This article was first written and published for The Roar.
As a Sydney-sider who loves sport, I’m someone who has many favourite sporting teams across a variety of codes. When you ask me who I support, you’ll often get quite a long answer and any possible combination of the Parramatta Eels, GWS Giants, Giants Netball, Sydney Thunder and also the Sydney Blue Sox.
Many of those teams will be familiar to you, except for the Blue Sox potentially.
The Sydney Blue Sox are the Australian Baseball League’s New South Wales based team and I have had the opportunity to go watch the semi-professional league based at Blacktown International Sports Park in the summer.
Until now, participation in the ABL has been limited to men; but not for much longer given Baseball Australia’s announcement last week that they intend to introduce a women’s ABL. The women’s ABL is set for a soft launch in season 2019-2020 and a full launch in season 2020-2021.
The intention is that this league will be rolled out in a similar way to the AFLW and NRLW, whereby existing ABL teams will make a bid for licences and then these licenses will be granted to a select number of teams. It is expected that in the inaugural year, there will be four to five teams.
For Cam Vale, CEO of Baseball Australia, the introduction of the league makes sense, particularly given the revolution we are currently seeing in women’s sport.
For Cam and the heads of his state associations their view is this – “creating similar pathways for the women that exist for the mean seems like a no brainer”.
There will be challenges in establishing this new league; but also great opportunities.
One of those challenges is dollars.
When observing the success of the WBBL, AFLW and NRLW, it’s clear there is a very real appetite for women’s sport content among fan-bases. However it is still a challenge to demonstrate this value to large corporates, even for the larger sports so, for a sport like baseball, the challenge is even greater.
Compared to many other sports though, baseball has a unique opportunity in that it truly is an international sport. According Tahnee Lovering, who captained the Australian Women’s Baseball team at the last World Cup (and has been playing for the national team for 15 years), there is an opportunity for this women’s ABL to be a hub for female baseball around the world.
According to Tahnee, “we have the opportunity for this professional league in Australia to be an international product and bring real strength in the world of baseball.”
It also follows other countries like Japan, who already have a professional women’s league and Venezuela who has also established one (but is facing some uncertainty due to political instability).
In this challenging corporate space, for Cam, one of the advantages that some of the smaller sports have, is that their fans are largely their participants, rather than followers of domestic teams. That means that brands that align with these sports have a very real opportunity.
“We have the ability to build a true loyalty factor, which is significant. For participants of these sports, to see companies get behind the sport that they are passionately involved in, is more likely to build loyalty towards that brand, compared to some of the larger sports,” says Cam.
Additionally part of this launch, Baseball Australia has also focused on its grassroots and is asking 1,000 people to donate $250 dollars to play a key role in helping to establish this league. For these people, they will have permanent recognition as part of this league in perpetuity, given that their names will be on the back of the trophy.
Baseball does get high performance funding for elite and high performing teams, but this money is exclusively allocated to the men because of the 2020 Olympics approaching. This often leaves the women’s teams little choice other than to seek public support and focus on the grassroots space which has been such a key driver in pushing the women’s game.
While women’s leagues play a very important role in establishing a clear pathway for female athletes in most sports, there are other motivations for baseball.
This league will create a stronger link between club baseball and competing at the national level and be a clear pathway for existing athletes, international athletes and up and coming athletes.
But Tahnee says, “Not only for baseball in general, but women’s baseball, there is a gap in awareness and knowledge. Sometimes people will try to correct you and say ‘you play softball not baseball’ so awareness of the sport is crucial.”
When I ask Tahnee about what success looks like in terms of remuneration to compete in this league, her answer is this.
“If it was about the money, we wouldn’t be playing.”
For Cam however, this remuneration point is important. At the moment, for many sports, it is user-pays which means that our elite female athletes are often paying to compete. To flip this on its head and be in a position where women do not have to pay to play and are even being remunerated a small amount, is a step in the right direction.
An advantage that baseball does have over many other sports though is that given the men’s league is also semi-professional there is the opportunity to bridge the gender pay gap in their sport, immediately or very quickly after establishing this league.
At the moment, the ABL clubs have all been invited to bid for licences. The next step will be seeing which teams are successful as we move closer to the soft launch of this league at the end of the year.
For women’s sports fans, this is just another opportunity to support tremendous athletes and help the next generation see another chance to play sport at a domestic and international level.