It took 121 years to come to fruition, but on the evening of 3 February 2017 the first ever game of Australian Rules Football between two elite, and AFL-sanctioned, women’s teams took place. And the nation was watching… in droves. Throughout the AFLW’s inaugural season average attendances were counted in the several thousands, millions watched on TV, and online it’s estimated a whopping 12.8 million minutes were viewed. The response was a resounding: Australia wants this! And even if a professional women’s footy league came a century too late, now that we’ve beheld the athleticism and skills of the talented footballers on show, the AFLW is here to stay.
In her book Roar, Walkley Award-winning journalist Samantha Lane charts the emergence of the AFLW. From the seeds of grass-roots community movements, to the electrifying first season, Lane pays tribute to the trailblazers, visionaries, characters, champions, advocates, campaigners and guardians of this giant step towards gender equality in sport. In the passage below she recalls the first-ever match, and the night those in attendance at a sold-out Princes Park roared the AFLW into life.
For every rejection. For every set of glazed eyes. For every condescending laugh. For every flat no.
For every senior manager and chief executive – even at the Australian Football League – who was scornful when he should have known better.
For every unyielding champion of change told that only butch, ugly women played footy.
For every mocking, belittling, disabling, bullying, sexist and homophobic insult ever directed at the code’s spurned sister.
And for every time there was radio silence because what that actually screamed was disrespect.
That is what the roar was for.
The cheering that reverberated Australia-wide on 3 February 2017, a steamy summer Friday night in Melbourne, was inspired by a game of Australian Rules football. Arch rivals Carlton and Collingwood were playing, but in a way they’d never played before.
Filled to capacity before gates were locked, the Blues’ iconic Princes Park had cobwebs blasted from every cranny of its peeling-paint-covered grandstands. Eyewitnesses – there were 24,568 inside the ground – were magnetised, then mesmerised. An audience in excess of a million tuned in from further afield. Sport, pure and simple, coupled with unprecedented scenes, sounds and circumstances proved an intoxicating, irresistible mix.
Less evident, but every bit as relevant, were the layers of history embedded in this new-age AFL event. The 23-year-old woman who became the game’s four-goal hero, Darcy Vescio, acknowledged this on match-day morning, referencing a milestone she said was set to ‘smash the patriarchy’.
Smashed, certainly, were age-old biases that had kept a sub-set of football quarantined from the mainstream. Who would be interested in women’s football? Who would go? Who really cared?
Even the AFL, overlord of this day when football as it had been known changed forever, underestimated the depth of charged support around it. The league originally planned for the match to be held at Collingwood’s training base. There wasn’t as much as traditional grandstand seating there, never mind room for almost 25,000.
Upon the opening night overflowing at Carlton, AFL boss Gillon McLachlan saw fit to apologise – face-to-face – to fans who were turned away. When he briefly left the stadium to do this, McLachlan absorbed the magnitude of the people power, looking part dazed, part awestruck. Catering had been instructed to prepare for a crowd of about 15,000. Princes Park sold out of beer by quarter-time.
Some who were shut out cried tears of disappointment. Inside the ground, and in lounge rooms where televisions and computers acted as mediums, others wept joyfully.
Long-held hurt and neglect could not be healed overnight. Decades of groundwork railing against the status quo that led to this game, however, were legitimised on the spot. So were the athletic pursuits of the 44 footballers who were floodlit, front and centre, wearing the AFL’s most famous club jumpers no less, representing every girl and woman who had ever tried or dreamed, and every man who had ever given a woman in footy a go.
Here, suddenly, was the AFL’s single most profound act of inclusion in a 121-year history.
Erstwhile football outcasts, excluded like an unwanted embarrassment for so long that pain had turned numb, were embraced at long last. In this watershed moment, big brother AFL did not merely acknowledge the existence of an ostracised relative, he validated it. He approved.
Screaming kids in overflowing grandstands and glued to screens knew nothing of this background, and that didn’t matter. After protracted labour pains, nothing could deny this spectacular sporting birth, which was personal, proud, political and, above all, profoundly powerful.