On the eve of the AFL season opener between the Blues and Tigers, fans across the country are anticipating who will take out the 2019 AFL premiership. However, the first bounce won’t mark the first AFL match of the year: over 300 elite footballers have been sweating through the third AFLW season since early February.
Despite a lack of mainstream media coverage, it is becoming harder to ignore the sheer impact and growth of the AFL Women’s national league. Set to wrap up on 30 March, the final is tipped to be a tight contest between the Freemantle Dockers and the Adelaide Crows.
Getting to this point has been no small feat. When the AFL launched its inaugural AFLW season in 2017 – three years ahead of the AFL’s original schedule – the league set itself the huge task of adequately resourcing and supporting the first generation of elite female players.
The success of the AFLW could be measured by its Indigenous recruitment and how many women from urban and rural communities, who are often denied professional sporting opportunities, are drawn into the game. But it hasn’t always been this way. Just a few years ago Indigenous women were all but absent at the game’s elite level.
In a 2013 curtain raiser between Melbourne and the Bulldogs – the first ever AFLW exhibition match – only four out of fifty women selected were Indigenous. Kokatha woman Bronwyn Davey was a part of that cohort and still remembers looking around the MCG and feeling shocked at the lack of Indigenous faces on and off the field.
“I was gobsmacked. I was actually shocked to see that there was only myself, Kirby Bentley, Kira Phillips, and Ally Anderson standing at the middle of the ground after the game,” she told NITV’s The Point.
After wrapping up her 11-year playing career, Bronwyn now coaches the Adelaide Crows Female Indigenous Academy, an educational and skills acceleration program that aims to help young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women across South Australia reach their football potential.
Launched last November, the academy is creating new and unprecedented pathways for young black women and girls who no longer have to sit on the sidelines while watching their brothers and uncles play footy on the weekend.
“Just seeing the talent and helping them develop to become smarter and better footballers is the most rewarding thing,” said Bronwyn.
Dreaming big and aspiring to play for the national AFL league is now a reality for the young women Bronwyn coaches: an opportunity that simply did not exist five years ago when she played for the Greenacres Football Club in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.
Seventeen-year-old Hayley Pickering, an academy recruit, has earned numerous footballing accolades since she first picked up a Sherrin five years ago. Recently, Hayley has been selected for the Victorian Aboriginal state team and played in the curtain raiser for the AFLW Round 6 match between the Adelaide Crows and the GWS Giants at Unley Oval.
“I want to be playing AFLW, so hopefully this is another pathway to get closer to where my dreams are,” Hayley says.
Hayley’s Victorian teammate, proud Wirangu woman Dominque Sleep, said she is also excited about playing a curtain raiser before her idols take to the pitch.
“It's amazing to be able to play in front of all of these important people,” said Dominque, who grew up in the small town of Kapunda.
The Academy is much more than making friends and playing footy, she said. It also offers a sense of purpose and determination she will carry with her into adulthood.
“Watching these women play and enjoy it, and [to] be able to do what they can do, just really inspires me to want to be like that, and to want to be proud of something, like football.”
The push to get these young women playing football at an elite level is itself inspired by the undeniable talent pool that exists within community, but there is concern not enough is being done to harness that talent.
Currently only four per cent of the AFLW are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, compared to 10 per cent in the men’s AFL premier league.
Bronwyn says many young Indigenous women grow up doubting themselves, unaware of their potential.
“We've got so much talent in our communities and our girls very rarely have that opportunity, or they're a little bit shame or embarrassed to go out,” she explained.
Bronwyn has seen firsthand what a dedicated program in the AFL can do for Indigenous men: she is the older sister of Aaron and Alwyn Davey, who both enjoyed successful AFL careers playing for Melbourne and Essendon respectively.
While Bronwyn did not have the opportunity to play at a national elite level, she said she has no doubt we will all soon be seeing future stars coming through the ranks from the grassroots.
“I think the AFLW’s future is going to be absolutely bright … the younger generation's going to see the next level of what we're seeing now,” she says.
For more, watch NITV's The Point, 8.30pm on Channel 34 tonight.