Pride and Passion: The Growth of Women’s Footy in Greater Western Sydney

When Kizz Boyd moved to the Blue Mountains from Canberra eight years ago for work, one of her first moves was to find a local AFLW team so she could continue playing footy.

 

She searched for a club and the then Auburn Tigers was the closest. Being a little unfamiliar with the geography of Western Sydney, she didn’t realise that this would mean long hours driving up and down the highway to practice and games as Auburn is at least 90 minutes away.

 

There was AFLW in Sydney, with the local competition starting in 2000, but there were few teams, if any, based in Western Sydney. Over the next decade, the Sydney Women’s AFL (SWAFL) competition grew and developed, joining AFL Sydney in 2012.

 

In this excellent history of the SWAFL written in 2009, the need to expand the sport outside of the inner suburbs is noted by Newtown Breakaway’s player, Verna Iles:

 

“I would like to see the geographical scope of the competition grow. There is a whole world of greater Sydney out there and I am sure it’s an untapped resource.“

 

Fast forward to 2018, and her words proved prescient. AFLW in Western Sydney is thriving, and the now Auburn Penrith Giants are one of many teams that have sprung up across the region. They are joined in by the Western Magic, Pennant Hills Demons, Wollondilly Knights, Camden Cats, Campbelltown Blues and the  South West Sydney Magpies in the Premier and Division One competitions.

 

The junior girls competition is also rapidly expanding with a 78% increase in women and girls playing AFL in 2017.

 

In 2013, there were no girls teams playing AFL in the Western Sydney competition, and it wasn’t until 2016 that 11 teams competed in the U15s competition. The start of the AFLW at a national level in 2017 saw a huge increase in players, with new U12, three U15 and an U18 competition under way. In 2018, this expansion has continued with record numbers of girls playing AFL in the local competition.

 

Kizz is one of the co-hosts of  the BAFL radio show – Blue Mountains AFL, along with Chris Dubrow, Andre Matkovic and I on Radio Blue Mountains, our local community radio station. Each week, we talk about the ins and outs of the GWS Giants and the main AFL competition, but also focus on our local grassroots football, such as the Blue Mountains Kangaroos, and the wider Western Sydney teams. The four of us share a love of AFL, but Kizz remains the only one to actually play the game at a competitive level, finally retiring last year due to injury.

 

Chris and Kizz in the studio for the BAFL radio show.

 

We joke on the show that of course Western Sydney is the heart of AFL in Australia, but over the last year of broadcasting the show, we’ve been constantly surprised by the warm enthusiasm of AFL players and supporters in our region. We’ve interviewed local AFL history buffs, cheersquad members, grassroots club officials and volunteers to bring the voices of local footy to the airwaves.

 

The three clubs we focus on each week are the Blue Mountains Kangaroos, the Penrith Rams and Ramettes, and the Auburn Penrith Giants. We also regularly talk about the wider AFL Sydney competition, particularly as it relates to Western Sydney.

 

The Blue Mountains Kangaroos is our local junior club which has seen its own parallel growth in girls participation in AFL. This year they have a record number of girls playing, and have started new teams to compete in the ever expanding wider Western Sydney competition.

 

The Penrith Rams and Ramettes are the men’s and women’s teams competing local competition. Renee Tomkins, now playing for the GWS Giants AFLW club, was originally from the Penrith club.

 

The Auburn Penrith Giants, formally the Auburn Tigers, started in 2010 with a team that didn’t know much about AFL, but were very keen to play. Founder Amna Karra-Hassan told the ABC that “I was never an AFL fan. I’d never watched a game. Didn’t grow up with it. Didn’t even know what it was, didn’t know the rules – I didn’t know anything. I always wanted to play a sport, and it kind of just happened to be AFL.”

 

When Kizz joined the team, she found that many were unfamiliar with the basics of the game.

 

‘So the first time I kicked the ball, like, hugs, you know, came from all directions. “Oh, my God, she can kick the ball! Oh, my God, you know how to do this. Right, you’re staying no matter what.’

 

Amna told the Sydney Morning Herald that “”it was really basic rules that we still had no awareness of,” she says. “But what we did have was a lot of finesse, and these girls were quite fit and determined. They just knew how to tackle. They’d see the ball, and the opposition, and it was like, ‘Just crunch ’em’.”

 

Last year, the Auburn Giants merged with the Penrith club, creating the Auburn Penrith Giants and continue to play in the Premier Division of the AFL Sydney.

 

When I talk to people about AFL in Western Sydney, they are often sceptical, particularly those from  Melbourne. The GWS Giants are talked about as being a ‘manufactured’ club with no grass roots basis. The introduction of AFL at the corporate level was certainly resented by the established rugby league.

 

Western Sydney is often misunderstood, but also underestimated. For many, the suburbs west of Strathfield only enter the national consciousness when elections are on and those important marginal seats are rediscovered. But Western Sydney is the third largest economy in Australia, with a  population of 2.2 million people which is nearly half of all of Sydney.

 

This part of the city is full of diverse and lively populations that are proud to live here. ‘I love Blacktown’, the slogan of the area, is blazoned around the ground at the Blacktown International Sports Park.

 

Yet, this area gets far less investment, arts funding or sports facilities. There is an ongoing issue with a lack of employment in the area that means many people commute long distances every day. Transport is overcrowded and inadequate to meet the growing population.

 

All this means that across Western Sydney, communities are often starting behind the rest of Sydney when it comes to facilities and infrastructure, including for sport. The AFL has invested significantly in the area, and, along with the local passion for football, this has seen the remarkable explosion in the growth of AFLW. Here in the suburbs, there is little of that Melbourne focused footy glamour, or media coverage in a city that already thinks the West is better forgotten.

 

The GWS Giants passed 20,000 members in 2017, overtaking the membership numbers for several rugby league clubs combined. Despite this, the Giants continued to face criticism for not being able to attract large crowds to games, and for being seen as a ‘manufactured’ team by the AFL, which is insulting to every AFL player and fan in Western Sydney.

 

There is real growth in both players and supporters of AFL in Western Sydney, particularly in the women’s game. None of this is out of a focus group, or through corporate largess from the AFL, but from the passion of the women who love the game, like Kizz.

 

We’re back on air for another season covering our beloved sport out here in the West, and the passionate local players, volunteers and fans that live here and support AFL.

 

There are a myriad of great stories about AFL out here and the game is thriving.

Comments

  1. bring back the torp says:

    Very interesting & encouraging, El!

    H.C.Harrison, one of the game’s founders & arguably best early player, & most important 19th century football administrator, was born in Parramatta. Good to see Aust. Football is growing so strongly “back home”.

    You mentioned “AFLW in Western Sydney is thriving”, & “… the junior girls’ competition is also rapidly expanding…and in 2018, this expansion has continued with record numbers of girls playing AFL in the local (ie western -my words) competition”.
    Can you provide an estimate of how many adult women played in Western Sydney teams in 2017 -& the expected number in 2018?
    Ditto number of female jnrs in 2017 (up to U18 teams, not including Auskick) in WS teams -& the expected number in 2018?
    Ditto number of male jnrs in 2017 in WS -& the expected number in 2018?

    Can you estimate, how much influence – directly, or indirectly- does GWS have on improving numbers of Aust. Football male & female players in WS?
    And, how much influence does the AFLW , & their GWS AFLW team, specifically have on increasing the number of female jnr & snr players in WS?

    Finally, assume you became dictator of the AFL!
    What 3 things would you like to introduce to maximise the number of players in Western Sydney?

    Penrith Ramettes is still going strong. A decision to merge Auburn with another group of female players in Penrith -care to discuss what caused that distant link-up?
    (Hope these questions are not too onerous!)

    Congratulations on you, Kizz, Chris, & Andre doing such a great radio show, BAFL, & promoting our great Australian Game on Radio Blue Mountains. Long may your show, & Aust. Football prosper in Western Sydney.

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    Hi El, fantastic to have you reporting what’s happening out West of Sydney. Sounds lovely and exciting and fun. Keep up the excellent work.

  3. Georgina says:

    Thanks for this insight El. Sydney’s West is still the great unknown (and ignored) for a lot of people in Sydney, it’s interesting to see football’s role in the fabric of the West.

  4. bring back the torp says:

    El

    For clarity, I should have stated I am aware there were 155 jnr male & female teams in the “western suburbs” (ie whole GWS area of Sydney) in 2017 -but these do not include Club Auskick numbers from U5 – U8. (In 2012, WS had only 65 jnr AF teams)
    Also, a jnr female AF club comp. team might only have from 10-22 members, & a jnr male club team might have from 15-28 members.
    I am not enquiring about school competition team numbers (but if you had that info., it would be appreciated if you could provide it).
    An adult women’s team could also have from 15-28 members..

    Thus, my question is about the 2017 ACTUAL NUMBERS in Western Sydney of:-
    . junior male Club players U9-U17 combined
    . jnr female Club players U10-U18 combined
    . Auskick (Club only, not school) U5-U8 combined male & female numbers.
    . adult female team players combined
    And your estimate of all the above for 2018.

    I appreciate actual numbers are more difficult to obtain than simply the number of teams. However, as you mentioned several times about the expected 2018 strong growth in the WS, I thought you may have more detailed info. These detailed and geographic player numbers are not easily discernible in the Annual Reports of AFLNSWACT.

    The Kings School in Parramatt, a bastion of RU, is still not offering comp. AF to its large no. of students. Many Sydney private schools began offering comp. AF to their students since 2013, & nos. are growing strongly. Do you forsee any imminent change at TKS, or any other private schools in WS?
    (I know the Catholic secondary school AF comp. in WS operates)

    Would you be able to offer a view on the approximate % of western sydney primary schools (state & private) in 2017 that participated in school AF competitions?
    Ditto western sydney secondary schools?
    And any expected increase in % in 2018?

    Players in western sydney are usually from an Anglo/Celtic background. Are you able to give a rough estimate of CLUB players that do not come from this background? Any changes occurring?

    Many Thanks

  5. Yvette Wroby says:

    Hi Bring Back the Torp,

    again, our poor El may not have her finger tips on all this info. We’d all need research assistance to get hold of the answers you seek. Love your passion and thinking and it may be better to contact places like the NSW equivalent of AFLVIC and AFLW for such research statistics. If El has access, I’m sure she’ll respond with what she has.

    Thanks for being part of the conversation.

  6. El Gibbs says:

    Thanks bring back the torp for your interest!
    I don’t have access to most of the stats that you are after and the 2018 AFL Sydney fixture unfortunately wasn’t out when I was writing this piece, but I used the experience of the local clubs as a guide to what is happening this year.
    http://sydneyafl.com.au/

    Big thanks Yvette! So glad you liked the piece, and agree, the AFL itself may have access to the kind of data that you are after, particularly about the different schools involvement.

    And I agree, Georgina – the West is often ignored in many spheres, including the AFL. But I love that there is so much passion for our game out here, and it was great to be able to write about it.

  7. Trinity Handley says:

    Thanks for documenting this El and well written too. Fascinating that despite some challenges, the games participation and popularity has exploded. It sounds distinctly community driven. Great work!

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