Women’s game the key to taking footy global

On the back of the incredible successful televised match between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons, the women’s game has drawn the focus of the footy-loving public as we prepare for the October 12 draft.

Further than assessing the game and the quality of players within Australia, the draft offers the chance to analyse the international Aussie rules community as a whole, in which an enticing opportunity presents itself to the AFL.

The Great Britain Swans were Champions League winners in 2016.
Image: AFL Europe

The USA and Canada have long led the way in international Australian rules, but Europe is playing catch up. Fast.

In just two short years we’ve seen the game grow from a few exhibition games between girls to fully formed 18-a-side leagues and international competitions which, in the run up to International Cup 2017, is likely to result in the most competitive international women’s tournament yet.

With the women’s game in Australia doubling in numbers in the last five years, record growth in junior and school programmes being noted and women’s footy taking hold in North America and Europe, there is a real thirst for the game.

In a world where there is no outright top women’s sport, especially in the team arena, what’s to say that Australian rules couldn’t be ‘it’?

The AFL has long been looking for ways to grow the game outside of the Australian borders and the women’s game could be used as a great vehicle for this, but only if it’s done right.

There are a lot of ongoings within the motherland of the sport in the lead-up to the 2017 national women’s competition, but this spectator would ask those guardians of the game to take a step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment.

We are at a very unique point in the women’s game right now. The talent gap between the professional women’s game and the amateur international game is much smaller than the men’s due to the relative youth of both.

Although this is the case now, it will not be forever; the longer we go without an international strategy, the further this skill gap will increase and we’ll lose the momentum that could be created now.

The fact that we’re at this crossroad in the international game offers three huge opportunities for the AFL:
– To create a clear, sustainable pathway between the international regions and the professional game
– To create commercial value internationally for the game – which the men’s game hasn’t been able to produce on mass
– To create a sustainable international game

In London, we’re about to experience our first taste of the draft with at least two players nominating. This is huge for our footy community but could be huge news for national sport, too.

Creating a sustainable international Football game relies on two aspects: having idols you can personally relate to and, just as importantly, having access to quality coaching and infrastructure.

At the moment, the game in London is at a place in history where we ask the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg. Without awareness of the game there aren’t people to place into a quality coaching programme, and without a quality coaching programme we’re relying on natural talent to be enough to gain entry into the AFL.

In the UK, 13 million women said they’d like to participate more in sport and 6 million of those are currently not active; this is down to factors including fear of judgement, practical barriers such as time and cost, and personal barriers.

A Sport England report found that many of those women are also after ‘something new’ that offers friendship, support and opportunities to perform at a high level. Australian Rules ticks all of those boxes, and at a time when the excitement surrounding the women’s game as at an unprecedented high.

It’s safe to say that this mindset is not just limited to women in the UK, but is shared by women across Europe, the United States and the world. The AFL offering the game to those potential standouts could be the key to making Australian rules a true worldwide sport.

With the 2017 International Cup on the horizon, we will have the chance to see the best the rest of the world has to offer, allowing the eight AFL women’s teams, on the back of their first seasons, to strongly assess what the level outside of Australia is truly at.

The potential to find girls from outside of Australia, who have learnt the game abroad, could have a significant role to play in international expansion.

The media coverage back in their home nation will start to drive awareness and the patronage that could be linked into any international contract could continue to drive this awareness, as well as delivering extra income to the individual.

We’re all very aware that the national women’s competition will be semi-professional, or “part-time” as the AFL put it, so being able to drive extra income will be key for those individuals participating until there is a fully professional women’s league.

Becoming a patron and lead coach within their home country could continue to drive commercial appeal as well as awareness through media and growth initiatives, thus driving local interest in the sport.

Since 2009, Sport England has awarded £651 million in funding to sport bodies and initiatives to develop, grow and increase participation within sport. With enough interest in England, some of that money could be directed to Australian rules, essentially allowing the game to flourish in England without the AFL having to do anything.

The same formula could be easily repeated elsewhere in the world.

The introduction of the women’s national league brings us to a very interesting time in the international game. With the right strategy in place, those girls playing abroad could be key to creating a truly sustainable international game.

Jason Hill is the captain of the Wimbledon Hawks and playing representative of Great Britain. He is also the Great Britain team manager for both the GB Bulldogs (men) and GB Swans (women) teams that will be a part of the upcoming 2017 International Champions Cup in Melbourne.