The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Stellar - - Contents - Words by JES­SICA HALLORAN

Meet the play­ers set to make his­tory as the first ever AFL Women’s league kicks off.

As an eight-year-old, Melissa Hickey would pre­tend she was play­ing AFL on the MCG in front of a roar­ing crowd. She’d pull on her Gee­long guernsey and head out to her fam­ily’s front yard, where she would slot the footy through imag­i­nary goal posts. She would high-five the leaves on trees and imag­ine she was Gary Ablett Se­nior. She saw her­self as the mer­cu­rial Cats star, win­ning the AFL grand fi­nal off her boot af­ter the siren.

“I just wanted to be on the big stage,” re­calls Hickey. But while she played AFL with the boys in pri­mary school, there was never a path­way to play­ing at the very top. For an eight-year-old girl, it was a sport­ing dream she could never ful­fil.

Un­til now. The in­au­gu­ral AFLW com­pe­ti­tion sea­son is set to be­gin, with eight teams com­pet­ing for the cov­eted first ti­tle from Fe­bru­ary 3 to March 25. Hickey, now aged 32 and a mar­quee player for the Mel­bourne Demons, will be in the thick of it – a fact that she still can’t quite be­lieve.

“It re­ally feels like a dream come true,” she says. “You roll up to train­ing at an AFL fa­cil­ity and you are still pinch­ing your­self. You are not sure if it is real. That lit­tle eight-year-old girl who dreamt of this mo­ment comes out again. Right now, I feel pure ex­cite­ment.”

While Hickey as­pired to be like Ablett, now lit­tle girls at footy clin­ics and school ap­pear­ances say they want to be like her.

“That’s the beau­ti­ful part of it all,” she con­tin­ues. “When lit­tle girls say, ‘I want to be the cap­tain of the Mel­bourne footy club,’ or, ‘My goal is to play in the AFL,’ they now have that di­rect path­way, and that is re­ally pow­er­ful.”

AFL chief ex­ec­u­tive Gil­lon Mclach­lan sees the women’s league grow­ing stronger as time rolls on. In fact, he re­veals to Stel­lar his hopes for ev­ery AFL club to have a women’s team – a feat no other sport­ing code in the world can lay claim to.

“The AFL has his­tor­i­cally been rea­son­ably good at mak­ing very longterm, gen­er­a­tional de­ci­sions and putting the in­vest­ment be­hind it,” he says.

“If you think gen­er­a­tional [goals], I hope ev­ery team in the AFL has a men’s and a women’s team.that’s clearly al­most too far out for peo­ple to fathom, but in the end that’s the as­pi­ra­tion. It might be 25 years away, I don’t know, [but] that’s clearly where we would like to go.

“It would be a first in the world that all of our clubs have men’s and women’s teams play­ing un­der the same badge. I don’t know of an­other league where that ap­plies. If you look at the pro­fes­sional leagues in the US and other coun­tries, men’s and women’s teams are dif­fer­ent fran­chises. We hope that ul­ti­mately all our teams have [both].”

NOT SO LONG ago, there wasn’t any­one on the AFL Com­mis­sion who saw a great need to back a women’s league. No one ex­cept Sam Mostyn. With a back­ground in gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate af­fairs, she was the first woman ap­pointed to the game’s hi­er­ar­chy back in 2005 and served as a Com­mis­sioner un­til re­cently.

In fact, some sit­ting at the AFL Com­mis­sion and ex­ec­u­tive ta­ble didn’t view a women’s league as in­trin­sic to the future of the AFL. “Oh, I have seen my sis­ter play once… that’s enough,” was the sen­ti­ment from some in the com­mu­nity, and there was a feel­ing women were al­ready catered for with the lo­cal com­pe­ti­tions, AFL 9s and ju­nior Aus­kick.

“Early on, I just wanted the re­spect and ac­knowl­edge­ment that girls and women wanted the same op­por­tu­ni­ties to play footy as boys and men,” says Mostyn.

Af­ter tak­ing a seat at the Com­mis­sion, Mostyn in­creas­ingly dis­cov­ered signs women should be given a greater role. She trav­elled to re­mote pock­ets of Cape York and saw the joy on women’s faces as they played footy. She wit­nessed the hap­pi­ness and the sense of be­long­ing other women in a lo­cal Perth com­pe­ti­tion felt. Mostyn saw fe­male foot­ballers psych­ing them­selves up in the rooms be­fore a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion game – al­beit games only be­ing played on lo­cal footy ovals dot­ted around the coun­try.

At ev­ery footy oval, in ev­ery state and ter­ri­tory of Aus­tralia, Mostyn no­ticed the same thing: the hype, the ela­tion, the pas­sion and the love women have for AFL.

“To not act on be­half of the women and girls who loved this game would have been un­con­scionable,” says Mostyn. “I took [my place] at that Com­mis­sion ta­ble very se­ri­ously, on be­half of the foot­ball com­mu­nity who weren’t be­ing heard, to ad­vo­cate for them.

“As Linda [Des­sau] and Si­mone [Wilkie] joined the Com­mis­sion, mo­men­tum grew with many great women cham­pi­ons around the game, from [Western Bull­dogs’ VP] Su­san Al­berti to [AFL man­ager] Jan Cooper and [dec­o­rated] foot­baller Debbie Lee. Their re­lent­less com­mit­ment helped make this league hap­pen.”

Mostyn would of­ten ask the other AFL Com­mis­sion­ers if they had seen women play­ing foot­ball. She made sure they went to games and talked to women who had just played to show them this game meant an enor­mous amount to them, too.

Mclach­lan says the clincher for him was an ex­hi­bi­tion game be­tween Mel­bourne and the Western Bull­dogs in Au­gust 2015 at Eti­had Sta­dium. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the stan­dard of foot­ball and how en­gaged the crowd was, he says “it felt right” to ce­ment plans for a women’sonly league, and brought for­ward the orig­i­nal launch date from 2020 to 2017.

He cred­its Mostyn, who left the Com­mis­sion last year and is now on the Syd­ney Swans board, as the “sin­gu­lar force” in the board­room. “She was just re­lent­less,” he says. “You need peo­ple with that con­vic­tion and fo­cus to make change. She was sin­gu­lar in her push for equal­ity in ev­ery way on ev­ery is­sue.”

When more than one mil­lion peo­ple tuned in to watch an ex­hi­bi­tion match be­tween the Western Bull­dogs and Mel­bourne live on the Seven Net­work last Septem­ber, it again sig­nalled an ap­petite for the women’s game. The TV rat­ings greatly ex­ceeded the AFL’S ex­pec­ta­tions and, out­side the fi­nals series, it was the largest over­all av­er­age au­di­ence in Mel­bourne of any game dur­ing 2016.

Last Novem­ber, the AFL also an­nounced women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els were on the rise. A 56 per cent in­crease in fe­male com­mu­nity club teams boosted the to­tal fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion by 19 per cent to 380,000. Like­wise, par­tic­i­pa­tion across all lev­els of the game jumped 12.5 per cent to a record 1.4 mil­lion – growth cred­ited to the es­tab­lish­ment of AFLW.

But, of course, this lat­est de­vel­op­ment did not come with­out crit­i­cism. There’s been grum­bling about women get­ting hurt and the skill level. Also ques­tions on whether a stronger com­pe­ti­tion at grass­roots level should have been more es­tab­lished be­fore com­mit­ting to an elite com­pe­ti­tion. One sports colum­nist dubbed the com­pe­ti­tion Mclach­lan’s “fas­ci­nat­ing gam­ble” – which Mclach­lan is quick to dis­miss. “I don’t see it as a gam­ble,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do, to pro­vide ev­ery op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery girl and woman across Aus­tralia who wants to play the game at an elite level.

“In the long-term, it makes busi­ness sense as it is a key part of our growth. Bring­ing new peo­ple in, not just as play­ers but par­ents, coaches, ad­min­is­tra­tors. We think ul­ti­mately it is go­ing to im­pact cul­tural change across our in­dus­try.

“Our com­mu­nity and elite clubs will be bet­ter and more rounded. The big­gest risk is man­ag­ing peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. We will be sig­nif­i­cantly more ad­vanced in year three than we will in year one.”

For Hickey, the days of kick­ing the footy by her­self are well and truly over. The days of us­ing a team­mate’s pool in the mid­dle of winter as an ice bath are also gone. No longer does she have to put off physio ap­point­ments un­til the in­jury is un­bear­able. She now has a squad of equally am­bi­tious ath­letes stand­ing by her side as well as the use of Mel­bourne Foot­ball Club’s first-class fa­cil­i­ties.

Hickey is one of the few play­ers to have spon­sor­ship (in her case Adi­das), but there’s still some way to go for others. Un­der a pay deal struck for this sea­son, mar­quee play­ers will re­ceive a fi­nan­cial pack­age of $27,000 (in­clu­sive of $10,000 for their mar­ket­ing and am­bas­sado­rial roles), the pri­or­ity play­ers will earn $12,000, and the re­main­ing listed play­ers $8500 for the seven-match (plus Grand Fi­nal) sea­son. Some play­ers could even be left out of pocket, with pri­vate health in­sur­ance not in­cluded in the pay pack­age. But salaries are set to im­prove in future sea­sons – and no one’s los­ing hope about the over­all suc­cess.

Hickey shares the same as­pi­ra­tion for the AFLW as Mclach­lan and Mostyn. “Hav­ing a full sea­son rather than just a short sea­son, that is the ul­ti­mate goal,” she says. “My dream for the league is even­tu­ally we will be pro­fes­sional ath­letes as well. That would be amaz­ing for girls to be able to choose play­ing footy as a ca­reer.”

HIS­TORY MAK­ERS (from left) Carl­ton’s Hayley Tre­vean, Mel­bourne’s Melissa Hickey and Colling­wood’s Steph Chiocci.

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