Last week, leader of the Greens, Senator Richard Di Natale, summed up women’s football in the best possible way, saying, “Women’s football is on the crest of a wave”. This is indeed true, only I believe this wave has the potential power of a tsunami that will not only change the football landscape, but also the landscape of women’s sport in this country; but more on that later.
Speculation has intensified in the last week about the make-up of the AFL’s national women’s competition, which is set to launch 2017. AFL General Manager Game and Market Development, Simon Lethlean, in a somewhat revealing interview with ABC’s Radio National, shared some details of the competition’s proposed format and structure. Inevitably though, a portion of the commentary has surrounded player remuneration and the challenges players face in attempting to maintain elite training standards whilst holding down full-time jobs.
For anyone involved in women’s sport, this story is a familiar one. While some sections of the women’s football community are calling on the perceived deep pockets of the AFL to fund a fully professional national competition from day one, not everyone sees it that way. As Darebin and Melbourne footballer, Melissa Hickey, explains, “I am living my childhood dream of pulling on an AFL jumper and playing on the MCG. It’s not something I thought would ever occur during my career… I’ve had to make sacrifices because of football and how consuming training and playing is, but I do it because I love playing football and the experiences and opportunities I’ve had make it worth it.”
This is not to say our elite footballers should just smile, nod and be grateful for the experience. However, the reality is that you cannot create a completely professional competition out of thin air. The path to 100% professionalism may take years; just ask our elite cricketers and soccer players.
As Simon Lethlean told ABC radio “What we need to do is create a viable and sustainable elite competition… It’s not going to be a competition that attracts huge commerciality first up, so we want to get it right.”
It is this desire to get it right and create a league that can stand on its own two feet which will benefit future generations of footballers. After all, a national AFL competition for women is just as much about the year 2050 as it is about 2017.
Since the first ever televised women’s match in August last year, AFL Victoria Female Development Manager, Chyloe Kurdas, has seen the flow-on effects first-hand at Youth Girls level. “The lure of a national competition has given girls aspiration, inspiration and a legitimate choice in the sport they pursue. In the last 12 months I have never seen the girls work so hard and the talent pool has never been deeper.”
Ever since the AFL has thrown its support behind women’s football, the rise has been breathtaking. Footballers like Hickey are now being granted opportunities within the game that most would have thought beyond reach in their careers. One of the first steps to ensuring financial stability is to give the sport a promotional platform. The hundreds of thousands of dollars that the AFL and state bodies contributed in order to televise last year’s exhibition match is already clearly paying dividends for the sport. Visibility is crucial and with the media reach that the AFL has at its disposal, they have the ways and means to give women’s football a platform that other sports could only dream of. With media exposure, comes sponsors and that is how you have the makings of a viable league.
One area that the AFL must be held to account is their promise to offer genuine opportunities for women within the game, beyond the playing arena. Clear coaching pathways for women and more female voices within the football media are just two examples of how this shift can be made. Current players who may not gain the financial rewards of a trailblazing league must be afforded opportunities to stay in the sport post-playing career.
This brings us back to the crest of the women’s football ‘wave’. I have had the good fortune in my career to work with both male and female elite footballers. For all the advancements in the men’s form of the game, I firmly believe the greatest advantage will be gained when the sport allows women’s football to permeate its current culture.
There is an inclusiveness and culture of encouragement that is inherent in women’s football. No matter what your background, women’s football provides a place for you. Above all though, there is a strong desire to leave the game in a better state than which they found it; that the game is bigger than the individual. As Melissa Hickey said “I love being part of the evolution of women’s football. I can’t wait to see, due to the hard work of so many, that one day women will make a living out of playing this great game.”
If the AFL can shed its macho façade and embrace this diversity, we will be well on our way to seeing gender equality in football. If we achieve it in football, who knows where it might lead.