Finally granted a league of their own, female Australian Rules players now have the chance of professional progression through the sport. The fans are onboard, but will the dollars – and the skills – follow? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Making history with the AFL women’s league

Carlton’s Bella Ayre, at left, congratulates Darcy Vescio on a goal during the Blues’ round one clash with Collingwood.

For the first time in 12 years, national football returned to Carlton’s Princes Park. Two hours before the ball-up, the surrounding roads were jammed. Thousands of fans approached on foot through suburban streets. The grassed car park was full. There were pre-game picnics on the adjacent lawns. They wore their colours; they came for history. On February 3, on a warm Melbourne night, Princes Park – aka Ikon Park – hosted a sellout crowd for the first game in the AFL women’s league. It was a shrewd fixture, pitting famous rivals Carlton and Collingwood against each other. 

The ground’s piecemeal infrastructure was enlivened by 25,000 fans. The stadium had not seen so many since the men’s team played their final AFL game here in 2005. Beside the white, determinedly modern box that houses the football club’s corporate headquarters sat the Alderman Gardiner Stand, designed in 1903. It is a charming anachronism – wooden benches, cast-iron columns and a tin roof stamped with the faded logos of sponsors. Elsewhere, as befits suburban football, fans stood crowded behind the boundary line. Giant blue pompoms declared the Carlton fan squad.

In truth, the stadium was hopelessly designed to accommodate so many. The honeycomb of corridors and staircases beneath the stands were gridlocked; to relieve the maddening crush on bars, makeshift stalls sold beer from card tables – cash only. Outside the ground, a thousand or more fans were turned away when the gates were locked. The stadium simply couldn’t take any more. Some drifted to nearby pubs to watch the game on television.  

Less than a fortnight before, the AFL sensed the public’s massive demand for the match. Almost all entry for this year’s fixtures is free, so they didn’t have pre-sale tickets by which to judge interest. But they did have the numbers of fans attending practice matches, and when those numbers alone were half that of the capacity of Collingwood’s Olympic Park training ground – the original venue for the match – the AFL twigged, and switched the fixture to the much larger Princes Park. But even that wasn’t enough. And while the game was under way, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan sought to personally acknowledge the fans stranded outside the ground. “I apologise,” he told the crowd. “It’s not what we wanted, but I hope you understand. So, thank you. I’m sorry everyone.”

It is a dubious impulse to describe the mood of 25,000 people, to distil such a large and ungraspable thing. But there seemed a great sense of occasion; a shared pleasure and excitement in witnessing history. When the teams ran out, there were broad smiles on the faces of everyone around me. “I can’t believe this is finally happening,” I heard someone say.  

1 . ‘Excited and terrified’

As the opening match began, the GWS Giants were flying to Adelaide. The Giants had their first fixture against the Crows the following day. When the team touched down, each player turned on their phone and received a medley of texts and news alerts about the lockout crowd in Melbourne. “Everyone was blown away,” Jessica Bibby tells me. Bibby, a near-400 game veteran of the Women’s National Basketball League, retired from that competition a year ago and signed with the Giants in October. Bibby tells me that they rushed to the hotel to catch the second half. “Talking to the girls,” she says, “they were excited and terrified at the same time.”   

Bibby is one of many women who have switched sports to join the new competition. At 37, she is grateful for this late opportunity to play the game that was once her “number one love”. But, Bibby tells me, when she was younger there simply weren’t competitive pathways for women in the sport. “There was nothing,” she says. “Girls had to choose different paths. I loved kick-to-kick with the boys. And I loved cricket but had to play in the boys’ team. There are many female athletes today who would’ve loved an earlier opportunity to play [football].” 

It’s a common story. Last week’s fixtures involved many women who have now switched sports – a Big Bash cricketer, champion runner, former Matildas goalkeeper, and an Ultimate (frisbee) player are just some of the athletes who have signed to an AFLW team. What’s more, most have trained for this season while holding other jobs, or sacrificing salaries by taking leaves of absence. The AFL offered a sliding scale of remuneration for the women – for five months’ commitment, they were paid between $8500 and $17,000. A select few could earn up to $10,000 more for “ambassadorial” duties. It’s paltry. As a semi-professional league, you weren’t just watching athletes last week, but posties, obstetricians, cabinet-makers and dairy farmers. When I ask Fremantle Docker Tayla Bresland if she thinks the female AFL players have sacrificed more than their male counterparts, her response is unequivocal. “Definitely,” she says. 

While inexperienced at football, Jessica Bibby holds the individual record for number of games played in the WNBL, and competed for a while in her sport’s most prestigious league, the WNBA, in the United States. She is fit, thoughtful, disciplined and comfortable with the media. As such, she was offered a leadership role with the Giants. “I try not to be overbearing,” Bibby says. “The girls can come to me for advice – on diet, say, or mental preparation. There are different ways to look after your body. But I’ve been really impressed by everybody. Coming in, I was blown away by their professionalism.” 

Bibby has had to transition to football. For two decades, her body’s shape and her mind’s instincts have been sculpted for basketball. She has also had to learn a new vocabulary – each sport possesses its own terms of art. “In basketball, you take running in a straight line for granted,” she says. “And it’s on a hard court. On grass, it’s uneven, spongy. That takes time to adapt. Initially I felt very awkward running on grass, as funny as that sounds. But basketball has helped more than it’s hindered.” 

While the Giants were watching the Carlton–Collingwood game on television, their principal delight was watching history unfold – a history they were part of. But there was a more practical interest: this was the first look at their competitors. As a brand new league, partially comprising athletes new to the game, the teams are largely a mystery to each other. Now, with each game televised, the clubs could begin compiling their collections of “tape” – recorded matches that will be replayed and examined. “The beauty of this league,” Bibby explains, “is you can turn on Foxtel and [the AFLW] is running 24/7. All coaches are starting their library. You can start to break down opponents’ weaknesses and break down your individual game. Now round one is played, we can start collecting data. This will take the game to the next level.”

The Giants would play in front of 10,000 people the following day. They would lose, and lose badly. But Bibby was committed to buoying spirits, watching tape, and getting out on the park again the next week.  

2 . Total dedication

Tayla Bresland grew up in Dunsborough, a regional town about three hours’ drive south of Perth. From a very young age she fell in love with football. But competitions for country women were hard to find. She participated in Auskick – a national weekend clinic program for boys and girls – but it ended when she turned 12. She joined teams in nearby towns – “nearby” often meant a minimum hour’s drive – but then the pathway ended. Bresland’s passion was constant – “I always said I’d play AFL,” she tells me – but her opportunity to play wasn’t. There were frustrating breaks from the game, but Bresland rarely entertained switching to another sport. “Footy was my element,” she says. “I was never the girliest of girls.” 

Bresland found a team in Mandurah, almost a two-hour drive from Dunsborough, but her father encouraged her and drove her to training and games. When she made the WA team, her father’s commitment continued – this time making the long drive to the capital. Last Saturday, on her 21st birthday, Bresland ran out onto Whitten Oval in Melbourne’s west before 10,000 people. She was a Freo Docker. The last time the Dockers had played here, in July 1996, Bresland was just five months old. Some of her teammates weren’t yet born. In that AFL match, between Fremantle and Footscray, 1500 fewer fans had attended than this one. Bresland allowed herself a private smile. “I won’t forget this birthday,” she tells me. The hard work had paid off. 

3 . Room for improvement

Carlton beat Collingwood by 46 points to 11, and in the first weekend’s fixtures every losing side managed only one goal. Results resembled rugby scores; ball skills weren’t great. The opening match was intensely fought, but mostly logged in the centre. Among fans there is enormous goodwill; among players great commitment and professionalism. But the game won’t be served by the condescension of good intentions. To make polite pretence about the quality of the first round is to suggest that it can’t improve, when it certainly can. The game’s development requires honesty, and it would be a shame to signal to the AFL that the fans were content with this level, when the players themselves are hungry for refinement. 

There is very good reason for the quality of the first fixtures – many have been outlined above – and there’s little reason to doubt its swift improvement. Women have had precious few opportunities in the sport; unlike the anointed male professionals, they’ve had to juggle employment and structural indifference. The players I spoke to were aware of the “game-changing” influence of the league – it now made the dreams of footy-loving girls achievable. It’s likely that the grassroots development of young talent will expand commensurate to public interest in the AFLW. But the AFL will need to increase its investment in the league, allowing for talented women to commit more fully to football and be properly compensated for it. “It will be special once this league’s established itself,” Bibby tells me, “and [Australian Rules will] be the sport of choice for women.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "No prior opportunity".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.