It’s rare for a new national sporting competition to begin.
It’s even rarer for a new competition to generate the amount of excitement that’s surrounding the beginning of the new AFL women’s season, which kicks off this Friday.
In just a few months, several hundred women have gone from amateurs to semi-professionals with great expectations.
“Eventually, give it five or 10 years, we’ll be the number one sport in Australia.”
That bold prediction comes from the new captain of the Brisbane Lions, Emma Zielke.
“More girls are going to pick up the footy and start at an earlier age which will then drive participation, and then we’ll get better standards so in five or ten years we’ll have girls that have been playing footy since they were babies,” she said.
In many ways the AFL rushed in the new competition, but that belies the history of women’s football.
The first Australian rules women’s football match took place in 1915.
From there it evolved and as more women and girls took up the game in local competitions and state leagues while men fought in both world wars.
Those early decades of the 20th century where the golden days of women’s football. Until now.
And so, 125 years after Joe Delahunty became Collingwood’s first captain, Steph Chiocci created history after being named Collingwood’s first women’s captain.
“Mum and dad were over the moon and very emotional,” said Choicci.
Choicci will be one of the first players running on to Princess Park this Friday in the first game of the first season — a clash between two of the oldest football rivals, Carlton and Collingwood.
Eight teams make up the new competition. There’s two other Melbourne clubs in Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, as well as Greater Western Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Fremantle. They’ll play in a two-month season for the inaugural women’s premiership.
Giants players Maddy Collier and Erin McKinnon grew up watching AFL.
“I’ve watched footy my whole life. You never think when you’re little, girls are actually going to play,” said Collier.
McKinnon is the youngest and tallest player in the entire competition.
“It’s an interesting combination, but the club is bringing me in to develop as a player,” she said.
Towering at 189cm, the softly spoken 18-year-old admits she’s still pinching herself.
“It’s amazing. To be part of history at such a young age,” she said.
But with limited time and just a handful of exhibition matches, the skills and athleticism of these aspiring women will be put to the test, as will the success of the competition.
“Whatever logistics we have to work out this year it’s just the start,” said Collier.
“I think people don’t really know what to expect of women yet. But I think some will be surprised that we are so physical.”
McKinnon believes having access to the same resources as the men has significantly helped improve fitness levels.
“Coming from local clubs who have got that one coach who does everything,” she said.
“Here we’ve got our head coach, we’ve got all our assistant coaches, physio, strength and conditioning coaches and access to resources we didn’t have before.”
AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan said the support and enthusiasm for the new women’s league over the last 12 months had been overwhelming.
Women and girls now represent 27 per cent of total football participation and McLachlan believes this growth justifies the importance of an elite national competition.
“We expect this to grow and for the AFL Women’s competition to become firmly entrenched in the Australian sporting landscape,” said McLachlan.
While much has been said about unequal pay and no insurance, for these women, sacrifice also creates the potential for bigger things.
“This is the very first season. So girls coming in through the next few years will look up to all of us and remember that we are setting the pathway,” said McKinnon.
While the pathway remains to be determined, the signs are promising.
More than a million TV viewers tuned into a women’s exhibition match last year and the season opening is expected to draw around 15,000 spectators.
As these trailblazing women prepare to make their mark in Australian sporting history, optimism is high and many know the best is yet to come.
“Who knows what can happen in a couple of years’ time?” said Collier.
“It doesn’t have to be a dream anymore. It can be a goal.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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