Women’s football has historically been deprived of mainstream media attention, being very much in the shadow of its male counterpart. This made Channel Seven’s coverage of the recent women’s exhibition match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs a major milestone in the development of the women’s game.
The telecast reached an impressive average audience in Melbourne of 175,000 viewers, even out-rating Essendon’s clash with Adelaide the previous day. Unlike basketball, soccer and cricket, though, Australian rules football does not currently have a national women’s league.
To the AFL’s credit, they plan to have one in place by 2017 and this would be fantastic for female footballers, whose participation numbers has tripled over the past five years. Imagine how much easier it would be to attract female players to the game if they had a national competition to aspire to?
Earlier this year, AFL female development manager Chyloe Kurdas said the women’s game was heading in the right direction.
“I think the level of recognition for women and girls across the game is growing,” Kurdas said.
She added that while the AFL was committed to fostering female playing participation, there was also “a really heavy investment in emerging female coaches and female umpires”.
“The wheels are turning and things are really moving forward: that’s the most exciting thing about what’s coming,” she said.
Yet despite the recent achievements, there remains a number of significant issues which affect the women’s game. Peter Holden from Girls Play Footy, an online news service which covers women’s competitions, told me there is still a lack of commitment and respect paid to female players.
Controversially, the last women’s exhibition match was cut 90 seconds short by the AFL, denying the Western Bulldogs a chance to stage an unlikely comeback victory. While both teams were apparently informed of this during the final quarter, Holden still believes it is “rather disappointing”.
“Why do men get to play a full game but women have theirs cut short?” Holden said.
He also criticised aspects of Channel Seven’s coverage of the match, such as placing players in incorrect positions on the team line-up.
“In some areas there was a lack of care or they couldn’t be bothered, there’s a few things they need to clean up on,” he said.
“When I look at the mainstream media now, I think they are being poorly prepped. You normally give people who know nothing about their talent a cheat sheet, which should include information such as who will be a player’s likely opponent.
“Therefore you get to ask the player not just the usual question of if they like playing footy, but something like ‘it looks like your opponent for the day will be Aasta O’Connor, she goes at it hard, how do you think that contest will go?’”
Holden also believes the general lack of knowledge regarding the women’s game was a barrier to its success.
“At the moment, you think ‘great, there’s women playing football’, but you really know nothing about the game or what is going on within a game like you do with a men’s match,” he said.
As for the introduction of a national competition in 2017, Holden remains sceptical.
“The most frustrating thing at the moment with the national competition, is that 2017 isn’t yet locked in,” he said.
“They are giving themselves a get-out clause and there is still a lot of uncertainty.
“Gillon McLachlan hasn’t said down the barrel of a camera, that 2017 is the guaranteed start date.”
The formation of a national competition will put a severe strain on the women’s state leagues, according to Holden.
“A number of these key gun players that play at the women’s state league clubs are also on the committee running these clubs,” he said.
“So you’ve got an issue that not only are you taking a player from these state leagues, you’re obviously taking away committee members and volunteers.
“When they set up this national league, they really have to consider carefully, about funding and resourcing these state league clubs, so they don’t fall over, once these experienced people leave the club.
“They need to be able to run day to day because that grassroots is what eventually supplies the national league.”
Regardless, the AFL remains confident that by 2017 they will be ready to introduce a viable national competition.
While women make up around 40 percent of AFL crowds, there is still relatively few female AFL administrators, media commentators, coaches and umpires. A women’s national league will go a long way to broadening the game’s appeal and audience, as well as helping to increase female influence within the AFL.
A lot still needs to happen in coming months to ensure a vibrant national competition is put in place. We owe it to the multitude of talented female players, who deserve their chance to shine in an elite environment. Hopefully the AFL is up to the task, but it is also up to AFL fans and the media to respect women playing the game and support them when the league is formed.
Anyone who witnessed the passion, ferocity and skill displayed by the female players during this year’s exhibition matches should have little trouble doing so.