Soccer might be the world game, but there is something special about a sport that is native to your own country. The Irish have Gaelic football, the Bangladeshis have Kabbadi, and Aussie Rules football is our proud contribution to the competitive team sport canon. It’s a beautiful game: two teams of 18 players sprinting the length and breadth of a cricket oval in pursuit of the ball while fans yell themselves hoarse and scarf down meat pies and a round of beers per quarter. It’s also an ancient code. Not Mesoamerican ballgame ancient, but AFL from its earliest beginnings has been kicking around since the 1850s.
And now the game is facing a watershed moment that will change AFL for the better – the establishment of a professional, national, women’s competition. Just in case you didn’t know AFL was crazy popular, 6.5 million people watched the 2016 grand final between the Western Bulldogs and Sydney Swans. And if you think AFL is a watch-it-but-don’t-play-it sport like ski-jumping or the modern pentathlon, the 2015 annual report it stated that 1,247,575 people played AFL domestically, 25 per cent of whom are female. That’s a lot of people yelling “C’arn you bloody ripper” around the country every weekend.
The AFL tested the waters with fans, televising an all-star women’s exhibition game for the first time in 2015, following which they announced that they would be establishing a professional women’s league in 2017. Thirteen teams applied for the AFL Women’s, and licenses were granted to eight: Western Bulldogs, Melbourne, Carlton, Collingwood, Brisbane Lions, GWS Giants, Adelaide Crows and Fremantle Dockers.
Now those teams are eagerly awaiting the bounce on Friday February 3 with Collingwood v Carlton kicking off 28 matches across 7 rounds.Alterations for the Women’s league include 16 player sides, 15-minute quarters and play with a size 4 Sherrin ball.
“For so long, many women have dreamed of wearing AFL colours on the big stage, and now we have the opportunity to be part of history,” says Western Bulldogs captain Katie Brennan. And for Collingwood captain Stephanie Chiocci, what excites her is that “young girls now have a clear pathway from Auskick to the AFLW”. These incredible athletes know that they are part of a defining moment in professional women’s sport, and take their responsibilities as both players and role models very seriously. “Australia being able to see how much women love the game sends a strong message to young girls and their parents that football is a sport for everyone,” says GWS captain Amanda Farrugia. And she’s right. Football is now finally for everyone. Game on.