As female football goes from strength to strength, more and more community clubs are opening their doors and establishing girls and women’s team.
While there are challenges associated with doing so, there are plenty of benefits, too.
Kate Griffin has only been playing football for two years, but is already thinking long-term, with her eye on an AFLW career.
The 14-year-old, who alternates between the backline and the ruck, will once again pull on the boots for Creswick in the Ballarat Youth Girls competition in western Victoria in 2017.
Griffin will be one of the nearly 400,000 girls and women around the country playing at community clubs this year.
The Creswick Football Netball Club, which established a Youth Girls team in 2016, was the first in the Central Highlands region to do so, a fact club president Mick Alsop said they were very proud of.
“It was something that the committee really supported and so did all our members and supporters and sponsors,” Alsop said.
“They thought it was a great idea that we were expanding and the fact that we were the first club [in Central Highlands] to lead the way and get a team up and going.”
For Creswick Youth Girls coach Chris Hammond, the support from the club has been unreserved, even when the team struggled to field a full side in its first season.
“They were really open to it,” Hammond said.
“Our presentation nights are supported from the club and the community, people come and watch games… they’ve been fantastic.
“It’s a really good atmosphere out at the club.”
The Millewa Football League in the north-west corner of Victoria might be the smallest league in the state, with only six competing teams, but it is making great strides in female football.
In 2016, four of the six Millewa teams fielded an open women’s team; this year all six clubs have teams.
The Bambill Football Netball Club was one of the first clubs in the league to launch a team.
“We started off with about 12 to 14 players and quickly got to 25,” Bambill President and women’s coach Brett Robertson said.
“This year we have about 35 players on the list.”
Aligning the women’s teams with established men’s clubs made sense to Sunraysia Football Development Manager, Trevor Ryan.
“The best thing to make it work long-term is to have some sort of link with our community clubs,” Ryan said, highlighting the established training bases, venues and supporters.
The Millewa League, which only fields one senior male football team per club, was a natural fit.
While some clubs initially expressed concerns about the expense involved in fielding a new team, Ryan says those concerns were quickly quashed.
“The gate takings went up nearly $2000 for a game,” Ryan said.
“Their memberships increased, their crowds increased, the catering and bar sales increased.
“They can see the positive outcomes that [having a women’s team] has given the club and the competition.”
According to AFL Victoria, the benefits of female football teams to clubs include not just more members, supporters and players, but also a diversification that leads to better decision making and increased sponsorship and fundraising opportunities.
And while clubs like Creswick and Bambill have seen these benefits in action, the development of female football at the grassroots level has not been without challenges, with both clubs highlighting inadequate facilities and volunteer numbers – a problem that many football clubs grapple with – as issues they face.
Facilities are a real challenge for Bambill. With both teams playing on the one day, the women’s team is forced to play earlier than the club would like in order to facilitate a smooth changeover between the two teams.
It’s an issue Robertson says the club is keen to address.
While the club has benefited from an increase in supporters owing to the partners, family and friends of the female players, Robertson admits his biggest challenge is maintaining the support network to grow and develop the team.
“Every single volunteer that the men have, the women need exactly the same,” Robertson said.
“They still need goal umpires and boundary umpires, team managers, trainers and water carriers.”
For Creswick, whose Youth Girls team play on a Sunday, access to facilities is not so much the issue as the rooms not being suitable for the girls.
“Our facilities, although they are quite new and we’re very well set up, were built just after the introduction of our girls teams so our change rooms aren’t set up for girls,” Alsop said.
“Hopefully we can rectify that at some stage but we don’t have the funds within the club to just go ahead and do that.”
Volunteers are also a challenge for Creswick, which must draw from a much smaller group on a Sunday.
“On a Saturday, there’s 13 teams playing.
“You don’t quite need as many volunteers but you still need a fair few to run a Sunday and you’ve got to try and get those from one team.”
However, both clubs are committed to the development of female football despite the challenges, with Alsop highlighting a long-term plan for Creswick.
“We’d like to have an under-13s team and then further down the track a senior team, that gives that progression all the way from Auskick,” Alsop said.
“I think it’s a great thing for the community, not just the town but also for the towns that are surrounding us, where those girls have now got the avenue to play footy.”
For Robertson, the Bambill women’s team, which narrowly lost the Grand Final in 2016, has delivered real benefits to the club, including strengthening connections to the local community.
“It’s a win win for everybody.”