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Don't undersell surging women's football



On Friday 3 February 2017, Carlton and Collingwood took to the stage on the suburban Princes Park oval. The two clubs being traditional rivals, there was electricity in the air for the first grudge match of the new season.

Libby Birch in training for the AFLW Western BulldogsThe stadium was packed to capacity with upwards of 24 thousand eager spectators, thousands more locked outside after the gates were closed midway through the first quarter. Everyone in the crowd wanted to be a part of history that night, for it was not just any game of football being played. It was the first ever AFLW match. Professional women's football was finally here.

Much has changed within the football landscape since that first game. On the eve of AFLW season two, we find that female involvement in Australian Rules football has grown substantially, achieving record participation numbers. In 2017 more than 460,000 women participated in football, up a staggering 76 per cent from the previous year. The introduction of the AFLW was undoubtedly a catalyst. This is certainly true of my own experience.

Seeing women playing footy at the elite level is something I had only ever dreamed about as a child. I have always been footy mad. A keen Richmond supporter, I played footy in high school in round-robins against girls from other schools in the district. I even joined a women's league when I was 16. Back then, women's teams were few and far between, sometimes requiring us to drive for hours to play against other teams in our league. After sustaining an injury in a semi-final, I decided to hang up my footy boots and focus my attention on completing VCE. I still loved footy and enjoyed watching it, but I gave up on being so devoted.

Now, on the wrong side of 30, the AFLW has reignited my passion for the sport. Although I will never play at the professional level — I'm too old and my fitness is not what it once was — I was inspired to start playing footy again. I joined West Brunswick Amateur Football Club, and interest was so great that the club soon needed to facilitate an 'unofficial' second team of women. We will be fielding two women's teams in the Victorian Amateur Football Association in 2018 as the number of female recruits continues to swell.

My experience in returning to football as a result of AFLW seems to be quite common. Women of all ages, inspired by their new female footy idols, are picking up footballs for the first time. As the saying goes, 'you can't be what you can't see'.

The uptake of football is giving women an opportunity to use their bodies in a new way. Australian rules football has a physicality unlike most other sports. It is hard-hitting and fast-paced, with high-impact full-body contact. This has prompted some commentators to question whether the sport is too physical for the female body (spoiler, it's not).


"The way women get to use their bodies in football is empowering, as women are being celebrated for doing things they're not usually encouraged to do."


Women playing football is not a new phenomenon, despite only recently being expanded into a professional league comparable to the men's AFL. In the documentary Bloodlines, which explores the family history of star Carlton AFLW player Darcy Vescio, Vescio reminisces that the only time she felt a bit different from her male teammates in the Myrtleford Saints juniors was before or after the game when she was in a separate changeroom. On the field, any differences disappeared and she felt at home playing a sport she loved.

Following the premiere of Bloodlines, Vescio was able to expand on those differences during a Q&A. She told the audience that the way women get to use their bodies in football is empowering, as women are being 'celebrated for doing things they're not usually encouraged to do'. Vescio believes that this is one of the reasons which makes footy a great sport particularly for women and girls.

While many positives have resulted from the introduction of the AFLW, there is still a way to go until it is revered in the same way men's football is.

Invariably, whenever a news article is published about the AFLW, there are some who feel moved to post negative comments proclaiming women can't or shouldn't play football (though anecdotally, the negative comments are vastly outnumbered by positivity and encouragement, a massive improvement on the outcry of opposition prior to the inaugural AFLW season).

In a disappointing turn of events, the 7 Network has announced that of the AFLW games being televised on free-to-air channels, the majority have been relegated to the secondary channel 7mate for the 2018 season.

Promotion of the upcoming season of the premier female competition has been noticeably lacklustre, especially compared to the AFL's promotion of its new AFLX preseason variant. And, despite a recent pay increase, AFLW players continue to be paid at a rate that prevents them from being full time athletes. In some cases, players reported being left out of pocket after playing their first season.

However, the AFLW will continue to expand over the next two years, with more teams to be incorporated into the competition in 2019 and 2020. With its expansion, more interest will be generated, as die-hard AFL fans get a sister team associated with their club. Over time, the issues surrounding AFLW will be improved upon and the kinks will be ironed out.

On a local level, more women and girls will join teams. There will be opportunities for future players to have better pathways into footy at a professional level without being forced out of the sport when they reach a certain age and can no longer play in mixed junior teams.

Time will tell whether the opening game for the second season of the AFLW will be as wildly successful as it was the first time around, but one thing is sure: women's footy is here, and it's here to stay. Play on!



Polly FletcherPolly is a Melbourne based footy tragic and social media addict. She is also an occasional contributor on the Footy Gospel podcast. Follow Polly on Twitter @PollyMaeve.

The AFLW 2018 season kicks off this Friday 2 February with a game between Carlton and Collingwood at Ikon Park in Melbourne.

Main image: Libby Birch in training for the AFLW Western Bulldogs.

Topic tags: Polly Fletcher, AFLW, AFL, women in sport



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Existing comments

Although an avid watcher of team sports, I've never been one to participate. Wisely, others were chosen for that honour. I gravitated instead to individual sports - tennis, running and swimming. Now, at a certain age, I walk and swim. Good luck to the ladies footy teams! Up there like the Sydney Swans!

Pam | 29 January 2018  

I played Rugby (Union, for the southerners) in the 90s in at the time the top Queensland competition; most clubs had women's teams, who played hard physical games and had the respect of the male players. Womens Rugby flew under the radar for years, until our recent 7s world championship, an event that appears to have let the cat out of the bag for AFL, the AFLW took just over 12 months to appear after this. And women aren't capable of playing AFL? Watch a women's Rugby 7s game and see if you think a woman can't take a hit!

Paul Triggs | 30 January 2018  

The politicizing and commercializing of sport are effective drivers of a unisex view of society.

John | 30 January 2018  

I hope that in society's mad rush towards a unisex society, femininity, something precious and quite distinct from gender equality, doesn't become a victim.

john frawley | 31 January 2018  

Yes, john frawley: vive le difference!

John | 31 January 2018  

Women should play football, but not during lulls on the frontlines of combat.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 February 2018  

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