Open letter to Gillon McLachlan

Congratulations to Gillon McLachlan are in order as he awaits taking over the role as AFL chief executive. It’s not often that the AFL has a new boss and with a new face in the hot seat, perhaps this is the beginning of something extremely positive for females involved in Australian Rules.

Although the number of women involved in the AFL and its clubs on a number of levels has increased dramatically over the past decade, this letter is being written to address two specific issues females are still faced with that continue to be prevalent.

AFL deputy CEO Gillon McLachlan. Image supplied by Fox Sports.

This letter is being addressed to you in a public manner specifically because it is my strong belief that you possess both the power and influence to make a significant difference to the future of women’s football heading into your tenure as AFL chief executive beginning on June 5th.

I also believe it is incredibly important for the many females out that who share the same views to be able to read this letter and confirm these concerns, as it is their opinion that matters most.

It’s no secret that there is some kind of unspoken stigma against women’s sport in this country; you only have to pick up any common newspaper and flick over to the sports section to see that female athletes aren’t exactly strongly represented.

It also goes without saying that despite the fantastic advancements of women in all areas, this is still very much a man’s world; and as much as I don’t like to believe it, Australian Rules is still viewed as a man’s game. It is this view that exists both inside football clubs and certainly in supporter circles that continues to halt the ambitions of driven women who simply want to be recognised for their abilities.

The most recent example of this is current Western Bulldogs women’s coach and former Port Melbourne assistant coach Peta Searle. As you are aware, Peta was essentially forced out of coaching at a high level due to a lack of opportunity, attributed to her gender.

With a young family to support, it is understandable why she made the decision to head back into the workforce rather than continue her role as backline coach with Port Melbourne for a small-value contract.

The issue is not as black and white as saying that Peta hasn’t been given an offer because she is female; she is seen for what she can’t offer as a female, that being the experience of playing AFL for years on end like the large majority of current AFL coaches have, as is the nature of coaching ranks.

With her experience coaching five premierships with the Darebin Falcons in the Victorian Women’s Football League, her two years under Port Melbourne senior coach Gary Ayres, multiple times coaching the Victorian women’s team at the National Championships and three months spent observing the inner workings of the Melbourne Football Club last year, it only takes a quick glance at Peta Searle’s CV to know that she would comfortably hold down and excel in a development role at any AFL club.

You recently stated in an interview on ABC radio that the AFL will work to create opportunities for Peta to get a foot in the door, which is obviously fantastic given her proven credentials as an educator and mentor, but it needs to be known that this issue is one that affects many more people than just Peta.

For all the positivity that has come from Peta’s experiences over the past two years, the story cannot end with the door being closed on her ambitions as not only does an AFL club lose the opportunity to obtain a terrific coach, it hardly spurs on other talented female coaches to follow their dream.

I know that I am not alone in saying that the AFL must work to diversify clubs, as I am simply reiterating the suggestions made by both Ayres and Searle in Sam Lane’s article in The Age covering the issue.

In the same breath, this is not to say that all clubs must include a female in its coaching ranks. It is simply to allow people like Peta Searle, who have a proven track record of player development in highly competitive environments, to be given the same opportunities as any male that falls under the same umbrella.

In the world we live in, of course not everyone is going to look at a female coach and say they can do the same job as a male; it’s unfortunate but it’s the truth. But what I know you can do is boost the education of club officials and supporters alike, Gillon.

I implore you to please consider upping your verbal support of women in Australian Rules as well as creating pathways to help educate people on the many positives females bring to the table. I know that with your influence, the AFL can make great inroads into having the wider population recognise the contribution women make to our great game, just as has been done for the Indigenous men and women that make Aussie Rules that much better.

With one issue out in the open, I am unfortunately compelled to take the greatest thing to happen to female Australian Rules and focus on the negatives.

Everyone that witnessed the process of female players being drafted by the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons to having them play in front of a crowd in excess of 7,000 people on the MCG can only agree that what happened last year was both incredibly special and incredibly important. As much as the girls who play footy would much rather focus on doing exactly that – playing footy – it was clear to all that what had occurred was something that marked the change of direction in women’s Aussie Rules.

Not only was it a remarkable experience for the girls themselves but it was embraced by all within the two football clubs. The Demons have been long-time sponsors of the VWFL and with Bulldogs vice president Susan Alberti passionate about women getting the chance to live the same dream of many young boys growing up, you just knew the clubs weren’t in it for the sake of being in it.

However, despite the spectacle being notably acknowledged by yourself and AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, one can’t help but feel that what was a massive breakthrough is now being put on the backburner as an annual event and not much more.

For all the positives that came from the inaugural game, it is becoming clear that the opportunity had been somewhat passed up. Despite the game being displayed on the big screens of the MCG thanks to the camera work of the same people prepared to cover the men’s game that followed, the only footage available of the event is from a grainy video camera from an upper tier of the MCG.

I am fully aware that broadcasting of the game was not the responsibility of yourself or anyone from the AFL but the fact that no footage exists other than the previously mentioned is a serious concern, as well as being a quick reminder that the wider media still doesn’t have much care for women’s footy.

You can even look at Monday’s second women’s draft and see that promotion and hype on social media, that is regularly used to pump up just about everything that has the remotest thing to do with AFL, was severely lacking. The wider public can be excused for not knowing about the draft as there was little to no promotion and coverage until the event started.

While states have held draft showcase games and the scouting has taken a huge step up this year, the change of time slot for the second game between the Bulldogs and Demons is extremely concerning. From the outside looking in, this year’s 9:30am time slot screams a lack of consideration.

The blunt point is that very few neutral supporters, who have no connection to the girls out on the field, are going to go out of their way to show up at Etihad Stadium at 9:30 on a Sunday morning to watch people play footy. The large crowd drawn to last year’s game can be heavily attributed to the convenient twilight time slot. I might be selling the public short, but I wouldn’t be expecting more than a couple of hundred fans showing up for the game. And it’s a shame.

Let’s think about the bigger picture for the moment; on the field, women’s footy is in the best place it has ever been. Most states have multiple competitions for girls of varying age and skill level and the work that has been put into developing the Youth Girls pathways by AFL female football development officer Jan Cooper is paying dividends, as displayed during the 2014 Youth Girls National Championships.

The carnival was also the first time Victoria hadn’t won either the senior or under-18 nationals with Western Australia coming out victorious. Knowing first hand how talented the Vic Metro side was this year, for them to be pipped by WA is only a positive thing for the progression and development of women’s footy on the field. It makes me genuinely excited to see these girls transition into senior competitions as well as see how good the next crop of emerging superstars will be.

It is no secret that everybody involved with women’s footy wants a national women’s competition but as you are well aware, it’s not a matter of snapping your fingers and here it is. However, I am genuinely concerned that the year of 2020 that has been set for a fully funded and televised national women’s competition is simply existing for the sake of existing.

While I do not believe that this year’s women’s game is a waste by any stretch of the imagination, I do believe that it is not contributing to the bigger picture as much as it can and should.

Again I feel the need to implore you to use your influence to help keep the ball rolling forward rather than back and forth. For every forward step we take, we need to be thinking about taking two more.

I do not see it as a stretch for there to be a fully operational six-to-eight-team women’s competition by 2017. Whether the inaugural season is contested between solely Victorian clubs or otherwise, I strongly believe that this is an achievable goal and one that yourself and many others would like to see. As I’m sure you’re aware of, all AFL clubs in 2008 submitted their bids for a women’s AFL team as well as a number of state and regional teams.

Given the relatively low operating costs of a women’s national team – the cost of running a team in Australia’s female football/soccer league, the W-League, is roughly $100,000 over three months – and the fact that the foundations have already been put down by way of the exhibition games, it is imperative that we make the next move sooner rather than later.

It only takes one look at 2013’s AFL financial report to see that the costs of a women’s football club would hardly put a dent in the AFL’s surplus earnings.

The talent is there – if you think back, you mentioned that yourself after witnessing the great spectacle that was the inaugural women’s game on the MCG. You should also be aware that the first women’s game was played after the majority of Bulldogs and Demons players had spent a week at National Championships and were near-physically depleted. The Victorian girls also had a game to think about the very next morning, yet all 50 girls put in a terrific display.

What you witnessed is only a small portion of the talent that’s out there in state and under-18 competitions all around the country, and that is possibly the most exciting thing.

With your leadership and drive, Gillon, I am certain that a national women’s competition can be established long before 2020 and the current stars of the game will have a chance to shine in front of the entire country. As a fan of sport in general, I know that lovers of Australian Rules would relish getting to see the likes of Daisy Pearce, Steph Chiocci, Aasta O’Connor, Lou Wotton and Chelsea Randall, just to name a small handful, do what they do exceptionally well and that is play footy.

Not only that but it is vital for the young girls playing this great game have something to aspire to and more importantly, for young aspiring footballers to have female footy role models. It becomes all too common to see players needing to take a year or two off from the game because they know the ceiling is quite low. So let’s lift the bar together.

The absolute bottom line is that Australian Rules is not a man’s game anymore and that extends further than just on the field. With your help, we can completely abolish the line that separates what men and women can and can’t do when it comes to Australian Rules.