Women have been playing Australian rules football for more than a century. In 2017 the sport’s best players will finally get their chance to play professionally, when a new league opens play with eight teams organized by AFL clubs. Women’s footy still faces obstacles, particularly from those who think the rough sport is only for men. But the new, elite-level league promises to keep building the fastest-growing sport in Australia.
2017 will mark a historic first in Australian sport: the launch of a national women’s Australian rules football competition, allied with the elite men’s Australian Football League (AFL) clubs. The eight inaugural teams will play six home-and-away matches, with the top four teams playing off in two semi-finals, culminating in a Grand Final, which could be played as a curtain-raiser to the AFL season opener. As the main football code in all but the northern states, and the most popular spectator sport in the country, the creation of a women’s Australian rules league is a potential game changer – not only for top athletes, but for fans of all genders.
Women and girls have played Aussie rules football since at least 1915, but only as amateurs, on suburban grounds far from the cameras, crowds and celebrity status that the professional men’s competition enjoys. There wasn’t even a regular, organised competition until the Victorian Women’s Football League was formed in 1981, comprising just four teams. Women’s football has consistently been under-resourced and under-supported – like other community women’s sport in Australia. Until three young footballers won a historic court case in 2003, girls older than 12 years had no option but to play against adults in the open women’s competition. Thanks to Penny Cula-Reid, Helen Taylor and Emily Stanyer, they can now play in mixed teams up until the age of 14 (although the league encourages 12-14 year olds to play in girls-only competitions). There are also now youth competitions. But there was never any hope of playing professionally. According to Brisbane Lions player Tayla Harris, who is seen as one of the rising stars of the new women’s league, the sacrifices girls and women made to play footy “seemed to matter just that little bit less” than those of the boys who had the chance to be drafted to the AFL.
The number of women playing club football tripled between 2010 and 2015, and women now represent 25% of all Australian players. The big breaks for women’s football came in August 2015, when an exhibition match between women representing Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs was the first women’s game to be televised live. That same week the AFL announced the creation of the national league. The timing was right. The television coverage drew an average audience of 175,000 in Melbourne alone (301,000 nationally) – significantly more than the 114,000 who watched the men’s game the previous day. Finally, it was clear that not only could women play the sport, but also that there was a significant audience interested in watching them.
Interest in running the new competition was strong: 13 of the 18 AFL men’s clubs put in a bid for the eight available licenses in the inaugural women’s competition. The remaining five were granted provisional licenses with a view to joining an expanded league in 2018. The advantages to pairing with the men’s teams are many: the women’s sides will have access to state-of-the-art training facilities; the clubs have established supporter bases to draw from; and the wealthy men’s teams have incentive to put time and money into development – as a means of boosting their overall brands as well as investing in the women’s team in its own right. Already in November 2015 the league launched the AFL Victoria Women’s Academy (AFLVWA), to train female players for the national competition.
The new league has implications far beyond providing opportunities for players: it has the potential to transform the way women and girls engage with the sport as spectators and as amateur players. It may also ultimately change the way we view Aussie rules football, and what women are capable of.
Having sporting heroes who are “like you” is critically important. Growing up with Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Jennifer Capriati on TV and in the sports pages every Grand Slam tournament was significant. There was never a sense that I couldn’t play pro tennis because I was a girl – it was just because I wasn’t any good.
Football was another matter. Even as a fan, I got the message that I didn’t really fit. As I wrote in another Allrounder essay, I grew up a Hawthorn supporter. When I went to the store to my own Hawthorn guernsey (jumper), with the number 19 worn by my favourite player Jason Dunstall screen-printed on the back, the guy wasn’t really interested in what I wanted. He offered me puffy fabric numbers to be stitched on the back. But when my brother went a few weeks later, he got his screen-printed. His looked like the real deal, not a fan’s jumper.
Worst of all, the player-style guernesys were only available in a men’s cut. If I wanted something that would fit me properly, I had to get a special ladies’ t-shirt that had blue cap sleeves and looked nothing like what the players wore. I opted for the player guernsey, but had to buy it three sizes too big so that it fitted over my hips. It was another reminder that I could never be like the players on the field – even in fantasy.
Sport often entrenches assumptions about masculinity and femininity. As former professional basketballer Mariah Burton Nelson puts it, even though most men could never play professional contact sports themselves, they can still take “vicarious comfort” in the knowledge that women are excluded. Whether consciously or not, they use the fact that girls can’t play pro football to justify male superiority. In turn, studies show that many girls worry about “crossing gender boundaries” when playing sports that are seen as masculine, like football. Many girls drop out of sport entirely at around age 14.
Having female players, in proper team outfits, playing real games of footy in a national competition should go a long way towards changing all that. While it won’t be a magic fix, being able to watch talented players like Daisy Pearce and Tayla Harris racking up possessions on the TV and being featured in the sports pages gives girls role models in the national sport. A national women’s competition with a strong profile can reassure girls that football is a sport they can play, and be celebrated for playing.
There is still a way to go for women to be fully accepted as AFL players worthy of recognition in their own right. After the August 2015 Bulldogs-Demons exhibition match, former player and coach Graham Cornes wrote a patronising article that focused on their appearance, sneering that “It just didn’t look right!” The outfits were unflattering and few players “really looked like footballers.” Instead, most “looked like girls playing football. Boobs and all.” While Cornes conceded that there was “much to like” about the game, he ultimately pooh-poohed the viability of a national league, attributing the exhibition match’s popularity to “novelty.”
Although Cornes’ comments attracted wide criticism (from, as Crikey put it, “most people with even a passing interest in gender equality”), it was another reminder that some in the football world would prefer if women just sat in the stands and clapped politely (AFL does not have dancing female cheerleaders – mixed-gender squads wave giant pompoms and flags and lead cheers from the stands). These men would rather not see women getting involved in the game as coaches, commentators, umpires or players. But the women’s teams’ status with the men’s clubs should give incentive for those clubs and the AFL itself to clamp down on those attitudes and focus on celebrating women’s achievements, if for no other reason than to protect their own brands.
Another potential problem is the current depth of ability – the exhibition matches have featured the country’s best players, several of whom are also professional athletes in other sports. The majority have not had the years of specialist coaching and strength, conditioning and fitness training expected for elite athletes. As head coach of the AFL Victoria Women’s Academy admitted, the exhibition matches show the gap between the best women in the sport and the majority of players. “It’s taken off at a million miles an hour,” Graham Burgen remarked. Coaching at the local level needs to develop to catch up with the rapid growth of girls and women playing football.
The extent of media coverage for the new league is also yet to be determined. Given that coverage of all women’s sport in Australia is marginal – only 7-9% of television sports programming – it remains to be seen what role media will play, and how sponsorship deals will function. This will influence how wide an impact the league can have.
Despite the obstacles, it is an exciting time for female players and fans – and indeed for sports fans generally. Given the extremely rapid development of women in the sport in recent years, it is likely that the standard of competition will improve exponentially as the gap between the “elite” and the “next best” lessens through high-level training. Having a short first season allows for supporter excitement to be maintained, while allowing time and space for general skills and athletic development.
It’s particularly exciting for the next generation of players. As Tayla Harris said after becoming the first woman ever to sign with the AFL’s Brisbane Lions, “It’s going to be really cool to be able to say to both little boys and little girls that you can play for the Lions one day.”
Deb Waterhouse-Watson is author of Athletes, Sexual Assault, and “Trials by Media.” She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, investigating the process of court reporting on sexual assault trials involving Australian footballers. Deb is on Twitter at @.