The Rise of Women’s Football Part 3: AFL

“In 2007, we ran the first Inter-League game at Casey Fields between the Western Bulldogs and South Eastern Competition. I had to charge everyone five dollars entry because it wasn’t in the budget for that year.”

Support for a national Women’s AFL competition grows by the day. Few have a more vivid memory of where it all started than Female Football Development Manager Chyloe Kurdas.

As the participation rates of Women’s Football have grown increasingly successful, the reach and nature of Kurdas’ role has developed.

“When I began, my job was essentially to grow female football in regional and metropolitan areas and generate interest in schools to get girls to play footy. We certainly had a bit of work to do to make it culturally socially acceptable for girls to be fit, athletic, muscly, strong, capable and very good athletes.

“There was a lot of focus on building community football clubs but there was nothing there for those girls to then progress onto. What transpired from that was, yes, it’s easy to get girls to have a go at footy but then it’s another thing to keep them in the game.”

Once a solid base of enthusiastic players had been established, Kurdas and her colleagues then widened their focus towards growing the new generation of Women’s AFL stars.

“The responsibility on Victoria’s shoulders is to provide about 50% of the talent,” says Kurdas, a situation that would surprise few. “At the moment, with the Women’s Exhibition matches, we’re doing just that.”

“We needed to create a culture that said, ‘We want girls in the game,’” says Kurdas. “And we needed to provide a high performance program for those girls that show potential and are seeking a higher competitive pathway.”

Since the inaugural TAC Youth Girls Academy based at Essendon in Victoria, TAC Youth Girls’ Academies have developed young footballers determined to play in the burgeoning Women’s AFL competition. Victoria has the strongest Youth Girls Academy system with the first Academy commenced in 2008, which was expanded to three in 2014, six in 2015 and eight by 2016.

With announcement of a national competition in 2017, the structure of the 2016 TAC Youth Girls Academies in Victoria will expand to help identify and develop players who could play in the Premier and national league within three years. Each squad will have 34 places with an additional 10 rookies. In 2017 it is proposed there will be a six team AFL national women’s competition, requiring around 150 players, the majority of whom will be sourced from the Victorian Women’s Football League.

Players like Brittany Bonnici are testament to the process of fast tracking emerging talent from the Academy system. Bonnici graduated from Calder Cannons this year and not only played in the St Kilda Sharks Premier Division in her first full year of senior football, but was drafted in the second AFL Exhibition game. The Academies are a critical component to ensure a supply of footballers to support the Premier league and the National competition.

One of the great talents to emerge in Women’s AFL is Stephanie Chiocci, a 26 year old midfielder who was drafted by the Western Bulldogs in 2013 and has gone on to become the Doggies’ captain.

Chiocci began her Aussie Rules career at the Diamond Creek Women’s Club in 2006 at the age of 18. If she was intimidated by the challenge of debuting in a Division Three side, it didn’t show: within a year, she had been selected in the Victorian State side and hasn’t missed selection in the bi-annual competition since.

Her selection at pick 2 in the 2013 National Draft by the Western Bulldogs came with the glowing commendation from one Gary Ablett jnr that she “could play for a [men’s] AFL club” following her performance in the 2009 National Championship’s Grand Final.

While Chiocci has played in every possible Women’s Exhibition match and Victorian State squad, the role of the Victorian Women’s Football League is critical for developing senior women footballers. Chiocci still plays Premier League footy for Diamond Creek, which is the highest level of Women’s Football competition in the state. “The way that women’s footy is now, club footy is the number one priority,” she says. “If we’re going to have a national league, we need to make sure there’s depth in club footy.”

Chiocci is the Victorian Ambassador for Women’s AFL, a role that has become ever more important since the league began to look to its players to maintain the rise towards a national competition. “It’s about promotion and media appearances, but also about getting our brand out there with the Women’s Exhibition games as a spectacle for people.”

However, this role recently saw Chiocci directly confronted with a cultural challenge facing Women’s AFL: sexism. Appearing on The Footy Show with Melbourne captain and Australian ambassador Daisy Pierce on August 20, Chiocci was leeringly offered a “private talking to” by co-host Sam Newman before her next Diamond Creek match.

Newman was widely condemned on social media as “archaic” and “misogynistic” following the incident. Chiocci, who confesses that she was “a bit naïve” to patronising or reluctant attitudes towards the development of women’s football when she debuted, says that the responses of the general public have noticeably improved over her career. “We play it with just as much passion and love for the game. People’s mindsets have shifted. Where I teach [at Parkdale Secondary College], I coach the Year 7 to 12 boys and they’re really respectful and see me as a coach first and a female second.”

Chiocci’s Bulldogs went down to Melbourne by eight points in their Exhibition Match on May 24 but were nonetheless congratulated afterwards for their efforts in the change rooms by AFL CEO and Women’s AFL supporter Gillon McLachlan.

“He said how good it was and how excited about it he was.”

On May 11 of this year, Gillon McLachlan became the first AFL CEO to publicly support a semi-professional Women’s AFL competition at the annual AFL Women’s Industry Lunch.

“To have the CEO of the AFL meet all the Clubs and say, ‘This is coming and we’d love you to be involved’… you can’t buy that,” says Kurdas. “Gill clearly has a real passion and a real commitment to it.”

“The national women’s league is inevitable,” McLachlan said at the lunch. “The only question is timing. There’s a view that the depth of talent required will make it 2020. I’m pushing everybody to be a bit more adventurous than that. And it will provide opportunities for talented girls, but more than that: for coaches, for administrators, for everyone who wants to pursue their love of this game. My exit here is to implore everyone in the room: it’s coming. Get involved, play a role and make sure that it’s more like 2017 than 2020.”

The impact of McLachlan’s vow of support was immediate. The airfares for all players in the Youth Girls’ Nationals Carnival in May were covered by the AFL, while Victoria’s open age clash against Western Australian in Perth on June 4 was entirely AFL funded.

“That’s the first time that women have ever represented Victoria and haven’t had to pay a cent,” says Kurdas. (Notably, Western Australia inflicted the first ever defeat on Victoria – a sign that the national development of Women’s footy is no longer all about Victoria).

Interest was at an all-time high when the second 2015 Exhibition Match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, which was the first ever Women’s AFL match to be televised live via Channel Seven, began on August 16. Melbourne defeated the fast-finishing Bulldogs by just four points in front of a crowd of over 8,000.

“For the first time it feels like the challenges that I have,” says Kurdas with barely concealed excitement, “just aren’t that great.”

For Kurdas and the Women’s AFL, there are three major roadblocks to overcome that stand in the way of a national competition. It is estimated that a Women’s National Competition would need a registration of 25,000 women playing the game all over Australia to both be sustainable and have a sufficient standard. There are expected to be 150 new female teams across Australia in 2015, a figure that Kurdas hopes will be maintained for the next five years.

There is also the issue of finding a way to broadcast Women’s AFL to the Australian public. The AFL’s record $2.5 billion 2016 broadcast deal was announced on August 18 and, to widespread public surprise, no extension on the 2015 Women’s AFL contract was included. It is expected that, just as in this season, the first Women’s AFL Exhibition Match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs in 2016 will be streamed live on afl.com.au and the second clash will be televised live on Channel Seven. There was considerable protest against the perceived snub of a Women’s AFL broadcast deal, with many pointing out that the peak television audience of the August 16 match was 500,000, out rating the Essendon v Adelaide match at the MCG on the same afternoon. Given that Australia’s national female soccer competition W-League has an existing deal with Fox Sports of one broadcast match, the time will surely come when weekly Women’s AFL matches will be on our TV screens.

Currently, the Premier Division has a dedicated match day radio podcast on the fan-based Girls Play Footy website hosted by Peter Holden. However, on Sunday September 13 the crowd at the Premier Division Grand Final witnessed Australian Rules’ first ever all-female commentary team: Kurdas, Wyndhamvale premiership player Anna Harrington and Eastern Devils’ President Jo Wotton called the Darebin Falcons’ Premier Division Grand Final victory over Diamond Creek at Coburg City Oval for AFL Victoria.

Inevitably, the Women’s AFL competition will have to cross the bridge that all Australian professional sportswomen have had to cross: the issue of pay. Australia’s women’s soccer team the Matildas are negotiating on their current six month contracts valued at $10,500 while in netball the Diamonds have finally negotiated a pay increase after months of discussion with Australian Netball Players’ Association to ensure a 100% pay rise within three years. All of my interviewees over the course of compiling these features are aware that the time of fully professional Women’s AFL is still a while away, given that it took ninety years for VFL to become fully professional for men.

Before leaving, I ask Kurdas if she herself played Women’s AFL and learn that she played at Melbourne University for over 15 years, played for Victoria seven times, was an All Australian in 2001, and captained Melbourne Uni’s premiership side in 2005.

“What are you more proud of – your playing career or your role as Football Development Manager?”

“Definitely as Football Development Manager. Why wouldn’t I want to provide others with the joy I had? My playing career brought me so much joy that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay back to footy what footy has done for me.”

A wider footballing community – and future generations of girls who will run out and play in the Women’s AFL competition – probably disagree.

 

About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.

Comments

  1. I think it’s fantastic to see women’s sport finally on the rise. I actually really enjoy it as a spectator, and I hope they televise it more into the future.

    My 4 year old daughter asked me the other day if she could play football one day. I made me really happy to be able to confidently say yes.

  2. Positive story, well told.
    Good on you Chyloe.
    Good on you Callum.

    Ben- girls around here are regularly challenging societal expectations-
    “why can’t I marry a girl if I want to, Dad?” (In idle conversation )
    “Where are all the girls, Dad?” (At a footy game)

    Love it that young girls are having opportunity opened up.
    Well played.

Leave a Comment

*