Words by Tess Astle Art by Kea Tokley-Higgs
While my brother played footy, I made daisy chains on the sidelines. While the boys at school kicked the ball, the girls dangled from monkey bars. They played Jack in the Pack while we did cartwheels. No ever told us we couldn’t play footy but no one ever told us we could either. I always wanted to play but the only way was to join the boys’ team and be the token tomboy. So instead I choose (and loved) basketball and became a Fremantle fan for life.
Years later, the Kew Comet’s introduced their first all girls’ footy team. At that stage I was in late high school and was a little bit old for the Under 12 team. But this wasn’t just about me anymore, it was so much bigger. This new team signified the latest, and potentially one of the greatest, revolutions in women’s sport, the launch of AFL Women’s (AFLW). It was and still is a momentous time for women’s sport.
In 2017 the league hit the ground running with a crowd lockout for their first match and a TV audience of just under a million. The popularity continued as last year a crowd of 41,975 turned out for a match between Fremantle and Collingwood, setting the record for the largest stand-alone women’s sporting event in Australian history. This year the league expanded to 10 teams and crowd numbers show no signs of slowly down. The sport’s popularity has caught the attention of the corporate world too, with the AFLW signing a four-year broadcast deal with the Seven Network and Foxtel’s Fox Sports network. The AFLW also now boasts 17 sponsors–up from eight in 2017–including NAB, Chemist Warehouse, Cotton On, Kellogg’s, Gatorade, McDonald’s, Virgin Australia and Woolies.
AFLW is the fasting growing sport in the country and it’s here to stay.
But it’s not like this is the first elite women’s competition in Australia. The Matilda’s have been dominating internationally, women’s netball is first class and the Australian women’s national cricket team is ranked number one. So why does AFLW trump them all when it comes to attracting big numbers and national support?
I think the answer is pretty simple. Footy is in our bloodstream, as Australian as Tim Tams and budgie smugglers. A sea of colourful scarves and flags, the familiar strike of a footy boot against the ball, a raw outpouring of joy from the crowd–it’s an experience that stirs us up and brings people together. Aussie Rules has always been a shining light in Australia sport and AFLW is no different.
AFLW not only proves that girls can in fact play footy (shocking I know) but also gives a new sense of hope to future generations of women. We now live in a time where no newborn girl will ever know what it feels like to not have a footy team to play on. It’s a revolution that goes beyond the professional league, girls and women across the country are being inspired to take up the game. Females now make up a third of Australian Rules participants worldwide, Auskick now has enough girls to have teams throughout the entire program and there was a 76% increase in the number of female community clubs in 2017. This is awesome.
Sports at a grassroots level are about so much more than physical health. Sports represent a departure from traditional gender norms. They break down the barriers for femininity and transform not only the way girls think about themselves but the way the community perceives them as well. The stars of AFLW show that athleticism and femininity are not mutually exclusive and that sweat, hard work and strength are not innately masculine. They’re role models for a future generation of women. A generation who knows their strength and isn’t bound by societies boundaries of gender. Girls in sport are brave, competent, confident and driven. ALFW continues to be an empowering force in young women’s lives on and beyond the field.
While this is all good news for women’s sport, challenges remain. Sadly, sexism still exists in Australia. We all saw Taylor Harris, Carlton star, become the victim of online trolls after a photo of her kicking a footy was posted. The picture which highlighted Harris’ impeccable skills quickly became a place for awful people to sexually harass Harris behind their keyboard. As Matildas star Sam Kerr posted, “the problem was never the photo, but in fact that an image of a strong, powerful woman kicking goals should inspire sexist hate speech”. Misogynistic comments from internet trolls in nothing new for female athletes. A new study confirms that nearly 27% of comments on well-read Facebook posts by major Australia broadcasters were negative towards sportswomen compared to 8% for male athletes. When looking at those negative comments directed at women, 23% were sexist, 20% belittled their sporting abilities and 14% were highly sexualised or explicit. It’s become part of the job. Many of the athletes use these sexist taunts as motivation to play harder and win bigger, but they shouldn’t have to. We still need the major sporting organisations to officially condemn sexism in sport. There is enormous power and privilege associated with men’s sport, and it’s high time that power was used to support those copping abuse simply for making headway in a deeply patriarchal society.
It couldn’t be an article about women’s sport without talking about the blaring inequality that is the pay gap. AFLW is a new professional league and so it’s unrealistic that the pay would be equal but let’s be honest, these women are paying to play. Most players are taking home $8,500 for the eight-week competition and five-month training season. And on top of that women are responsible for paying for their own health insurance and income insurance, both of which are covered by the AFL for men. Tiarba Ernst, Gold Coast player, works as a trainee obstetrician/gynaecologist at Monash Health and uses a combination of annual leave and special leave to play for the season. She’s a full-time doctor and part-time footballer and she admits that by the end of the year she will lose out financially. As of this year things are set to change as 17 Australian sporting chief executives have come together to create the initiative, “Pathway to Pay Equality”. The report lays out specific ways to eliminate the pay gap. This is a major development in Australia’s treatment of women’s sport because pay equality equates to value. Achieving a sustainable salary means a significant shift in mindset, and a long term focus of overall gender equality in all aspects of sport.
It’s been a joy to watch the beginnings of AFLW. It has brought so much joy to sports fans, young girls and the rest of Australia. It’s been a long-time coming and these footballers keep going from strength to strength.