'Rugby league started this': Page
Harvey Norman CEO Katie Page was addressing a conference of American Express executives in New York earlier this year when she was asked about the rise of women’s sport in Australia.
"What you see today is because of what rugby league did 11 years ago," page told them. "People talk about last year being a watershed moment in all sport for women, but rugby league started that conversation 11 years ago. How incredible."
It may have taken a decade of urging and support from people like Page but female participation is now the biggest growth area in the game and that is being matched by support for women’s rugby league.
For the first time, this year’s Women’s Rugby League World Cup will be played alongside the men’s tournament as a stand-alone event at Cronulla’s Southern Cross Stadium, with both finals played as a double-header in Brisbane on December 2.
Significantly, all 12 matches in the women’s World Cup will be broadcast live in Australia on the Seven network.
A women’s interstate clash is also likely to be played at ANZ Stadium next season before Origin II as part of the NRL’s stand-alone representative weekend, while plans are continuing to establish an elite competition.
"State of Origin II next year will be on a Sunday night with an earlier kick off time and it will also be on a stand-alone weekend so we are exploring what we can do with our women’s game … and whether we can merge that with Origin," NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said.
"We've been playing interstate rugby league and Jillaroos for a long time. [But] having rugby league World Cup games live on free to air television will provide a platform for young girls across the country to watch, maybe for the first time."
Female participation in Australia increased by 22 per cent in 2016 and has risen a further 31 per cent this year to 18,500 players registered with clubs who play a form of rugby league.
Unlike some other codes, this figure does not include participants in school competitions or programs, or those who play touch football.
In addition, there are more than 11,000 registered female referees, coaches, sports trainers and administrators involved in the game from grassroots to NRL level.
Their involvement will be celebrated with this weekend’s annual NRL Women In League round – an initiative developed by Page in 2007 and supported by Harvey Norman for the past 11 seasons.
"With women in sport, with women in rugby league, it has been building, building, building now for 11 years," Page said.
"When I was in New York in January, I was asked by the chair of American Express Global to talk to all of his executives and I did the usual and then it was ‘tell us what you are doing with women in sport. We have watched what is happening in Australia’.
"I went through the story of how it started [with rugby league] and the number of sports that we are now involved with, making sure that it is not only rugby league on its own but all sports in which women can compete at an elite level.
"The fact that American Express, and their executives from Europe, South America and everywhere, wanted to know what we were doing with women in sport in Australia tells you how powerful this message is and that it gets a lot of coverage.
"We are there for the long term and we understand that we are role models as well for other corporates to be supporting this."
After sponsoring the Jillaroos since 2015, Harvey Norman has increased its involvement in women’s rugby league by becoming the official major partner of the women’s World Cup.
"What is great about this year is that you are going right up to December with rugby league so it is a really full year for the girls with the All Stars, the Jillaroos, the interstate game this weekend for the Women In League round and the World Cup.
"They are all elite games for the girls and they are there with the guys so they are getting the exposure and the respect they should and I know that when everyone turns up they will be blown away with the skill of these girls."