Culture

Top Footballer Melissa Hickey On Why The AFL Women’s League Will Revolutionise Australian Sport

"I just hope that for every young girl this is just normal."

Melissa Hickey was young when she first picked up a footy. So young, in fact, she can’t quite remember exactly what drew her to the game in the first place. But her dad and Geelong legend Gary Ablett Sr definitely had something to do with it.

“I was one of three girls, so I didn’t have any brothers but my dad was one of my heroes growing up and he had played football quite successfully in the country,” reflects Hickey, who now plays for Darebin Falcons in the Victorian Women’s Football League. “My whole family kind of followed Geelong, so it was always in the blood. I just have a lot of memories of kicking the footy with my sisters, and then they’d get bored. And then I’d convince Dad and he’d get bored. And then I’d end up kicking it to myself for a while.”

Growing up in Mildura, Hickey exercised every option she had to play footy, which in the ’80s and ’90s pretty much meant kick-to-kick with the boys in the schoolyard and the occasional competitive match. “Grade 5 and 6 we had inter-school sports and I chose football,” she explains. “I was the only girl on our team and I absolutely loved playing and got to go in the ruck for a bit.” With limited avenues to continue footy beyond the age of 12, save for the occasional one-off game at high school, Hickey turned her attention to basketball and netball.

It’s a familiar story. And one that many young women with a dream to play football at a competitive level faced in the ’90s, when there was limited access to play a game that they loved with just as much passion as their brothers, cousins and dads. It’s no wonder then that the AFL’s announcement yesterday that it is introducing a women’s league featuring eight of the major clubs – Adelaide Crows, Brisbane Lions, Carlton Blues, Collingwood Magpies, Fremantle Dockers, GWS Giants, Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs – is being described as revolutionary. “It’s definitely a history making day for footy, that’s for sure,” Hickey says, audibly excited by the news.

Why A Women’s League Matters

Now regarded as one of the best defenders in the VWFL, Hickey was among the very first crop of players to be drafted to Melbourne’s AFL side in 2013. She has since played three exhibition matches against the Western Bulldogs at the MCG; an experience she describes as totally surreal. But if it weren’t for a chance encounter with one of footy’s most famous faces, she may have given up her football dream. “I moved to Melbourne for uni when I was 18, and kept playing netball and was getting a bit bored of that, when I actually just bumped into Daisy Pearce – who is probably one of the best known female footballers – in her mum’s café,” she explains. “She was working there and we just got chatting and she said, ‘You should come down to [Darebin Falcons’] training’. I was 24 at that stage. And I thought ‘Oh well, why not?”

Starting a footy career at 24 would be virtually unheard of in the men’s league, which has an average retirement age of around 31, but since then Hickey has represented Victoria, been selected for All Australian honours and is now eyeing off the chance to possibly play in the AFL’s very first women’s league. Is it possible that women physically peak later than men? “I think as women, we develop later strength-wise so I’m feeling the fittest and strongest I ever had and I’m 31. I think I’ve still got a few good years left in me. If you look at some of the 18-year-old girls we play with they just don’t have that kind of developed body and I think it just takes a bit longer given our physiology.”

The establishment of an official women’s league by the AFL – which even last year wasn’t considered a possibility until at least 2020 – is seen by detractors as simply a kneejerk reaction to the increasing popularity of soccer as the sport of choice for young Australians. And there are still future pitfalls to overcome – such as television rights, grassroots investment and the vast pay gap (as epitomised by Australia’s national soccer team The Matildas). But Hickey says there is a genuine commitment from both Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs who have pioneered women’s teams, as well as the AFL’s head honchos.

“I think [early on] there wasn’t really a sense of how it [women’s football] fitted into the picture and how it was going to evolve – whether it was going to be exhibition matches – kind of novelty match after novelty match,” she admits. “The first year at Melbourne it was a bit of a novelty for the boys so they we were all a bit awkward with each other because it was a bit different. But now there are players that I’ve seen over a few years and they’ll come up and ask you how it’s going. And you can see them watching us before they warm up – there is a genuine interest and by-in from them.”

It Just Makes Sense

It’s well documented that women represent 50 percent of AFL fans and 22 percent of all players. Add to that the fact that TV ratings for the women’s round in 2015 outperformed the men’s match between Essendon and Adelaide on the same weekend and it’s clear the public is well and truly supportive of the move as well. And yet the AFL are pretty late adopters in the context of other codes. There is already a women’s Big Bash League in the cricket, while the women’s soccer league (or W-League) has been running since 2008.

“I think the more people are exposed to it [the more they will accept it],” says Hickey. “People who have seen it might have a certain opinion about it and perhaps some assumptions – but once people do see it, they get sold on it … There are always going to be detractors, and unfortunately it comes from a certain age group and gender, generally, those comments. I just try not to get too worked up about that sort of stuff and our goal is to win them over and show them why it is worth watching.”

And as for the future of the women’s league, Hickey just has one dream: “I just hope that for every young girl this is just normal, that they are going to grow up and of course there are going to be AFL superstars that are male and female it’s just going to be normal.”

One of the AFL’s most popular initiatives is the father/son rule, which allows teams to preferentially draft sons of former players who have competed in over 100 games for the club. If all goes to plan and Hickey’s vision for the future does come true, hopefully it won’t be long until we see the introduction of the mother/daughter rule to mirror it. “That would be crazy,” Hickey cackles with delight. “We might have Daisy Pearce’s kids in a few years!”

Lead image via Melbourne Football Club/Facebook

Sarah Smith is a music journalist, presenter on Melbourne’s Triple R and former editor of FasterLouder. She tweets @sarah_smithie.