By Kellie Scott
Women’s Aussie Rules is going legit in 2017 and it’s hard to predict how it will stack up against the men’s game.
But that’s not worth pondering according to women involved in the sport, who say it’s time to up the ante and let the men play catch-up instead.
Last month the AFL announced eight clubs would be given licenses to field women’s teams in the inaugural season.
Talk to fans and most are keen to see the new national league in action, but there are critics who claim the girls haven’t got the goods for an exciting game.
Others are concerned about whether it will go the distance.
So we asked those that would know: What does it need to survive?
‘Let’s set our own direction’
Melbourne Football Club women’s football manager and former player Debbie Lee said the national league wasn’t about matching the men’s game, but exceeding it.
“We want to see what the girls can create … let’s not try to make it the men’s game, let’s set our own direction,” Lee told the ABC.
“We have the basis of the male game … but let’s take that and be innovative and take it to the next level.”
She said there was plenty of room for change from how the clubs interacted with fans to what the competition was called.
“Some of our ideals and traditions in male football, it’s not as progressive as it should be … let’s let the men’s game catch up to the women’s game,” Lee said.
“[We need to consider] how to attract a whole wide range of audience from little girls and boys to a new community — that’s a really exciting opportunity for the industry.”
Lee said she believed the game would eventually progress to a full-time job for women, but expectations needed to be managed.
“It will lend itself back to the days when footballers didn’t work full time,” she said.
“In terms of income it will generate, the eyeballs that are going to watch it … we’ve got to have a level head about expectations of what it will generate.”
Show us the money
Brisbane Lions marquee player Tayla Harris said ongoing support from the AFL would be key to the sport’s success.
“The wrong way would be to say here is a chunk of money, try and make it happen,” Harris said.
“There needs to be a continuous contribution from the AFL.”
That’s not going to happen if the fans don’t respond, and there are critics who say the girls aren’t tough enough to create excitement on the field.
But first impressions last, and Harris is planning on making a good one.
“Some people have other opinions … that it is not as tough or as exciting … but our physicality is a lot more than people expect,” she said.
Harris said she was confident loyal AFL fans would tune in to games, proven by the first televised event last year between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons.
The match out-rated the previous day’s men’s game between Adelaide and Essendon.
“If you support AFL and you like AFL, why wouldn’t you want to watch another game?” Harris said.
VFL player and Deakin University academic Dr Kellie Sanders, who has studied women’s image on the footy field, said the AFL’s portrayal of the game was an important consideration for longevity.
She said the public had come a long way from labelling female footballers as “butch” and “dykes”, but the AFL was doing its own misrepresentation of the sport, pigeonholing players in its marketing.
“For the most part [the female cover players] are fairly feminine presenting, they’re slim,” she said.
Dr Sanders said not all the players were so “femininely presenting”.
“I think the AFL tend to roll with a mainstream heteronormative of what constitutes gender … you see it in the men’s league as well — there is no consideration of homosexuality,” she said.
“My research demonstrated there are a lot of women who play football who identify as lesbian.”
She said the risk was causing players who once felt accepted to no longer feel like they belong, and deterring young girls who may have otherwise been inspired to join an AFL team.
“There is no question about the popularity of women playing AFL … on the ground, it’s growing,” she said.
“What will make the biggest difference is how the AFL treat the women players and if they are supported or not.”
The AFL has been contacted for comment.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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