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Aussies on the Rise: The Growth of Women in Sports in Australia

Katrina Touzeau is a former intern of the Women’s Sports Foundation, avid marathon runner and former member of the Australian Basketball Referees National Panel 1992-2012.  Katrina has previously worked in community, state and national, international level peak sporting bodies, boards and events in Australia.

Part I

In 2017, women’s sports in Australia experienced a change. The mantra ‘If she can see it, she can be it,’ started to become more than a tagline.

Many variations of football are played in Australia, but none more unique than Australian Rules Football (AFL), which has seen one of the biggest trends in women’s sports this year. Particularly popular in Victoria, the inaugural league kicked off in February with the opening game between Carlton versus Collingwood played in front of a capacity crowd of 24,500 packed into Ikon Park in Melbourne and watched on television by nearly one million viewers.

The AFL administration, caught by surprise by the popularity of the new league, had to stop allowing fans to enter at quarter-time to avoid overcrowding. Free entry was part of a strategy to encourage spectators to support the new women’s league, but there was no encouragement needed as the football fanatical Victorian crowd turned up in droves.

With approximately 2,000 fans turned away, the AFL started to wonder if this was a one-time phenomenon attributable to opening day, or if they would have to move remaining matches to larger venues.

As if to prove some of the doubting media wrong, the next game of the round, played at the Whitten Oval, saw nearly 10,000 spectators fill the stadium to near capacity. It was not a fluke. The large crowds would continue to turn up throughout the season, including the Grand Final at Metricon stadium in Adelaide in front of more than 15,000 people.

With eight teams in the league aligned to existing AFL men’s teams, clubs began to gain access to potential new members as many of these spectators were different from the usual crowd. When l arrived at the Whitten Oval to watch the second AFL women’s match this was evident; you could feel and see the difference.

Several things differentiated the women’s fans from the AFL men’s league. The crowd was more like a netball league crowd, which was more family-oriented.  There were also more young men and teenage boys than I expected, and to my excitement, many primary school-aged girls, some already wearing the women’s-style game jersey.

The crowd was diverse, encouraging, respectful and refreshingly polite to everyone. There was no swearing at players or umpires. In fact, there were cheers and congratulations when the crowd realized that the parents of the first female field umpire were sitting a few rows in front of us.

When we arrived, the TV network was conducting an interview on the ground with Darcy Vescio, who had become an overnight hero after kicking four goals to help Carlton win the night before in the opening game. Watching the group of young school aged kids gathered round her trying to get photos and autographs was amazing. That moment was what it was all about.

We chose to watch the Western Bulldogs versus Fremantle Dockers in the first round because of the connection to Susan Alberti.  Alberti is one of the most influential women in the AFL and has been a key driver behind the AFL’s new national women’s league. Alberti’s vision to see a women’s team at every existing men’s AFL club is heading in the right direction and fittingly, Alberti presented the 2017 Premiership Cup at the Grand Final.

Erin Phillips, captain of the premiership team the Adelaide Crows, accepted the Premiership Cup and provided a great example of a successful multi-sport athlete. Phillips is a member of the Opals (Australian National Basketball team) and has also played in the WNBA with Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks.

The prevalence of multi-sport athletes was highlighted as players accepted their premiership medals in front of the crowd. Their introductions were not a one-dimensional statistic about their playing careers in football and other sports; but rather ones that emphasized their leadership and achievement off the field, which ranged from dairy farmers to political advisors.

The formation of a new league produced women leaders in all aspects of the game, including off the field. Bec Goddard, the coach of the Adelaide Crows, who was previously a field umpire, is a woman. Additionally, the Richmond Tigers became the first club in AFL or Victorian Football League history with a female president to win the AFL men’s premiership, the club’s first title in 37 years. Peggy O’Neal, who was born in Virginia in the United States, had served on the board since 2005, and was appointed as the first and only female President of an AFL club in 2013.

With the recent appointment of Nicole Livingstone, a three-time Olympic medalist and the first women in charge of the AFLW competition, we eagerly await the 2018 season.

Click here to read on for Part II>>