It’s called the legacy piece, that stage when soon-to-depart executives consider how they will be remembered and attempt to ensure history will be kind.
The legacy of three of Australia’s most prominent sports executives — James Sutherland, David Gallop and Gillon McLachlan — might be somewhat unexpected, even surprising given their other long-term commitments, occasional stumbles and similarly conservative backgrounds.
The long-time leaders of Australian cricket, football and the AFL might well be remembered as champions of female sport having helped elevate the pay and status of their elite female participants.
This is not to suggest women’s sport has been magically transformed at the stroke of the executive pen or as an act of charity by the powerful men who still dominate Australian sports administration.
Improved pay deals are the result of the sacrifices made by those pioneering female athletes who combined training with full-time jobs and child rearing, paid for their own travel and bought their own gear; all while elevating their sports into a position where they did not merely deserve but demanded greater attention, promotion and respect from their administrators, male counterparts and their own player associations.
But the announcement this week that Football Federation Australia (FFA) had granted pay parity for the Matildas — meaning up to 20 female international players will earn about $100,000 a year — is the latest indication that a long struggle has brought overdue change.
Even allowing for the FFA’s ongoing investment in the W-League and recent promotion of the Matildas, this also represents a significant shift in the treatment of the national team during Gallop’s time at the helm.
Four years ago, the Matildas were threatening to boycott matches. The women were then paid a reported $500 per match, compared to the Socceroos’ $7,500, and flew cattle class while their male counterparts stretched their legs at the front of the plane.
While the timing of Gallop’s announcement, less than two months before he leaves the FFA, might be coincidental, it provides a welcome exclamation mark at the end of a challenging seven-year tenure in which the growth the game continually promises failed to materialise.
The inauguration of the FFA Cup and Australia’s continued World Cup qualification had previously been cited as the crowning achievements for a chief executive who inherited the thankless task of advancing a sport scandalously derailed by the botched bid for the 2022 World Cup.
But if the Matildas’ pay parity helps inspire a generation of female participants and professionals, then granting this deal might stand as Gallop’s greatest accomplishment — something he could share with his two prominent contemporaries.
Sutherland’s 17 years as Cricket Australia (CA) chief executive threatened to be clouded by the Sandpapergate ball-tampering scandal and the subsequent investigation that alleged cultural and organisational problems at CA preceded that black episode.
Before then, Sutherland had overseen the monetisation of Australian cricket with a series of deals that put the game on a sound commercial footing — so sound, there was rancour when the pie had to be split with the players.
Again, it was the sacrifices of previous generations of female players, including CA’s newest board member Mel Jones, and the determination of strong advocates at all levels that led to the more generous payment of female cricketers.
But the game’s newly accumulated wealth allowed Sutherland to loosen the purse strings and provide the now relatively generous pay scale for Australian women, as well as the high-profile exposure of the WBBL that has given cricket a significant competitive advantage over most other team sports.
In applauding the FFA’s new deal, Sutherland’s successor Kevin Roberts was quick to note that his top players now earn close to $200,000, or more than twice the salary of the best-paid Matilda. Cricket is clearly eager that the next Ellyse Perry makes the same choice as the first.
AFL benefits from investing in women’s game
The AFL’s McLachlan has not announced departure plans but there have been strong whispers next season will be his last in one of Australia’s most demanding sporting roles.
McLachlan’s most challenging job has been the development of the new franchises in western Sydney and on the Gold Coast, which was the vision of the AFL’s former chairman Mike Fitzpatrick.
But the inauguration of the AFLW currently stands as the most monumental achievement on his watch, something emphasised as much by the rapid growth in junior female participation as it was by the crowd of 50,000 at last season’s AFLW grand final.
This despite a messy recent round of pay negotiations in which the AFL Players’ Association’s seemed at odds with the most ambitious of its female members and the still-gnawing feeling the hastily convened AFLW has not been given unequivocal support by McLachlan’s administration.
The most ignorant observers continue to ridicule the improvement in the wages of female athletes. They split hairs about revenue entitlement or make spurious comparisons with the men’s game, while ignoring the enormous commercial advantages increased female participation will bring.
Meanwhile, the escalation in pay for female athletes has created welcome competitive friction, meaning so-called “first choice” athletes can choose between sports that offer a living wage.
Consequently Gallop, Sutherland and McLachlan, who all endured contentious periods during their administrations, could well be remembered fondly for doing the right thing by those women’s sport pioneers and their talented successors.
Regardless, the winners will be young girls growing up knowing their sport is both a wonderful recreation and, just maybe, a full-time career.