Participation in the sport by women is up to 20 per cent of all participants, and, following the ratings success of a women’s exhibition match, players can now dream of an AFL career.
Darcy Vescio was five years old when she started playing Australian rules football and made her debut at Docklands Stadium with Auskick.
Fifteen years later, she did it with the Western Bulldogs.
“When I was little, people used to say, ‘You know, you’re going to play AFL one day,’ like, ‘You’ll be the first girl.’ And I think all of us have heard that statement when we were younger. And we sort of got to a point where we realised that wouldn’t be the reality of things.”
It would not be a reality because, at age 14, Darcy Vescio could no longer play Aussie rules with the boys, and a girls’ league in her area did not exist.
But four years ago, she joined the Darebin Falcons in Melbourne’s north, the reigning premiers of the local league.
And last year, she was drafted by the Western Bulldogs AFL women’s side.
“It’s pretty surreal. Firstly, we’re not used to having such a big crowd. There were 7,000 or so people cheering us on. And just the stadium is so huge and the grass is beautiful. It’s just a pretty surreal experience.”
The first-ever live telecast of a women’s AFL game on August 16 exceeded all expectations.
Rating at half a million nationally, the AFL’s Game Development Manager Simon Lethlean says it validated the push for an AFL women’s league.
“It’s the right time, because it’s starting to gain momentum. Females are a huge part of our industry and, obviously, half our fan base, and they’re becoming a bigger part of our participation base, so it’s really encouraging.”
The AFL is hoping to establish a women’s Australian football competition of six teams or more in the next two years.
Participation by women in the sport is up to 20 per cent of all participants, meaning there is no lack of talent for the league.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic.
An article penned by former player and coach Graham Cornes questioned the viability of a women’s league.
Game Development Manager Simon Lethlean says he is not bothered bythe criticism.
“I’m not sure I’ve really got time for the detractors in this one. The momentum’s coming so quickly that the support’s there, so we’re more interested in focusing on how to embrace that momentum and improve things and keep the levels increasing, rather than worrying about any detractors. We’ll always have detractors in AFL footy, be it men’s or women’s.”
Richard Dal Pos, coach of the Darebin Falcons — who contributed eight players to the AFL draft — says he has an easy answer to those who doubt women’s football.
“Come down here on a Sunday and watch us play, simple as that. I’ve said that to many friends. A couple of friends were asking me, ‘What are you doing in women’s footy?’ And I said, ‘Come and watch us play, then I’ll answer the question.’ They come and watch that one Sunday, I don’t have to answer the question anymore.”
And while it may be a long road ahead for recognition of women’s AFL, Darcy Vescio says a strategy is in play.
“Everything we do now, we might not be reaping the rewards, but girls in future generations will be. So it sort of gives you a bit of motivation to put in the hard yards at training and really just give it your all, because, you know that, even if you’re not getting everything out of it now, the girls in the future will be.”