Female fans are AFL’s secret weapon in drawing crowds

The AFL does best in attracting young women to games and then maintaining their loyalty in later years. AAP/David Mariuz

The recent Anzac Day football matches attracted big crowds. More than 114,000 people attended NRL matches in five cities. In the AFL, 88,000 braved wet weather for one match alone – the MCG tussle between Collingwood and Essendon.

Compared with football stadiums worldwide, Australian fans have long stood out from the crowd. On a couple of key things. One is the mixing of fans from the contesting clubs through the ground. A second is a remarkably higher attendance by women.

Many football games overseas play in front of overwhelmingly male audiences. Here, women form 40% of a typical footy crowd – somewhat higher for Australian rules football, slightly lower for rugby league.

The importance of these female fans is is getting some of the recognition it deserves this coming weekend. The NRL has its “Women in League” round and the AFL a Mother’s Day weekend fixture promoting awareness of breast cancer. Yet one code is clearly doing better than the other. The AFL’s greater prowess in maintaining female interest is a key reason it is more successful than the NRL in attracting fans.

Both codes are keen to encourage fans to come along. After criticism last year, the AFL rejigged its program, declaring 2015 “the year of the fan”.

Though little commented on, women fans provided much of the growth in football crowds over the past 20 years.

In The Conversation, Kim Toffoletti recently described interviews she has conducted with women AFL fans. She suggested that we need to re-think previous views of women fans.

Data show how women boost the numbers

My research also indicates we should reassess some common pictures of footy fans. And it shows women are a key element in recent trends.

The research has tracked fans of both AFL and NRL over the past two decades. I presented early results to the Worlds of Football conference in January.

Toffoletti’s research focuses on regular, committed fans. Similar approaches were taken in two recent (2009) books looking at footy fans: Matthew Klugman’s Passion Play: Love, hope and heartbreak at the footy, and John Cash and Joy Damousi’s Footy Passions.

Regular fans (those going at least once a month) are clearly the bedrock of interest for footy: these regulars make up some two-thirds of the typical crowd. However, they comprise only 34% of men who attend any AFL game during the season and 27% of women. The proportions are somewhat smaller for NRL.

The balances between regular and occasional fans, and between men and women, are central to the changing crowd patterns since 1994. The patterns come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Sports Attendance, Australia (cat. no. 4174.0), published a number of times from 1994 to 2010. Unfortunately, the ABS has discontinued the series.

In 2010, 2.8 million Australians aged 15 or older attended an AFL game, while 1.6 million attended NRL. Both fan bases grew since 1994, but the AFL was well ahead – up 50% since 1994.

League took a big hit in the ‘90s

NRL numbers were king-hit in the late 1990s by the abortive efforts to establish the Superleague. They have since recovered, but grew only 7% over the period.

Different patterns emerge for our two groups: men vs women and occasional vs frequent fans.

Over these years, the numbers of frequent AFL fans grew by 10%. Occasional fans turned out in much greater numbers, growing by 84%.

The two groups went in opposite directions for the NRL – occasional fans up by 14%, but regular fans down by 10%. That NRL decline was concentrated in the 1990s. Turned off by Superleague, regular fan numbers dropped by a quarter between 1994 and 2002 – then recovered a little by 2010.

We can also track different age groups, or cohorts, over the 1994 to 2010 period. This allows us to compare attendances at similar ages for different groups.

For example, the later baby boomers (born around 1960) were 40 in 2000. Gen X, born about 1970, were 40 in 2010. At this similar age, Gen X went to AFL slightly more often than the later baby boomers did – but went to league 5% less often.

Those figures are typical – in general, the AFL has been remarkably successful in building its support. In contrast, most cohorts going to NRL see slight 5% declines compared to the previous cohort.

The second strong story was the growth, for both codes, of female fans. All of the growth in NRL attendances between 1994 and 2010 was due to increasing female numbers (all of the increase occasional fans). Attendances by both sexes grew for AFL, but the growth was stronger for women (up 70%, mostly occasional) than for men (up 40%, also mostly occasional fans).

AFL hangs on to female fans as they age

Women also play an important part in another striking difference between the codes: the AFL is much more successful than the NRL in hanging on to fans as they age.

In both codes, younger people go to the footy more often than older people. In AFL, the decline is gentle: 19% of 15-to-24-year-olds go to AFL each year, compared with 14% of the 55-64 group. The NRL profile shows a much steeper decline: from 12% for the younger set to 6% for the 55-64 group.

The difference is totally due to female fans. The age decline for AFL is similar for men and women. For NRL, the male profile is similar to that for AFL. However, women seem to turn off the sport dramatically: 12% of women aged 15-24 go to NRL, but only 3% of the 55-64 group head along.

In attracting fans, both football codes face a generally more diverse sporting and entertainment market. In the last two decades, AFL has fared better than league.

Within football, both Sydney and Melbourne have seen growth in rugby union and soccer. In Melbourne, that growth has been in addition to AFL. In Sydney, it has to some extent replaced league.

To be successful, footy codes have to both maintain existing fans and attract new fans. Women fans are a key part of the picture.

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