Sold out stadiums, screaming fans and smashed broadcast records – womens’ sports teams have done it all this year and have started a legacy once considered impossible.
Men have always dominated sporting fields nation-wide, capturing the hearts and minds of Australians everywhere and becoming a major part of our country’s culture. However, in recent years women have decided it’s their turn to join this national sporting obsession.
Four in five Australians agree that sport is an important and prominent part of our culture, not only in terms of supporting their favourite teams but also in our own participation. In fact, Aussies actually spend more time participating in sport than watching it on TV!
However, when we speak about sports and think about our favourite on-field heroes, the vast majority of us will automatically think about male sportspeople as an immediate reaction. Despite all the work and hurdles women have had to do and overcome to get to where they are, they are still overshadowed by male sporting stars in the eyes of the general public.
This is because mens’ sports have been the default for centuries which is a hard stigma to break. Female sporting associations use terms like AFLW and the Women’s World Cup in comparison to just the AFL and World Cup. In fact, due to this ‘W’ we put on the start or end of our sports, some womens’ achievements get diminished as they are not considered in the same category as the men.
As an example, in 2022, Sam Kerr kicked her 51st international soccer goal – becoming Australia’s leading goal scorer and beating Tim Cahill’s previous record of 50. However, she is still widely referred to as the leading female goalkicker despite actually having kicked the most goals, irrespective of gender.
Nevertheless, no one person or group of people is to blame or pinpoint as the ‘problem’ in women’s sports recognition – it is merely a result of the limited opportunity they have been given in the past.
Until now, society has never needed to accept the rise of womens’ sports because there was no aforementioned ‘rise’ to accept. In the last decade, a clear movement has begun with more and more women getting the chance to play ‘male dominated’ sports.
Women have not had the equal opportunity the men have in sports such as AFL, NRL and soccer growing up and, as a result, have not developed into adulthood the same way the men have.
Libby Birch is a 2-time AFLW premiership player for both the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons yet, she only kicked her first football in 2016.
“I never grew up with the opportunity to play footy at the highest level so from a young age, I played netball. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I made the leap into AFL,” Birch said when asked about her personal challenges.
With the male players having the opportunity to play from three-years old, it allows them 15 plus years to develop by the time they get drafted at 18 whereas, there are many players like Libby who didn’t even get to play until they were 18.
“It was Daisy Pearce who took me under her wing, and for that I am forever grateful. Some of the challenges I faced was learning the game from scratch, and having never kicked a footy before the age of 18, there was a lot of time to make up for.”
With Birch only being 25 years old, it shows just how recently it was that girls – and women – did not have the opportunity to play AFL and how quickly these changes have been implemented. This not only deterred girls from playing even if they wanted to but, it also hindered the development of future players since they never had a chance to play from a young age.
Many current players even had to play either in the boys’ teams or age groups they didn’t belong due to lack of teams back when they were growing up. Gold Coast Suns defender, Wallis Randell, said that she grew up wanting to play AFL but there were no girls’ teams where she grew up in Far North Queensland.
“When I first started playing, I didn’t even have a junior league, so I had to play with the boys growing up. I pretty much had to go straight into a women’s open age (team) as a 16-year-old. Now they’ve got leagues from under 12s through to under 17s at home where I’m from,” said Randell.
Jasmyn Smith, who plays for the Gold Coast Suns, said that she started playing when she was only 13 but had to play in an under-17 team since there wasn’t enough girls’ teams for every division – and this was only in 2018. Not to mention, she also won the team’s third best and fairest that year.
The Broadbeach Cats, where Smith played her junior football, now have so many girls wanting to play that they have at least two teams in each age division, showing major progress in under five years.
13-year-old Jasmyn Smith playing with – and against – 17-year-old teams
“I loved playing footy, so even though there was only one girls’ team when I first started, I didn’t mind playing with the older girls. But it’s great to see how far the game has come in such a short time, with so many girls now playing in all age groups,” said Smith.
When the AFLW started in 2017, it definitely did not come without its challenges. According to Birch, they were starting from scratch with a lot of work to be done to produce the best possible competition they could for women.
“The main challenges we faced were facilities. Football clubs never had to cater for professional womens’ teams before so initially, there was a lack of access to facilities and resources for us. This included things like access to an oval to train, women’s change rooms, food, car parks – all things that you need to be able to perform at your best,” she claimed.
These are issues that the current male players have never had to contend with. However, it just goes to show the barriers that women have had to overcome so quickly to get to where they are today.
“There is always work to be done but now, it’s about finding the balance between celebrating what we have and searching for more growth.”– Libby Birch, 2023
The implementation of girls’ sporting programs across clubs and schools is essential for the development of future sporting stars. If girls don’t feel supported by their school or local sporting team, they will never be motivated to continue and grow as players – an issue that Matilda star, Hayley Raso, never had to face during her childhood.
Growing up on the Gold Coast, soccer star Raso always had the utmost support from her coaches and school, Emmanuel College, who saw her talent from a very young age. The sporting department at Emmanuel has always provided a safe and supportive environment to allow all students to achieve their dreams regardless of gender, with Jasmyn Smith also completing her entire schooling career at the college.
David Weir, who was head of the sporting department at Emmanuel College for 10 years, watched the development and growth of girls’ sports throughout his time in the role. He wanted to create an environment at the school where no one felt as though they couldn’t achieve everything they wanted to – and that he did.
“Most of Hayley’s skill development came from coaches outside of our school environment but, I’d like to think Emmanuel provided a safe, secure, friendly, and supportive environment where she could thrive and pursue her passion without external disruption and disturbance,” said Weir. “This includes the school allowing her to take time off study to pursue her National League soccer. We also delighted in giving her the public recognition she deserved for her achievements as a role model and inspiration to other young girls in particular.”
Mr Weir saw Hayley’s potential from a young age through her all-round athleticism and talent and he and Emmanuel provided a supportive environment for her to thrive. They also implemented strategies to develop the sporting program into what it is today, with a specific bias towards girl’s sport so they could feel confident and empowered to participate.
“The growth, participation rates, and success of girl’s sport has truly been one of the school’s big success stories. So much so, that around the time Hayley was at school, the percentage of APS (Associated Private Schools) premierships being won by girls’ teams far outweighed those won by boys. We also had a big stable of outstanding female athletes at National level, including six girls who won the National Teams Athletics Championship,” said Weir.
These foundations are so important to execute successfully at a young age not only to develop young girls’ sporting abilities but also to help them feel supported and empowered to play the sports they want to play. Had girl’s sport been as prominent decades ago as it is now, the gap we still see between professional male sports and professional female sports would be far less and it wouldn’t have been such an uphill battle for them to get here.
This being said, it is no secret that 2023 has been a major success for women in sport with Australia hosting the biggest FIFA Women’s World Cup in history, breaking an extreme number of records, selling out stadiums and bringing Australians together over our shared love for The Matildas.
Australia’s semi-final match against England on August 16 became the largest domestic television event – sport or otherwise – since 2001 reaching 11.5 million people. This figure is more than double any men’s State of Origin, AFL or NRL grand final match which is an achievement once considered impossible by a women’s side.
The live attendance is also one for the record books with a total of 1.98 million people going to watch games across 10 stadiums – the highest ever attendance for a Women’s World Cup. The crowd of 75,784 was a record home audience for a women’s football match in Australia occurring not just once, but five times throughout the tournament – even in games where Australia did not play.
Not only this, but those without tickets crowded outside of the stadiums to watch it on big screens. Crowds of people swarmed to live viewing areas around the country in bars, casinos and restaurants who played it on their screens and, arguably the highest gesture, the AFL announced that they would play the Matilda’s clash against France on the big screens at the MCG, SCG and Optus Stadium before and after their respective AFL games.
The MCG and organisers even received an outstanding amount of backlash when they stopped the Matildas game after the 90 minutes of normal play when the game went into overtime, so they could start the Melbourne-Carlton AFL game. This generated booing ringing throughout the stadium from fans who were initially there to watch the AFL but were furious when they didn’t get to see the overtime of The Matildas’ game. While this may not seem like a notable achievement, it shows how much the recent WWC has impacted Australians with fans of a male AFL match preferring to delay the game they paid to see, so they could watch the rest of a women’s soccer game!
This success we have witnessed from The Matildas has started and will continue a ripple effect down to our young girls who wish to be sports stars when they grow up. Already, local soccer clubs have seen an increase in girls signing up and even doubling the size of some clubs. Coaches and officials predict that once the new season starts, an even larger increase will be witnessed due to the Matildas being such great role models this year.
“Children love sporting heroes and many uniquely identify with a particular star. Because of this, the publicity attached to the Matilda’s, should provide a unique opportunity for Soccer Australia to grow a huge new fan base,” says Weir.
There have been videos circulating since the World Cup of young girls – and even boys – saying that they want to be like Sam Kerr, Hayley Raso, Mackenzie Arnold, Ellie Carpenter and all The Matildas when they grow up which is an achievement and legacy, they have begun for years to come.
These women this year have changed womens’ sports in a way that has never been seen before, with the hype in the media, from fans and people all over the country jumping onboard. There is also an enormous amount of people who never cared for soccer before but love The Matildas and are counting down the days until the Olympic qualifiers in October so they can watch their favourite team play again. They have created a lasting impact not only on women’s sport, but soccer as a whole – they even impacted music charts with Nikki Webster’s ‘Strawberry Kisses’ making the charts for the first time in 22 years since its release, as this was the Matildas team song!
The Matildas may not have won the World Cup, but they did win the hearts of Aussies everywhere and sparked an extremely positive change in the world of womens’ sports – one that will continue to grow for many years and leave a legacy forever.