St Kilda Sharks players Pheobe McWilliams and Penny Cula-Reid.
St Kilda Sharks players Pheobe McWilliams and Penny Cula-Reid.

There is no doubt the popularity of female footy has skyrocketed. In the last five years participation in girls and women leagues has tripled from 60,000 to 195,000, according to the AFL.

But it’s not due to a previous lack of interest. Throughout VFL/AFL history, females have rivalled males in their passion and dedication to the game. And while this continues to remain the same, it’s the opportunities that have changed.

Finally we’ve had enough of seeing women on the sidelines.

In May some of football’s best female talents took to the hallowed turf in a curtain raiser to the Demons-Bulldogs match. In August the same two teams, with a few changes in line up, will go head to head in a second exhibition match at Etihad.

It’s a significant moment in women’s football considering not long ago the idea of females playing at the best stadiums in front of large crowds was inconceivable. The excitement continues with AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan confident a national women’s league will be in full swing by 2020 if not earlier.

Generally what happens at the top trickles down to the bottom and that’s why we are seeing participation numbers in the lower ranks at their highest. Young girls now have role models from whom they can model not only their games but also their future careers as footballers. Just like boys, girls have watched footy and wanted to play like their favourite AFL players, but it’s the women in the senior leagues showing them how.

The pioneers

St Kilda Sharks player Penny Cula-Reid recently played her 150th senior game and earlier this year, was selected by the Western Bulldogs in the inaugural women’s draft. But getting to where she is today did not come easily.

In 2003, Cula-Reid along with budding footballers, Helen Taylor and Emily Stanyer, were kicked off their teams because of their genders. The rules stated mixed teams were only allowed until the age of 12 making the girls two years too old.

Shocked by the ban from the game they loved and not yet ready to transition to a senior league, the girls took their case to court. It was one of the first cases that put females’ right to play football on the agenda. What eventuated was the mixed competition age being increased from 12 to 14 and the creation of the Youth Girls Competition.

More than a decade on and things have dramatically changed. Now girls and women can attend academies, receive elite training and coaching, and compete for state teams. One day soon they will be able to play for a national competition.

It’s having opportunities that already exist rather than having to fight for them that makes the game more accessible for females. The easier we make it for girls to play football, the more options we give them, the more chances they have to excel or make something of their talent, the more girls will take part.

By the time the national women’s league is up and running, it is likely female participation rates have tripled again. And for the sake of our game, a man’s game and woman’s game, let’s hope it continues to do so.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice work Siobhan! You should see if you can get this published in Catalyst.
    Maybe the solution to dwindling crowd numbers is to play women’s matches in prime time, given the burgeoning female interest in the game

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