Preface: The last decade has been one of much-needed change for women in sport. In addition to the stellar success of many Australian women’s sporting teams, women who work in sport have slowly been given a platform to share their passion, opinions and expertise the same way their male counterparts have always done.
These women have become not only advocates, but leaders in their respective fields, pushing for and expecting better for themselves and for fellow women, but it doesn’t come without a cost.
Each and every woman who plays a role in the promotion and support of women in sport does so with the expectation they may face just as much, if not more, animosity, misogyny and criticism, as they will praise. This is something we need to change and stop accepting as ‘part of the job.’
It was two decades ago when an eight-year-old kid from western Sydney raced home from school to watch her first rugby league match. The Parramatta Eels were facing the Canterbury Bulldogs in the 1998 NRL grand final qualifier and a young Mary Konstantopoulos wanted nothing more than to cuddle up to her hero and cheer on his team.
It wasn’t long before his team became hers and an intense passion was born, a passion that thousands now know as ‘Ladies Who League’ (LWL) or, on a wider scale, the ‘Ladies Who’ empire.
“I remember watching my first ever rugby league game, it was the grand final qualifier between Parramatta and Canterbury,” Konstantopoulos said of her first dip into the football world.
“I was cuddled up to my dad and Parramatta were up 18-2 with 10 minutes to go. I looked up at him and said, ‘Dad, we’ve got this in the bag!’ I was absolutely expecting that the second game I’d watch would be the Eels in the grand final.”
Eels and Bulldogs fans of the 90’s era would remember that shortly after, Canterbury managed a late resurgence, tying up the game 18-18 before ultimately going on to win the match, 32-20.
It was during the aftermath of this defining match that Konstantopoulos witnessed just how much emotion following a code and supporting a team could elicit. Seeing her father, the one she referred to as her hero, completely crestfallen made her realise that football was more than just a game.
“Watching Dad’s face as it went from elation to just pure distress – the devastation of losing in such a terrible way, really impacted me.”
“My first experience of watching football was such a rollercoaster of emotions. Going from that high of thinking we were going to the grand final, to the low of losing, was something that really stuck with me.”
But her new team’s defeat and the devastation of her dad didn’t deter the rookie fan, in fact, her dip into football became a total immersion which strengthened the bond between father and daughter and created a lifetime of fond memories.
“I remember feeling really connected to my dad and brothers during that time,” the full-time lawyer recalled.
“My favourite memories growing up are of dad taking us to Parramatta stadium. I’d carry my little Parramatta flag and we’d walk through the streets, winding our way to the stadium and stopping for a sausage sizzle.
“When Parramatta would win, we would beg him to take us ‘hooning’, where we would honk the horn and wave out of the car windows,” she said.
“I just remember this feeling of being connected to something bigger than myself, even as a kid.”
A fierce loyalty to the game developed for the perceptive youngster, which evolved into something bigger than she could have imagined. An allegiance to the Parramatta Eels led Konstantoupolos on a journey to becoming one of the most respected voices in women’s sport.
“As I grew up, I was Parramatta mad. That team was all it was really about for me at the time,” Konstantopoulos said.
“I was very invested in the team and I wanted to share that and talk to other people about the game.”
And she did. Before LWL was born, Konstantopoulos started blogging and writing articles for various football related websites in the hopes she would meet other supporters just like her, but she faced a tough crowd.
Although going in with the best of intentions, she discovered early on that sharing a woman’s voice on a ‘man’s game’ wasn’t going to be easy.
“When I was at university, I started writing for a website called 1eyedeel.com, where other Parramatta supporters would also write articles.
“My articles gained a bit of traction and I became a well-known writer on the platform, but I didn’t see anyone else like me and with that came a lot of trolling, so I gave it up,” Konstantopoulos explained.
Luckily, encouragement from a friend along with Konstantopoulos’s thick skin and her unwavering passion to give women in sport a voice ensured that bout of negativity didn’t keep her away for too long.
“An amazing woman who I worked with quickly realised that I had this passion for rugby league, men’s rugby league at that point,” Konstantopoulos said.
“She said to me, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’
“My response was, ‘No one would care, no one would be interested’, but she encouraged me to go home and think about it, which I did. I thought to myself, ‘I have nothing to lose here’ and that was the start of my first blog.
“I had no idea how to make a website, but I wanted a space that encouraged women to get more involved in conversations about the game and this was my way of doing my part to foster that.”
When she started her blog in 2013 ‘the game’ to Konstantopoulos only included men’s rugby league, it wasn’t until she heard of the Jillaroos that she realised there was also a women’s game.
“When I first started the blog, the game to me – was the men’s game. I was very passionate about women who were involved in other capacities, but at that stage, I had no idea that women also played rugby league,” she admitted.
“There was a defining moment where I heard of the Jillaroos for the first time and I thought to myself, hang on, I am an intensely devoted rugby league supporter and I had no idea these women even existed. There would have to be others like me.”
Konstantopolous’s revelation lit a fire in her belly and was the catalyst for LWL’s evolution into what we see today, a website, blog and social media presence that supports all women in sport.
“LWL bumbled along for the first couple of years and as I got to meet more female athletes, I knew that these were stories that needed to be shared and if I had the capacity to do something, I should,” she said.
“In a way, I developed a broader sense of the world and instead of LWL being about men’s rugby league, it became about getting more women involved in conversations about sport and supporting the women involved, whether they be players, referees, volunteers or administrators.”
It was by chance that LWL grew from a ‘crappy WordPress blog’ to a far-reaching podcast covering multiple sports, but those who follow LWL would know that Konstantopoulos wouldn’t be able to do what she does, without her right-hand woman, Brittany Carter.
“Podcasting was always something I wanted to do because I love talking,” Konstantopoulos said.
“Out of the blue in 2016, I received an email from a studio in Alexandria asking if I wanted to start my own women’s sport podcast and I jumped at the opportunity.
“I would go into the studio every Saturday morning and record the show live and the idea was to have a young, up and comer produce the show.
“One day, I had Brittany Carter come on to the show as a guest, and my producer at the time asked her if she wanted to produce the show. Brittany said yes and that’s where it all started.”
LWL became more than just working together for Konstantopoulos and Carter, it’s been a journey of mutual inspiration and growth.
“I couldn’t do what I do without Britt, having someone to bounce ideas off and having her support is incredible.”
“Additionally, to have watched her development over the last four years has been really special.
“Brittany has a passion for commentary, specifically in netball and cricket and to see her stepping into that territory and now becoming an authority in that space has been so brilliant to watch.
“She shares the same purpose that I do, and she knows how important promoting women in sport is. While I am out there doing what I do, she is doing exactly the same thing.”
Both working full-time on top of managing LWL and various other writing and media gigs, Konstantopoulos and Carter understand the juggle most women in sport need to endure.
Yet, as hard as they work to promote and advocate for women in sport, Konstantopoulos says there is still a gap in understanding the hurdles that are faced by female players.
“I see a lot of takes about the NRLW and how the season should be longer or that the women’s State of Origin games should be played before the men’s games,” she explained.
It’s very easy to say, let’s double the season but to expect women to take that much time off work is unrealistic.
“A lot of it stems from people assuming that women are on the same sort of remuneration men are on and they don’t realise that these women are studying to get jobs or already have jobs which they need in addition to their sporting careers, to make a living.
“People criticise the quality of the women’s game compared to the men’s game, but it gets nowhere near the amount of investment. These women don’t have the opportunity to focus on their craft full-time the way the men do,” Konstantopoulos continued.
“As an example, the Australian women’s cricket team have been wildly successful and absolutely dominant on the international stage and it comes as no coincidence that their success is off the back of them becoming full-time professionals.”
A lot of people may not know that LWL not only promote women in sport, but they sponsor them too.
“If I was rich, sponsoring female athletes would be the difference I would want to make, because they need it,” Konstantopoulos said.
Along with sponsoring the Macleay Valley Mustangs Rugby League Club in Kempsey, NSW, LWL also sponsor a woman named Aimilia Kozari who is a member of Greece’s first women’s rugby league team.
Luckily, LWL also partnered with a generous business who saw the importance of investing in the future of women’s sport.
“I met a wonderful woman last year, called Chantell Keating from EISS Super. She spoke to me at the end of a function and said that EISS wanted to support women in sport,” Konstantopoulos said.
“Chantell asked if I knew of any teams who could benefit and I thought to myself, ‘Do I ever?!’
“I put out a tweet and received about 200 responses which I passed on to Chantell, who contacted every single one of them. EISS ended up sponsoring three or four women’s teams, including the Western Sydney Wanderers.
“In a way, that is one of my proudest achievements, to be able to make that impact. These women now have a sponsor, they can get what they need and they have corporate backing.”
“The more corporations we have supporting women in sport, the better,” she continued.
“I honestly don’t know why more corporations don’t do it, the bang for buck is incredible but also the athletes themselves are incredible. You couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for your company.”
Although receiving much praise from fellow women in sport advocates, such as her recent ‘Emerging Leader in Sport Award’ from Women’s Agenda, Konstantopoulos’s growing profile hasn’t granted her immunity from the same kind of trolls she faced before LWL began.
After two decades of dedicating herself to the game, she has been on the receiving end of several sexist comments. Even though her experience growing up and watching footy with her dad is identical to those most young boys would have shared with their father’s, her opinion was considered of lesser value than her male counterparts.
“I think those who troll and criticise are afraid. A lot of this deep-rooted misogyny comes from a place of fear and lack of understanding,” Konstantopoulos explained.
“The age-old criticism used to be ‘You’ve never laced up a pair of boots, what would you know?’ That’s absolutely true, but I am not offering myself as an expert, I’m a person who loves the game and shares my opinion and wants to share the stories behind the game.
“There is this misconception that for women to get more, it means men have to get less, but that isn’t true and the Tayla Harris statue along with the misogyny displayed prior to it, is a great example of this.”
There were times when the online criticism became quite personal and overwhelming for Konstantopoulos.
“I’ve done so much work, mentally, when it comes to dealing with the trolls,” she shared.
“I remember my very first experience, there was a pile on that lasted two or three days and I just couldn’t see past it. I thought my reputation was ruined and everyone hated me. It was really hard.
“I would just go home and cry.”
The onslaught was enough to make her wonder if LWL was really worth it and she considered giving up it, but some words of wisdom from a trusted advisor made her realise that a life without her passion project, would be an empty one.
“During that time, I spoke to my coach and she said to me, ‘You are in complete control of this, you could turn it all off tomorrow, let’s talk that through and see what it looks like’
“She said to me, ‘Tonight, let’s assume you go home and you shut it all down’ and I just started crying in front of her.”
It was then that I realised LWL meant far too much to me to throw it away.
“That deep sense of purpose is something that I really cling to. Unless I truly loved it and unless I found deep purpose, no one would sign up to operate the way I operate” she shared.
Learning about how the brain responds to criticism and reminding herself of her ‘why’ has helped Konstantopoulos deal with the trolling.
“The reality is that the more it happens, the easier it gets. You just need to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing, is this something I believe in?’ If the answer is yes, that should give you the confidence to handle any negative commentary.
“I like to think of social media as my home and I wouldn’t invite someone into my home to say awful things about me, so I won’t entertain people into my social media bubble who will do the same.”
She also says that being mindful of where the criticism comes from and how important their voices are to your cause, is important in differentiating what is constructive criticism and what is trolling.
“The trolling never comes from people who I admire, people who support me or people who are doing similar work to me. They understand that you can disagree with someone and have that conversation rather than targeting things like their appearance or calling them derogatory names.
“To be honest, I’m one of the lucky ones and those hideous comments are just way too common towards women in sport.”
The online vitriol and death threats towards both Erin Molan and her child is just one highly publicised example of this, but it happens constantly to those women who are considered “in the underground.”
“I love the quote from Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” because it is so true,” Konstantopoulos said.
“If you’re not in the arena with me, working toward the same goals and championing the same causes, I don’t have time for your opinion.”
But she says the positives definitely outweigh the negatives, with her ‘why’ a constant reminder of the need to keep pushing.
“My life would be so empty without LWL. It may not always exist in the way that it exists now, myself or Brittany may go off and do other things, but our support for women and our promotion for women in sport will never change.
“The female athletes we engage with, just warm my heart and have fundamentally changed my life,” she said.
“So many people talk about purpose, doing what you love and chasing your dreams and we have these women who have sold their cars to play in tournaments, who have sacrificed and who juggle work commitments to do what they love. They are pretty amazing.”
And her inspiration doesn’t end there, although Konstantopoulos refers to her dad as her hero, she credits her mum as her muse.
“I know everyone says their mum is the best – but my mum really is the best, she’s such an inspiration,” Konstantopoulos said.
“She went through breast cancer when I was 11 and has been in remission for a long time but seeing the courage she displayed during that time was such an inspiration. It changed our relationship in that, she will always be my mum but she is also my best friend.
“Additionally, the sacrifices she’s made for my family and the kindness and patience she shows inspires me every day.”
Although, Konstantopoulos and her best friend may not have everything in common.
“Mum hates sport, she is not interested at all, but she supports me fiercely,” she laughed.
“She couldn’t care less about rugby league but will be the first person to wave a flag for everything I do.
“I also get a lot of my strength from women in sport. I carry them like a little beacon and they are a constant reminder to do what I love, what’s important and to chase a life with purpose.”
As for her advice for women in sport who struggle with ‘fighting the good fight’ or those who are still finding their feet in a place that’s been historically known as a man’s world, Konstantopoulos has this advice;
“Your voice is really powerful and people want to hear it, so don’t be afraid to have a go. Don’t assume people don’t want to hear what you have to say and connect with other people in your arena because they want to help.
“Also, don’t be discouraged when things feel hard or overwhelming. It’s okay to admit that things aren’t always as shiny as what social media makes them out to be.
“There are times when I’m sitting up until midnight wondering why I’m doing this, why I’m up until all hours when others could be doing more, but I’m not alone.
“We do it because we care so much and want to see so much more done and the world is changing, and it’s because of people like us, so we need to keep going.”