Women Playing AFL? That’s Unpossible!

Words by: Sam Herriman

I am a huge sports fan. I love the theatre of it all, the excitement, the athleticism, the competition. It almost doesn’t matter exactly what sport it is, I quickly get swept up in the emotion of the match and find myself arbitrarily supporting the team whose colours I prefer, or whoever is the underdog at that particular point in time. From curling to darts to lacrosse, no sport is too obscure for me to guess the rules and cheer along at home.

However, the one sport that has my heart above all others is the home-grown Australian Rules Football. Without a hint of bias (who am I kidding?) it’s the greatest spectator sport in the world. It’s fast, skilful, strategic and exhilarating. The team I support are the empirically proven worst performing team of the last decade – the Melbourne Demons (although as a proud West Australian I have a soft spot for both of the Perth teams).

Despite their recent failures, it’s a proud club with a long history. In fact, the Demons have the longest history of any professional football (all codes) club anywhere in the entire world. The club’s founding father – Tom Wills – is largely credited with creating the game, initially as a way for cricketers to stay fit in the off-season.

It is fitting, then, that the Melbourne Demons were one of two clubs (along with the Western Bulldogs) who were part of the inaugural AFL sanctioned women’s match in 2013. That was followed by another match in 2014 and two in 2015, with the second of the 2015 matches broadcast live on national television. More than 500,000 viewers tuned in to watch the game, myself included. The Demons went on to win that game by four points, extending their winning streak over the hapless Bulldogs 4-0. Although the Dogs went on to win the subsequent men’s match by an obscene margin, as far as I was concerned the day ended on a 1-1 draw. When anyone pulls on a Melbourne Demons guernsey they represent the club. A club that captain Daisy Pearce has felt ‘a genuine part of’ since 2013.

The women’s game is a rapidly accelerating part of the AFL, with CEO Gillon McLachlan publically stating that a national women’s league ‘is coming’ at least by 2020, if not significantly earlier, with McLachlan eyeing a 2017 launch. The ambitious timeframe is not out of the question, considering there are almost 200,000 participants nationally, and with numerous public figures backing the proposal, including WA premier Colin Barnett.

Women have always been an integral part of the AFL’s success, with droves of female supporters clearly distinguishing Australia’s indigenous code from other major sporting leagues across the world. The AFL has made it a distinct priority to provide opportunities for women to thrive in the industry.

Chelsea Roffey. Credit: Michael Klein.
Chelsea Roffey. Credit: Michael Klein.

From grassroots support, women now occupy major administrative, executive, support, and managerial positions. Chelsea Roffey is perhaps the game’s most well-known goal umpire, the president of the Richmond Tigers (who has overseen their most successful period in over 20 years) is Peggy O’Neal, and the coach of the all-conquering Melbourne Demons women’s team is the 2014 WA Coach Of The Year Michelle Cowan.

Despite the best intentions of the AFL, there are a number of logistical considerations surrounding the viability of a women’s league that will always draw out the detractors from the woodwork, such as legendary South Australian footballer Graham Cornes, who basically invalidated his entire article by electing to include the headline quote – ‘[women’s footy] doesn’t look right.’

There are genuine concerns about the financial independence of any potential league. Most AFL clubs run a pretty tight ship, which means they may struggle to prop up a second women’s team without completely overhauling their internal structures. This means that, at least initially, the women’s league will require significant support from the AFL, but the implication that such a league will never be self-sufficient is short-sighted at best.

The structure of the league is also open to conjecture. It seems almost a given that the inaugural teams will be affiliated with AFL clubs in one way or another, with Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs laying a strong foundation for other clubs to build from. The smaller states such as South and Western Australia may field a single team to begin with, with an eye to expand later down the track.

Of course, the entire venture may turn out to be a disaster but the potential reward far outweighs any short-term risks.

Putting aside the various logistical issues associated with creating the competition, a national league would be a huge boon for not only women’s football, but women’s sport more broadly across Australia.

If you were to name the five most visible male sports personalities in Australia you’d be spoilt for choice. In the field of rugby (both codes), cricket, soccer, AFL, basketball, as well as the various individual pursuits like swimming, tennis, athletics, golf, surfing and boxing, there are stars all across the board. Contrast that with the selection of women and the pickings are much slimmer. The names that come to mind are Sam Stosur, the Campbell sisters, Sally Pearson and Ellyse Perry – who had to dominate two sports before attracting significant national attention – among a small smattering of others.

Ellyse Perry. Credit: Getty Images
Ellyse Perry. Credit: Getty Images

In a significant juxtaposition to the popularity of the male athletes, the women need to achieve international success – whether at the Olympics or otherwise – before achieving domestic popularity. The disparity between genders is due to a toxic combination of two factors – a lack of exposure and a lack of opportunity.

We are bombarded with male-dominated sports all year round, and even though most of them have a female league or competition it is rarely in the news or on the television. The most prominent female, team-oriented sporting competition in Australia is the netball – a sport with no professional male equivalent.

The most notable exception is tennis, where at the Grand Slams, men and women compete at the same competition at the same times for the same prize albeit in two different streams. Outside of events such as swimming and athletics, tennis is arguably the sport that is closest to achieving equality, with all of the Grand Slams now awarding both male and female athletes the same amount of prize money.

Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic attract similar numbers of spectators and viewers as their male counterparts Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It’ difficult to pinpoint how or why women’s tennis has been able to exist more or less on par with men’s but it’s impossible to ignore the efforts of pioneers such as Billie Jean King and Serena Williams who worked (and are still working) tirelessly in the pursuit of equality.

It’s very easy to focus on the fact that women – generally, but factually speaking – are not as strong, fast or powerful as men. The 100 metre race is run faster by men. The fastest tennis serve is held by man. It’s not conjecture, it’s physiological, but that shouldn’t be a detriment to the progression and development of women’s sport. The reality is if every sport in the world was mixed gender, the chances of seeing a female athlete would be rare.

Serena Williams. Credit WTA
Serena Williams. Credit WTA

Being a professional and successful athlete does not mean that these women aspire to be like men, or live up to male standards. Athletes like Serena Williams, mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, and gymnast Gabby Douglas are uncompromising and outspoken in their femininity – whatever form that may take. We still see standards of beauty projected onto our professional athletes, with female gymnasts and figure skaters slapping on glitter and incorporating elements of dance and performance, while the male competitors mostly just rock up and execute the techniques. For men it’s a matter of strength, whereas for women we demand a façade of gracefulness to hide the sweat.

Cornes inadvertently makes the same point, when he compares the outfits worn by the women footballers (basically the same kit as the male team) to the gear worn by our national netball team (the sporting equivalent of a dress). For Cornes, the ‘male’ outfit on women is ‘not particularly flattering. I’m not sure why a woman’s athletic get-up is meant to be flattering to the male gaze, but it’s the sort of complaint that’s never levelled against masculine athletes and gives an idea into what our society as a whole expects our female athletes to be.

It’s not a significantly different experience watching men’s tennis compared to watching women’s tennis. Yes the ball might be hit a little bit faster, but the applicable skills and strategies are transferable. Andy Murray made waves last year when he hired Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo as his new coach, with far more focus placed on her attributes as a woman than as a coach. Once you take physical strength out of the equation, there’s no legitimate reason to suggest that the theory and strategy of tennis is any different. After all, men coach women all the time. If anything, the decreased reliance on the power game actually enhances the on court tactics, to the point where I personally prefer watching women’s tennis, not as a battle of strength but as a battle of brains.

The same applies across all sports, not least of which AFL. Sure, the kicks might not travel as far and the hits might not be as hard but the basic fundamentals of the game are exactly the same, and executed with comparable level of skill. When you actually watch women’s football, the strength of players as it compares to the men doesn’t really factor into the equation. The strength and combativeness of the players as it compares to each other, however, does, and that’s what makes any sport exciting to watch.

Daisy Pearce. Image credit: Darrien Trayner
Daisy Pearce. Image credit: Darrien Trayner

While the depth of talent in the women’s game is shallow, increased exposure and opportunities in a semi-professional league would surely encourage and develop female talent to the game, and it is naïve to think that a national league would fold simply because the interest is not there. The number of female participants in AFL drops off markedly from Auskick to the under 15s and beyond not because the opportunity to continue playing isn’t there, but most likely because many of them think ‘well, what’s the point?’

Cornes says in his article that for far too long men have been telling women what they can and can’t do, yet he also goes on to contradict himself by saying women can’t be professional footballers. He’s right. In the year 2015 women cannot be professional footballers. But we’re closer than ever before, and some archaic notion of who does and doesn’t constitute a footballer won’t be the deciding factor in whether or not a league is successful. Players like Daisy Pearce and Tayla Harris (who’s only 18!) are already becoming household names.

There are so many fantastic reasons to support the formation of a national AFL women’s league, but as a diehard supporter of the Melbourne Football Club I’m just excited that maybe, for once in my lifetime, we’ll be able to put a successful team on the park. And, after all, who could say no to more footy?