFL’s priority, with decisions on women’s football an afterthought,” says Beeson.