In a matter of two weeks, the second season of the AFL Women’s competition will kick off at Princes Park in Carlton when the Blues host the Magpies in the season opener.
Not only is a large crowd expected for that match, but just a week later the Magpies will take on the Dockers for the first time at the new Perth Stadium, a game which has reportedly sold more than 30,000 tickets.
Typically, the mainstream media will continually spurt the line that the AFLW has been a great overnight success, an idea conceived only two years ago.
Truth be told though, the seeds for the national competition we celebrate today were sown in a meeting at league headquarters this month 15 years ago.
Founding secretary of the Sydney Women’s Australian Football League (SWAFL), Yvette Andrews, recalled the early talk about state league representatives meeting with the AFL to discuss the future of the women’s game.
“We had a pretty significant conversation with the AFL starting in around 2002, to get them focused on what women’s football could really do,” Andrews explained.
“I’d like to think our (SWAFL) President at the time, Helen Swan, who had kind of a connection with Wayne Jackson who was CEO at the AFL at the time, had a bit of influence there.
“We got them to call a meeting of a group of women from different states, to come together as the first representative meeting of women across the country who wanted to see AFL be part of their lives.”
The group that would end up advising the AFL on women’s footy featured a who’s who of the women’s game.
Along with Yvette Andrews and Helen Swan, women such as Dani Glatz and Nicole Graves were there advocating the need for investment in the game and pathways.
“That first meeting, pretty sure it was January 2003, that was the first time that I know of that the AFL themselves said ‘yeah, we want to invest in this, we want to bring you together and we want to get some ideas about how to move forward’.
“It was a really big win for us, and we sat down there in AFL House in the main boardroom, and we pitched our claim to space of the football field basically.”
Not everything was smooth sailing for these women’s footy pioneers.
It was a time when women’s competitions were yet to get off the ground in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania.
The Sydney competition was barely three years old, and not every league sent a team to the National Championships; it being purely on an ‘if they can raise the money’ basis.
Also, Youth Girls football was not existent, with the famous court case of junior female footballers Helen Taylor, Penny Cula-Reid and Emily Stayner versus the Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League still being eleven months away from occurring.
“I think the guys around that table were coming to terms with the fact that women were serious about playing football still,” Andrews said.
“They really weren’t at a point of visualising the future, they were still coming to terms with the present.
“Wayne Jackson wasn’t necessarily a believer in women’s football.
“He famously had been quoted as saying he wasn’t sure that women were even capable of playing football, that the Australian public was ready to see it, but in that meeting surrounded by the leadership of the AFL on the walls, we showed them footage of women playing, [and] they went ‘gee, you guys are really serious about this’.”
The women’s football representatives in the meeting were not only serious, but also very ambitious.
For the first time, they not only wanted to take the game to the Top End, but also use the occasion to help grow the women’s game in the Northern Territory.
“We told them what we were planning.
“We wanted to have this week-long competition in Darwin that year – we needed everyone to be on board for that – and they listened, and we continued a conversation that I think set some of the main steps in train that led to the AFLW.
“We had an impact; we were changing hearts and minds at that point.
The short-term impact of that meeting was a $5,000 grant from the AFL to assist in the costs of running that year’s National Championships.
It might have been a rather small sum, however, it was an important step when you consider just a couple of years earlier that the Western Australia state team had to look to an ‘upmarket adult establishment’ for sponsorship money.
The women in that 2003 meeting making the case for women’s football were not arguing their case alone, with Andrews revealing a key AFL ally they had in their corner.
“I have to say the other person who was absolutely fantastic in this was Gabrielle Trainor, who was then a commissioner on the New South Wales AFL Commission when they had state bodies.
“From the very beginning in 1999/2000 when we went to the AFL and said we were doing this, she had been saying ‘you’ve got to listen to these women, they know what they’re on about’, and she’s still there.
“She’s still advocating for women’s football and she’s still one of those great women AFL leaders that really got the momentum happening and got the game to where it is today.
The momentum from that meeting, and resultant communication between the representatives of women’s football and the AFL, help lay down the path to today’s national competition.
In fact, Andrews would come across a document that would end up foretelling the future of the women’s game.
“Last year before the AFLW kicked off, we had a celebration in Sydney of the history of our (SWAFL) contribution.
“I went through a lot of my documents, and I discovered this incredible letter that we’d written to David Matthews who was I think the Head of Game Development in around 2003/2004.
The letter to Matthews outlined the plan the women had for their game going forward, including the following important points:
– a person for a national development program for women
– have high-profile games that brought the media and captured the imagination of the community
– a mapped out development youth program to have pathways for girls into footy
“He did all those things along with I presume a whole lot of other things that have built that momentum, and when Gillon McLachlan made that call [to start in 2017] – and I think it’s absolutely the right call now – I was shocked.
“I thought ‘how are you going to do this in a year’, but when the momentum is there, you don’t want to lose it, and it was the right thing to do, and they pulled it off.
“[Looking back] Those first steps were definitely the path that led us to what we have now, which is fabulous.”
To mark our 100th episode of the Girls Play Footy Podcast, which is due to air on Wednesday, February 28, we’ll be airing a special dedication to the history of women’s football before the AFLW era. Suggestions on individuals we should interview are welcome via firstname.lastname@example.org