Susan Alberti: AFLW Reflection

Whitten Oval. February 4.

The evening sun is ushering in a new era in front of over 10,000 people. The famous ground, waiting for the AFLW clash between the Western Bulldogs and Fremantle, has been broadcasting an excited babble for so long that you don’t notice it anymore. That is, until it stops.

An hour before the first bounce, the EJ Whitten Stand gets to its feet in a whistling, cheering standing ovation. It spreads like a wildfire as an entire stadium raucously responds to someone most of them cannot see.

Susan Alberti has arrived.

“I couldn’t believe it,” admits Alberti. “I was so humbled. Obviously they were just so happy and so grateful.”

Alberti’s role in the establishment of a national female competition for the country’s most popular sport has been well-documented. Although the medical research pioneer, Australian of the Year state finalist and former Western Bulldogs’ Vice-President is quick to sing the praises of all who have been a part of the long AFLW journey, Alberti may be the game’s most important figure. Her financial support and promotion have not only provided direct influence, they have inspired others to believe and become a part of the mission.

The 2017 AFLW season came to a close on March 25 when pre-season underdogs Adelaide and Brisbane met in the inaugural Grand Final and Bec Goddard’s Crows came away with a flag for the ages. The season brought new heroes and new stories to light in a way that Australian sport may never see again. The opening match between Carlton and Collingwood at IKON Park has already become cultural legend: the atmosphere, the crowd, the contest, Darcy Vescio’s highlight-reel night and the extraordinary sight of AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan personally venturing outside the ground to apologise to thousands of fans who could not enter the famous old ground following the closure of the gates. Sorry…but not sorry because this was everything he and Alberti could have dreamed about.

“After about half an hour, Gill said to me, ‘I think we’re going to have to close the gates’,” Alberti recalls. “It was breathtaking, it really was.”

Alberti got into the players’ rooms “as much as I could” across the two-month season, giving her congratulations to the women who were turning dreams into reality before her very eyes. Was there a favourite?

Alberti concedes she is “biased” towards Bulldogs Ellie Blackburn and Emma Kearney but resonated most strongly with Adelaide full-forward and cult hero Sarah Perkins, the bulky Victorian who was rejected by every club on draft day but dominated as a free agent selection and came away with a fairy-tale premiership medal. Alberti hugging Perkins amidst the post-siren delirium at the Grand Final became one of the day’s most memorable images, helped by a sharp-eared reporter who overheard Alberti calling the fan-favourite “my hero”.

“She was the only one I wanted to see because I knew what it meant to her. I said to her, you are my hero.”

Alberti fought tooth-and-nail for over a decade to establish an AFLW competition. She has had many doors slammed in her face along the way and recognises a resilience that she shares with Perkins.

“I love Sarah because she never gave up. She’s a beautiful person. She did it against all odds. She was given an opportunity and she grasped it. She’s lost thirty kilos, I know what it’s like to lose weight. I’ve been there and done that.”

However, football is not a game that smiles on all its players. Alberti’s close friend Collingwood marquee player Moana Hope, one of the faces of the new season following her 104-goal VFLW season for the St Kilda Sharks in 2016, became the first AFLW player to face the unpleasant backhand of new-found fame as her high levels of exposure and on-field struggles translated to yards of criticism from the media and fans alike.

“She never really had a chance,” laments Alberti, who co-starred with Hope in an episode of Australian Story in August that focused on their friendship and the rise of women’s football. “I don’t think they looked after her and she’s been struggling since December since she fell on the netball court. People didn’t realise how injured she was.

“She’s a beautiful person. She’s got a good heart but she got too much publicity too soon. It was too much about Mo. There are so many other good stories that we need to bring to the forefront.”

No one could ever accuse Alberti of glossing over the good stories in AFLW. As far as she is concerned, any player juggling work, study and family with their football careers – that is to say, nearly all of them – is a hero in their own right.

“They’ve got children, they work, they study. No one’s a full-time footballer. They didn’t have a Mad Monday, they had a Mad Sunday because most of them work,” Alberti points out. “And it’s business and it’s about the bottom line but we’re dealing with humans, same as the men. And they need to be supported.”

In her role as AFLW mentor, Alberti passionately supports players like Erin Phillips, Emma Swanson, Penny Cula-Reid and Mia Clifford who publicly came out as not only gay but in committed relationships over the course of the season (no male AFL player has done the same). Unsurprisingly, the woman who does not identify as a feminist despite being considered the godmother of the female game that undeniably represents social progression does not think much of demands that the AFL become involved in the gay rights campaign.

“They’re there to run a football league,” she opines. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s evolving naturally.”

The entertaining contests and high-level of media exposure assuaged Alberti’s biggest pre-season fears. At every turn, the public showed her that the time for women’s footy had quite simply arrived.

Alberti says “every second person” at the matches she attended would thank her. She would look around to see just how many families were attending AFLW games together and realise the new competition had brought “so much more goodwill”. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading psychologists, told her of the widespread psychological benefit AFLW had brought the country’s women. Overwhelming?

“It was. But the nicest thing that happened to me came last Friday night.”

Set the scene. Alberti had just finished the unfurling presentation of the Bulldogs’ famous 2016 flag alongside club legends Chris Grant, Brad Johnson, Ted Whitten jnr., Tony Liberatore, Scott West and John Schultz. Many tears had been shed but there were a few yet to come after she had taken her seat to watch the Doggies’ clash with Sydney.

“These two little girls came up to me and they said, ‘Are you the lady that helped start women’s football?’

“And I said yes. And the older girl said, ‘At my school, we didn’t have a football team. We now have two teams and I just came to say thank you.’ And if that didn’t crack me up nothing would.”

For Susan Alberti, the continued development of the game’s infrastructure is the highest priority going forward. Talk of expanding the AFLW to a ten-team competition can wait until a strong foundation with adequately resourced staff, grounds and teams from grassroots up is ready to support it.

“I want to consolidate and get it right. We’ve got the opportunity right now to get it right.”

AFLW exceeded many expectations in its maiden season. Now is the time to make the right changes and develop the game by asking the necessary questions.

Will the season be expanded? Will it still be a late-summer competition or could it run in co-ordination with the men’s season? When can the league start charging spectators admission? Is the competition being supported with all the resources and promotion it needs? When will we see full-time AFLW players? And the question that most intrigues me when it comes to pioneers like Alberti – what do you do after making a lifelong dream come true?

She smiles. “Move onto the next challenge.”


Join Ange Pippos for lunch on April 21 at the North Fitzroy Arms. DETAILS HERE.

About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.


  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Brilliant Callum. How you haven’t been snapped up as a journalist is beyond me. Beautifully written. Thoughtful. Engaging. Excellent. Thank you

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