How to be an AFLW athlete and juggle another two professions

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Aisling McCarthy in action for the West Coast Eagles. Photo: West Coast Eages.

It’s been a continuous tug-of-war since the AFLW inception in 2017 on giving the female athletes an equal and fair salary and season’s length.

While playing at the most elite level, the sides don’t all come up against each other as the AFLW adopted a conference-style structure. With only 14 teams in the AFLW as of 2021, each team played a total of nine home and away games.

In order to manage through the rest of the year, the athletes are forced to find a regular 9-5 job. This could be another career completely, or like many of the athletes, play another sport code.

For West Coast Eagles forward Aisling McCarthy, she does both. Born in Ireland, McCarthy grew up playing Gaelic football from the age of seven and now pursues the sport professionally, while also practising as a qualified physiotherapist.

When in Australia to play AFLW, McCarthy puts on hold her Gaelic football and physiotherapy to pursue, at most, five months of AFLW. Even if she did want to practice physiotherapy in Australia, her Visa wouldn’t allow her to do so.

McCarthy has since looked at the brighter side of this, being able to at least focus on four to five months of strong football.

“Gaelic football at home is at a professional standard but I also have to work as a physio as my Monday to Friday, nine to five,” McCarthy told The Inner Sanctum.

McCarthy playing Gaelic football for her side Tipperary. Photo: Western Bulldogs.

“I think (the motivation to play AFLW) is just having the time to delve into being more of a professional athlete. We have Visa restrictions over here in Australia and I actually can’t work with a physio, which is a challenge as well, because then I have to put my professional career on the side while I’m out here.

“But it enables me to focus 100 per cent on sport and trying to be the best athlete.”

McCarthy – in usual instances before the COVID-19 pandemic – would spend on average six months in Australia for AFLW, and another six months in Ireland for Gaelic football and physiotherapy.  The exact months she’d spend in each country would depend on either sports commitment.

“I come out to Australia for preseason, so around November time, but it just depends as well on Gaelic commitments as well for this year,” she said.

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With the conclusion of the AFLW season usually scheduled for the conclusion of March (including the finals series), this would then give time for McCarthy to travel back home in time for the Gaelic season to start in May through to September.

This is an incredible amount for one person to juggle. While it’s a love for both sports that motivates her to do compete in the two, McCarthy knows if she were to choose either Aussie Rules or Gaelic football, she would struggle to get by throughout the year.

According to the AFLW Collective Bargaining Agreement, each club must maintain 30 players on its list, with the players then paid based on a tiered system. This system allows minimal opportunity for players to negotiate a better player salary. The only slight opportunity for a salary to increase can at the beginning of each season.

The agreement also states rewards for players who make the finals series, as well as an extra incentives should the player make the grand final.

Even if you are lucky to be the two players of your club earning a tier one salary, it is near impossible to be able to live off that salary alone.

With the AFL Commission announcing this morning that the final four sides, Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney have the opportunity to make a bid to play as early as season seven, the growth of the league, as McCarthy says is happening at the ‘gradual pace’.

The announcement also confirmed that an overlap with the men’s season will again be prevented, with season six commencing in December 2021 to allow for the extra home-and-away game to be played this year.

McCarthy believes that sudden changes to the structure of the AFLW will cause more stress on the players than having to pursue multiple careers.

“We can’t expand things too fast or even ask to play like 15 games next year, because we only played nine home and away games this year, it’ll is a big jump,” she said.

“But I think that as the years go on, and that there’s a new Collective Bargaining Agreement essentially going to be done year after next, we will be looking for maybe to expand the league and have longer games and a longer season.

“So that’s what everyone’s aiming towards, but that’s definitely something that has to be done gradual. There’s little things that that will end up happening, but I don’t think it should happen in one season.”

Should these changes occur when McCarthy is still participating in AFLW, she knows there will be a tough decision to make, like all the athletes, on whether to commit to football or to their other career.

“It will be a big jump from potentially having to go part time or even drop their jobs solely play AFLW,” she said.

“For me, there would have to be choice whether I’d stay at home and work as a physio and play Gaelic or commit to AFLW and stay out here longer than six months.”

In saying this, for the time being McCarthy, believes that the opportunity currently for the women to play at a separate time as the men allows sole coverage of the AFLW and the ability to have a stronger supporter base.

“It gives that window of opportunity in the media for the AFLW, and also just the interests of members of West Coast Eagles don’t have to pick between the AFL and coming to one of our games,” she said.

“West Coast fans can open up their eyes to the female sport… I think [the AFL] are smarter to do it in that sense to build the brand a bit longer.”

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