The Most Influential Women in Australian Sport: 20 to 11

By Chloe Saltau

Annastacia Palaszczuk, Cathy Freeman, Gai Waterhouse and Steph Gilmore.Credit:Getty, James Alcock and Alex Ellinghausen

As International Women’s Day approaches, Australia’s female athletes and teams are front and centre in the national sporting conversation. Our women’s cricket team has just won an astonishing 13th world title, and the Matildas are about to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which promises to be the biggest event on Australian soil since the Sydney Olympics.

But who is the most influential woman in Australian sport? Not the greatest or the most successful, but the most influential.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Wide World of Sports have teamed up to choose the top 50 most influential women in Australian sport. To make this list, it wasn’t enough to be a champion sportswoman, although many are. From athletes to administrators, journalists to sports agents and sponsors, these women have made a difference. Some have taken a stand on issues that transcend sport, some made the decisions that determine where the money goes or what sports we see on TV, and others worked in the background to keep the major codes rolling along.

Our judges: Brooke Boney (Today entertainment presenter), Melissa Coulter Ryan (Sunday Age sports editor), Billie Eder (SMH sports reporter), Roz Kelly (WWOS sports presenter), Emily Patterson ( reporter), Georgina Robinson (SMH chief rugby reporter), Chloe Saltau (The Age sports editor), Zoe Samios (SMH/Age media reporter), Claire Siracusa (The Age sports producer), Kathryn Wicks (SMH associate editor).

How the judging worked: Each judge picked their own top 20, with votes apportioned in reverse order. So, No.20 was given one vote and No.19 two votes, and so on. From there, we compiled the top 50 based on total votes. Where two people finished with the same number of votes, they appear on our list in alphabetical order. Today, we unveil numbers 11 to 20, and we will publish 10 names per day culminating with the top 10 on Wednesday, International Women’s Day.

Our list will doubtless provoke debate, but we hope it also recognises the importance of women to sport in this country, and encourages sporting bodies and businesses to keep pushing for equality.

Cindy Hook.Credit:Peter Wallis

20. Cindy Hook (29 votes)
Brisbane 2032 chief executive

Hook, an American who moved to Australia in 2009, is the CEO of the Brisbane 2032 organising committee. She was the first female CEO of one of the Big Four firms when she took the role of chief executive of Deloitte Australia in 2015 and more recently was the head of Deloitte Asia Pacific. Hook is only the second woman to be named CEO of an Olympic organising committee. She will lead all aspects of preparations for the Games. When Hook was announced as CEO, Brisbane 2032 president Andrew Liveris described himself as “gobsmacked that we have managed to attract someone like Cindy”. Claire Siracusa

Cathy Freeman with her gold medal for the 400 metres.Credit:Rick Stevens

19. Cathy Freeman (34)
Former runner

When you think of great Australian sportswomen, Freeman has to make the list. She was just 16 years old in Auckland in 1990 when she first struck gold, becoming the first Indigenous woman to stand atop the dais at the Commonwealth Games. But it was her victory at the Sydney Olympics that was her greatest achievement. Watching the video back still results in shivers down the spine. In 49.11 seconds of magic, Freeman provided one of this nation’s greatest sporting moments. Billie Eder

Gai Waterhouse is Australia’s most successful female horse trainer.Credit:Getty

18. Gai Waterhouse (36)
Horse trainer and businesswoman

Waterhouse began her career as a solo trainer in 1992 and hasn’t looked back. Known as the First Lady of Racing, Waterhouse is one of the sport’s most recognisable faces. She has more than 150 group 1 winners, including the Melbourne Cup (she was the first Australian woman to train the winner in the 3200m classic) and a record seven Golden Slippers. She was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame just 15 years after receiving her training licence and is also a member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. She comes from a legendary racing family, but has blazed her own incredibly successful trail. Claire Siracusa

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

17. Annastacia Palaszczuk (36)
Queensland Premier

Palaszczuk wielded more power than the King [Wally Lewis] in the Sunshine State during COVID, when she threw Australia’s sporting codes a lifeline. Palaszczuk became the saviour of the NRL, AFL, Netball and Supercars and turned Queensland into the centre of Australia’s sporting universe. And she’s not giving up that mantle easily – also leading the charge to bring the Olympics back Down Under in 2032. Not afraid of making tough decisions, Palaszczuk is the woman sports administrators want on their side. She would be an asset in the boardroom of any of Australia’s major sporting organisations. Roz Kelly

Surfing legend Stephanie Gilmore.Credit:WSL

16. Steph Gilmore (42)

There’s a fierce energy about Gilmore, who made surfing history last year when she became the first woman to win eight world titles, eclipsing Layne Beachley’s seven. She fought for equal pay for male and female surfers before the WSL announced equal prize money in 2018. “It’s ingrained in us to be like, ‘Oh, that’s OK, we’re doing so good already’, instead of fighting for more,” Gilmore said in an interview with Vogue at the time. She also welcomed the move to a schedule that mirrors the men’s locations, which meant a return to the famous Teahupo’o event that was removed from the women’s tour on safety grounds in 2006. With more than 700,000 Instagram followers, Gilmore has a huge platform to influence a generation of young women. Chloe Saltau

Daisy Pearce, Nicole Livingstone and Western Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn.Credit:Getty Images

15. Nicole Livingstone (44)
AFL general manager of women’s football

The AFLW competition has only been growing since its start in 2017 and at its head since that time has been Livingstone, the AFL’s general manager of women’s football. A three-time Olympian, Livingstone won three Olympic medals in her swimming career, and has experience in commentary and the media – she is still involved in swimming commentary roles. Her experience in sports administration extends beyond football: Livingstone had previously held board positions with multiple sporting organisations, including Swimming Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee. Claire Siracusa

Foxtel executive Amanda Laing.Credit:Dallas Kilponen

14. Amanda Laing (45)
Foxtel chief content and commercial officer

Laing is well-known in media circles. She is also known among sports executives for her former position on the board of the NRL and current role as commissioner of Sport Australia. But it is Laing’s position as chief commercial and content officer at the Foxtel Group that arguably carries the most influence. Laing is in charge of securing content deals that will drive subscription growth across its services, including Kayo Sports and Binge. Signing long-term deals with sporting bodies is critical to her company’s success, but equally the cash generated from the deals – most recently with the AFL and Cricket Australia – gives sporting bodies the opportunity to invest in players, female talent, and the grassroots. Zoe Samios

Stephanie Beltrame.Credit:Sebastian Costanzo

13. Stephanie Beltrame (46)
Cricket Australia executive

Beltrame was a key figure in the recent $1.5 billion deal for cricket to remain on Seven and Foxtel for seven years, and the two deals before that. She leads negotiations with the big media companies to determine how we watch cricket, how much of it goes behind a paywall and how much the networks pay. She has overseen a period of massive change, including the growth of the BBL and WBBL as TV products and moving Tests and limited-overs matches to new broadcasters after more than 30 years on Channel Nine. Beltrame worked her way up from being an assistant to then-chief executive Malcolm Speed in the late 1990s, and is regarded as a future CEO herself. Chloe Saltau

Federal sport minister Anika Wells.Credit:Eamon Gallacher

12. Anika Wells (48)
Federal Minister for Sport

Wells has oversight from the grassroots level to the international stage in terms of policy and funding. The federal government is contributing $3.44 billion towards infrastructure for the Brisbane Olympics, and Tasmania’s hope for an AFL license hinge on funding for a new stadium. Wells’ department has confirmed that Australia had joined 34 nations calling for the International Olympic Committee to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from its competitions, putting it at odds with the Australian Olympic Committee. Melissa Coulter Ryan

Jayne Hrdlicka, chair and president of Tennis Australia.Credit:Dan Peled

11. Jayne Hrdlicka (54)
Businesswoman and president of Tennis Australia

Virgin Australia chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka has worn many hats. She’s led Jetstar, the a2 Milk Company and sat on the board of Woolworths Limited for more than five years. But her role as chair and president of Tennis Australia gets her on this list. Since she took on the position in 2017, the organisation has evolved rapidly. It launched a new international tournament, The United Cup, navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions with international tennis stars including world No.1 Novak Djokovic, and in late 2022 secured a historic $500 million broadcast deal with Nine Entertainment. Zoe Samios

  • Read Part One here: 50-41
  • Read Part Two here: 40-31
  • Read Part Three here: 30-21

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