THE WOMEN'S LEAGUE CAPTURING THE IMAGINATION OF A NATION
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
This article was originally published on February 13th, 2019.
When foreigners think of Australian rules football, words like "blood sport", "insane" and "ferocious" begin to come up.
Sportcentre hosts Robert Flores (@RoFlo) and Kevin Connors (@kevconnorsespn) would even describe Australia's beloved sport as a "mix between rugby and mugging someone".
If this sounds like a men-only sport, you would be wrong.
Women have been playing the rough-and-tumble game in various forms for 102 years, but in 2017 they entered the big league.
AFLW launched in 2017, with a flurry of enthusiasm, with higher than expected spectator turnout and ratings success.
So strong was the interest, the inaugural match between old rivals Carlton and Collingwood had to be moved to a bigger venue. A capacity crowd of 24,500 would pack into Princes Park, in Melbourne.
The unexpected demand would see many fans forced to stand throughout the match, while others sat on the stadium's concrete steps.
Organizers would impose a lockout in the first quarter to avoid overcrowding, with 2,000 people still lined up, despite being warned by officials they were "very unlikely to get in". Many continuing to wait outside until half-time.
Forcing AFL chief Gillon McLachlan to apologize to disappointed fans who were unable to get in.
Carlton forward Darcy Vescio (@darcyvee) would say "I think every girl who was out there tonight will just cherish that moment for the rest of their lives."
While Melbourne tabloid the Herald Sun would lead with "Footy's new female formula has a very big future," after the opening round of games. The Herald Sun would also put the AFLW on the front and back pages, along with a 16-page lift-out dedicated just to the female stars of the game.
The novelty would fail to wane after the launch, with 50,000 attending the first four games and capacity crowds recorded in non-traditional AFL cities like Brisbane.
This month the third season of the AFLW kicked off. With the competition seeing the addition of two iconic AFL clubs, Geelong and North Melbourne.
Although some of the initial glimmer has worn off. "The benchmark of the saturation of excitement and coverage that took place was very high and hard to replicate," said Nicole Livingstone (@NicLiv), the AFL's head of women's football.
However, the future still seems bright. The sport has seen levels of participation among young girls skyrocket, and the introduction of Geelong and North Melbourne gives the opportunity to open up to new loyal fanbases.
For the 2020 season, the AFLW will also see four more long-standing AFL teams, Richmond, West Coast, St Kilda, and Gold Coast, to introduce women's teams. Bringing the total number of AFLW players to 420.
McLachlan applauded the addition of the four clubs in 2020 but warned expansion does not guarantee success.
"We congratulate the four successful clubs, but also caution all our industry that this league is still young and requires not just passion, but continued hard work to build solid foundations," he said in a statement.
"The success of women's football is ultimately dependent on our whole industry working together."
Livingstone would also state that the AFLW had put itself in a strong position to grow the women's game.
"The confirmation of four new clubs joining the AFLW competition in 2020 is yet another significant step forward and I congratulate the successful clubs," she said.
"Not only is this further opportunity for the next generation of talented women to play elite Australian football, but also one for fans of the game as we welcome more AFLW teams wearing iconic club colors."
The league signed a landmark broadcasting agreement, valued at $2 million. Which will see every game over the next four years broadcast live on Australian broadcaster Foxtel, while two each week will be shown free-to-air on Channel 7.
“Our supporters, players, clubs and the broader community will continue to embrace the growth of women’s football and we are thrilled that every AFLW match will be broadcast live on television for at least the next four years,” stated Livingstone.
The AFLW has entered its third season learning from the lessons of the previous year, many of which surrounded the competition's visibility.
"In year two we diverted a lot of our attention toward the digital space, but didn’t really have much of a big public visual campaign," Livingstone said. "That copped a fair bit of criticism... whether or not the AFL was completely and totally behind AFLW."
This season the AFLW decided to triple its marketing investment. The 'Gen W' campaign, which launched prior to the season opener, has put the AFLW back in public spaces and on the television. The campaign focuses on the competition as a grassroots social movement, aiming to unite both men and women.
"We need to make sure we capture the fans that are interested in sport," said Livingstone.
"Some of them are still making up their minds about AFLW, so we want to make sure we capture their attention as well."
"The biggest challenge in doing that is that people are comparing AFLW immediately to AFL, which I think is understandable and probably human nature. But the AFL has had 130 years to refine its product and to get it to where it is today. We’re coming into year three."
Playing fields themselves have operated as a barrier to growing the game at a grassroots level. In Sydney especially, finding available green space for girls to play, and facilities with women's amenities have been a challenge for women's football.
"We’ve done considerable work with state, federal and local government to redevelop [but] we’re still at only just under 30% of facilities that are deemed to be female friendly," Livingstone said.
"Many of them are post-war facilities, so they were built in the 40s or 50s, and only thought of for men’s sports."
Changing the Country
As the physical landscape for the sport becomes more female-friendly, the enthusiasm of upcoming players has also grown.
"There’s been the big jump from basically no girls playing in New South Wales to a lot," said Ash Moeller, the female football talent pathway manager for AFL NSW/ACT. "The girls realize they’ve actually got a pathway to play footy now."
Twelve development academies for female talent across NSW, including two in Sydney, are seeing the state produce its first generation of elite AFL players.
"In the last three or four years numbers have really skyrocketed," Moeller said. "I think there will be a steady increase now over the next couple of years in line with AFLW, and the Sydney Swans having a potential team in the next five years will give another boost in numbers."
In the city of Geelong, young women and girls are flocking towards their local football fields to show what they’re made of, and the competition is growing across all age groups. Before the start of the AFLW, there were 59 women playing under AFL Barwon. By 2018, that had expanded to 1,600.
“The AFLW competition has definitely kickstarted what is now mass participation,” says Will McGregor, AFL Barwon’s commercial and regional operations manager.
“Female teams have grown substantially in the AFL Barwon region, from only four youth girls’ teams in 2014, to now having 60 teams across U12, U15, U18, and open female competitions. This growth looks to continue to rise, with new teams enquiring about entering across different age levels in 2019.”
For Livingstone, it's not just about the football. "It’s about the way it’s actually changing our nation and making opportunity for women in what have been traditionally really male-dominated areas," she said.
She is excited about players such as the GWS Giants' Haneen Zreika (@HaneenZreika), the AFLW's first Muslim player, who are expanding the scope of what seems possible for girls in sport.
"It’s just so beautiful when you think about the inspiration it will give to the rest of her community," she said. "Haneen is one moment – we’ve got all these other moments that are taking place in terms of groundbreaking role models for our community."
As female participation sees a significant increase, this not only brings in extra revenue through membership fees but has created a whole new fan base that certainly wasn’t capitalized on to this extent before. Meaning more people, largely women and young girls, attending games, taking out memberships and buying merchandise.
So while the AFL may argue that the women’s game doesn’t bring in enough revenue to justify high player salaries, if you take a look at the bigger picture then there is certainly room for them to move in that space.
Without players like Sarah Perkins (@sarahperkins28), Darcy Vescio, Katie Brennan (@Katie_Brennan16) or Daisy Pearce (@DaisyPearce6) for girls to look up to, it is hard to believe that the AFL would have seen the increase in participation that it has.