CELEBRATE: Kate McCarthy and Sabrina Frederick-Traub of the Lions celebrate during the 2017 AFLW round one match against the Melbourne Demons on February 5.
CELEBRATE: Kate McCarthy and Sabrina Frederick-Traub of the Lions celebrate during the 2017 AFLW round one match against the Melbourne Demons on February 5. Michael Willson/AFL Media

OPINION: Women's sport comes to the fore

AS A sport fanatic of every kind - be it ball, racquet, wheel or hoof - and today marking International Women's Day, there is no better time to reflect on what has undoubtedly been the most important 12 months for women's sport in Australia's history.

"Be Bold For Change” was the theme for International Women's Day this year, calling on the masses to forge a better, more inclusive and gender-equal world.

In my sporting world the push for gender equality is gathering momentum and sports fans should be excited.

Australia's domination in the Rugby Sevens at Rio last year more than overshadowed their male counterparts; so too did the Matildas on their run to the Olympic quarter-finals.

Milly Tapper became Australia's first dual Olympian-Paralympian, defying expectations not just of female athletes but of para-athletes in general, while our own Taliqua Clancy was the first indigenous woman to represent Australia in beach volleyball at the Olympic Games.

Clancy was part of a discussion panel alongside Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that raised the topic of women in sport both on the field and in the news, while fellow South Burnett athlete Holly Ferling spoke at Nestle's internal IWD function today.

On the eve of International Women's Day Ferling was joined by Southern Stars team mates Beth Mooney and Jess Jonassen at the launch of the Women's Ashes series.

Speaking to assembled press at Brisbane's Allan Border Field, Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland highlighted the ever-increasing scope of the women's game.

"High-profile initiatives such as the Women's Big Bash League are helping to address perceptions and demonstrate the amazing career opportunities that cricket now provides talented young female athletes,” Sutherland said.

"We look forward to supporting them as they continue to set the performance bar high and provide inspiration to young cricketers across our country.”

Actions speak louder than words - Cricket Australia's $6 million investment over four years towards the Growing Cricket for Girls Fund has already sparked 500 new girls' teams and 40 new competitions since July last year.

In its second season, statistically the WBBL more than competed with its "older brother”.

The ladies scored 2230 more runs, the same number of centuries (one), 417 more fours, 38 more catches and 126 more wickets than the BBL's men.

Meg Lanning and Beth Mooney became household names as they blasted boundaries to lead their respective sides deep into the WBBL season, while the likes of Ashleigh Gardner and Molly Strano announced themselves to the world with breakout performances.

The New South Wales Breakers became the first professional women's sporting team in Australia and Cricket Australia soon followed it up by announcing the aforementioned investment in the women's game.

Not to be outdone, the AFL rode the wave of excitement its one-off AFLW exhibition matches generated into an opening round that blew all expectations out of the water.

Carlton and Collingwood opened the inaugural AFLW season in front of a packed-out Princes Park, with the capacity crowd of 24,500 forcing thousands more to queue outside the ground. In total, more than 50,000 people moved through the turnstiles across the four matches on opening weekend, while the television audience eclipsed 2 million viewers.

Even in treacherous conditions that caused play to momentarily be halted due to lightning, 6500 people camped around the railings at Melbourne's Casey Fields to watch the Demons and Dockers women fight tooth and nail.

I wrote late last year that until people put paid to their complaints over pay inequality by putting bums on seats, little was going to change - and while I hinted change was on the horizon, even the optimist in me could never have imagined Australia's immediate response.

Australia showed we are willing to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to women's sport and our sporting bodies have responded in kind.

Marquee AFLW players will receive $27,000 by season's end, with priority players granted $12,000 and the remaining listed players $8500 each. For a seven-game season - eight including the grand final - even the lowest-paid player receives more than $1000 a match. Travel, equipment, income protection insurance and out-of-pocket medical expenses are also covered under the remuneration package.

This year also signalled the start of the newly formed National Netball League. Replacing the Trans Tasman Netball League, the new format introduced three new teams and improved pay deals for players as grass-roots netball continues to flourish.

At the quarter-way mark of 2017, women's sport has never been in a stronger place than it currently stands in Australia.

With Cricket Australia and the AFL providing the blueprint for success - and the Australian viewing public responding in kind - I hope to be reflecting on an even bigger, better year in women's sport this time next year.

South Burnett

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