If You Can’t See It, You Can’t Be It: How 5 Years Of The AFLW Has Revolutionised Women’s Sport

“It’s not about us, it's all about representing people that couldn’t play."


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The AFLW is about to kick off its seventh season, the first in which every AFL men’s club will submit a women’s team in an historic win for representation in sport.

Essendon, Hawthorn, Sydney, and Port Adelaide will all enter the league for their inaugural seasons in August, adding to the already fierce competition we’ve seen evolve over the past few years. But in addition to a bunch of new faces, many players from previous years will return to the field — including a bunch from the inaugural playing group that first kicked off in 2017.

When the AFLW first launched five years ago, just eight clubs put forward a team — featuring many athletes who had been forced to pivot away from football in their teenage years due to the fact that opportunities to play at a junior level simply didn’t exist, and the idea of it becoming a career was nothing more than a dream.

The Inaugural Playing Group Are The Women Who Didn’t Take “No” For An Answer

For Collingwood co-captain Bri Davey — who speaks in the upcoming Disney+ series Fearless: The Untold Story Of The AFL about how her childhood dream was to be the first woman to play the AFLM — her dreams came crashing down when she was 12.

“I still remember the conversation, it was my dad and he sorta sat me down one day and said ‘look Bri, I know you love footy but this isn’t gonna be your career, there isn’t one there for you’,” she told Junkee. “I remember sort of not really understanding that initially but as the years went on and I got to the back end of under-12s, which was where the cut-off for women was, I started to understand a bit more that women don’t play this sport, it’s not there at the elite level.”

Davey eventually pivoted to soccer, where she went on to represent Australia as a Matilda, but she told Junkee that “in my heart of hearts I always really missed footy”. While she stresses that this adversity helped to build resilience in her both a player and a person, she notes that this experience is all too common among women in football.

“I think a lot of women across the league would’ve had to experience at some point being told ‘no, you don’t belong here’ or ‘no, this isn’t for you’,” she told Junkee.

Her co-captain Steph Chiocci echoed a similar statement, stressing that their efforts both on and off the field are continually fighting for those who couldn’t play, and those who will follow them. “It’s not about us, it’s all about representing people that couldn’t play and putting all of the hard yards so that future generations can have a sustainable competition. Hopefully, full time and getting paid what they deserve and I’m just paying a small part in that but there’s so many other people that have done a tonne of work behind the scenes,” Chiocci told Junkee.

Women Finally Have A Clear Pathway To Professional AFLW

Other players like the Adelaide Crows’ Ebony Marinoff started off their AFL journeys playing with the boys, but were able to move into girls leagues in their teen years. But even Marinoff notes how watching clearer pathways to the AFLW evolve has been her favourite moment of growth since the league’s inception.

“That’s been my favourite part. I feel so lucky to have had my journey with the boys and I don’t regret having that pathway, I think it was really, really good for my footy and I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today without that exposure to playing with the boys,” Marinoff told Junkee. “But now I look on the other side that now girls can just go down to their local footy club and play with their girl mates. It’s completely different but having that pathway.

“I think a lot of women across the league would’ve had to experience at some point being told ‘no, you don’t belong here’ or ‘no, this isn’t for you’,” she told Junkee.

“We’ve watched these really talented men go through the NAB leagues, state programs, they’re in the gym, and now the girls get that. They come into the AFLW system already advanced to what we were back in the day and that’s really exciting because they’re just natural-born footballers. I love the game and there’s no better feeling that seeing a girl and going ‘that girl can play football’.”

Since the AFLW’s establishment in 2017, the country has seen a massive surge in women and girls’ participation in the sport at a local level, with nearly 600,000 players across more than 2,500 teams across the country in 2022 — up from just 600 in 2015.

This increased participation and investment in the development of future players has drastically improved the league, and promises to continue to do so as more players are able to receive the same support that men have had access to for generations.

“The quality of the game has just really increased and it simply comes down to the fact that girls have been playing the game for longer now,” Chiocci told Junkee. “These young girls have a clear pathway all the way through from NAB Auskick to the AFLW. We have experiences in the gym, diet, sleep, the fundamentals of football and that’s sort of showing on the training track and out on the field in our kids that we’ve drafted so I’m excited to see the next generation take the next step and I think it’s going to be a very, very good season.”

While additional funding from the AFL for womens’ and girls’ community football has helped this, the impact of the inaugural playing group cannot be understated in all of this.

There Is Still Work To Be Done, But We Must Never Forget How Far We’ve Come

It goes without saying that there is still a significant amount of work to be done when it comes to representation, pay, and support of the league across Australia, with many players still forced to have full-time jobs outside of football.

As the league enters its seventh season, the AFL is officially the biggest employer of female athletes in the country, with more than 500 players contracted across the 18 teams, but challenges still remain when it comes to misogyny and stereotypes in the game, paying players a living wage on full-time contracts (as opposed to six-month contracts) and developing a full-fixture season that is akin to the mens game.

But while there are still major hurdles to overcome when it comes to women’s football in Australia, players who have been around since the league’s inception are proud of how far the game has come in such a short period of time.

“The AFLW has evolved significantly,” Adelaide Crows captain Chelsea Randall told Junkee. “I think it has not only just evolved on the field and in the knowledge that the girls have but also the change in society that we’ve seen and how the stereotypical what a girl can and can’t do has been challenged and we’ve broken through the glass ceiling and that’s what’s so exciting about this AFLW competition.

“There are no words to describe it.”

This Is Just The Beginning

When the seventh season of the AFLW kicks off on August 25, all 18 clubs will finally be involved, giving the league a broader reach to those fans who have been yet to be represented.

But with all clubs finally competing in the AFLW, players note that the pressure to be the first club to win an 18-team competition is strong.

“There are no words to describe it.”

“It’s been a long time waiting and to actually finally be here – it’s probably happened quicker than we thought – but no one has ever had the opportunity to hold up that cup in an 18 team competition,” said Marinoff.

The AFLW season kicks off on August 25, you can catch four of the teams — the Collingwood Magpies, Adelaide Crows, Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Western Bulldogs — in the new docu-series Fearless: The Untold AFLW Story on Disney+ from August 24.

Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter focusing on news and politics. She is also an avid sports fan. Follow her on Twitter