Since the creation of the first Aussie Rules Football League for Women in 2017, there has been a list of controversies surrounding the lack of female head coaches in the sport. Whilst the league began with the intentions of driving diversity and inclusion as well as demonstrating a clear pathway for female aussie rules players (and ended on the perfect note with a female coach winning the league!) things have gone down hill for the last two seasons with regards to that diversity.
Since the resigning of the only two female coaches in the league after the first season, there has been no other female head coach – including the start of the 2019 season back in February this year.
History of Women in Aussie Rules Football
The men’s game is the oldest form of ‘football’ in the World and since its establishment in 1859, is now the most watched sport in Australia with millions tuning in on TV and hundreds of thousands attending games each week. Players of the mens game receive upward of $300,000 AUD a year, AFL head coaches receive around $500,000 AUD a year and clubs make around $55 million AUD a year. In 2019, the sport continues to thrive with over 1 and a half million male players registered and
The women’s game however, has had a very different history and a league only established in 2017 which has already had its ups and down with regards to equality.
Women’s football began to be organised in the early 20th century, but for several decades occurred mostly in the form of scratch matches and one-off exhibition games as contact sports such as football were widely considered unsuitable for women at the time. Public attitudes prevented them from participating in organised matches. One stat that has always remained high however even from the start of the men’s game in mid 19th century was the spectators have remained around 50% female, which is the highest female viewing figure of any of the football codes across the World.
State-based leagues emerged in the 1980s, with the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) forming in Melbourne in 1981 and the West Australian Women’s Football League (WAWFL) forming in Perth in 1988. The AFL Women’s National Championships were inaugurated in 1992. Women’s football became professionalised in the 2010s, with a national league, AFL Women’s, commencing its inaugural season in 2017 with teams formed by existing Australian Football League (AFL) clubs.
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, women’s Australian rules football saw a large expansion in the number of competitors. In 1998, Auskick, a national program began. The program was designed to introduce the game to primary school aged children. By 2006, it had over 140,000 participants each year. Though the program was never specifically aimed at girls, the safe non-contact environment proved popular and in 2007 about 16% (12%) in of all Auskick participants were female.
In Australia, a total of 18,609 girls and women played Australian rules football in 2005 and in 2006 48,054 women played the sport in Australia, and it is one of the fastest growing sports among women in Australia.
By 2017, a record number of 463,364 females were playing Australian rules football across the nation, making up 30% of all participants. The number of female Australian Rules Football teams reached 1,690 nationally, a huge 76% increase on the previous year.
2017 the Inaugural AFLW Female Head Coaches
The 2017 AFL Women’s season was the first season of the elite women’s Australian rules football competition. Eight teams competed in the league, all of which are associated with existing Australian Football League (AFL) clubs.
For the first season, of the AFLW, two female coaches headed up team Adelaide (Bec Goddard) and Fremantle (Michelle Cowan) with Bec Goddard’s team going on to win the very first Grand Final.
Despite winning the inaugural Championship, Head Coach Bec Goddard was not offered a full time position with Adelaide. In 2018 she coached Adelaide the a fifth place finish, with three wins for the season. She resigned at season’s end, electing to return to Canberra to resume full time work with the Australian Federal Police. In Canberra, she became an assistant coach of the University of Canberra Capitals basketball team. The Capitals went on to win the Women’s National Basketball League(WNBL) championship in 2019. Goddard attracted the interest of the Gold Coast Suns, who are scheduled to enter the AFLW competition in 2020, when it expands 14 teams.
Michelle Cowan was appointed the inaugural coach of the Fremantle AFL Women’s team for the 2017 season and were favourites to win the series ahead of Bec Goddard’s team. Fremantle failed to live up to the pre-season expectation with the AFL head of female football and junior development, Josh Vanderloo, stating the reason was most likely due to injuries to key players and losing elite Western Australian talent to other states as marquee signings. Cowan finished the season with one win, five losses and a draw.
Fremantle finished the 2018 season with three wins, but were unable to improve on 2017’s seventh placed finish. Cowan was in discussions to extend her contract for the 2019 season, but instead chose to resign as head coach.
That left the 2018 and 2019 AFLW season with not a single female coach at the helm.
Why the lack of female coaches?
“Since 2018 there have been no female coaches in AFLW, which is a telling example of women not being supported to take on professional opportunities in what is still a male-dominated sport.
How astonishing that there is no longer a place for the coach that won a premiership in her first year, and the club’s first premiership coach in 20 years.
Goddard may have been willing to take a pay cut to take a more full-time position, but this was not an option.
What separates Goddard and Cowan is that all the other coaches have roles that allow them to support themselves. For example, Wayne Siekman (Collingwood) is a Next Generation Academy coach at Collingwood. Alan McConnell (GWS) is also the men’s director of coaching.
Unfortunately, particularly in the case of Goddard, her role was solely as AFLW coach and Adelaide conceded that they could not find the funds or another position for Goddard so that she could continue to commit to coaching.
A well-established path exists for men interested in coaching: play football at a professional level, then move into coaching, starting at the bottom and working their way up. Such a pathway does not yet exist for women and nor will it until women in these roles are appropriately supported.
We now have a competition which is coached entirely by men, and seemingly judged by people other than the women playing suggesting changes to the spectacle to make it more attractive.
This leaves a sour taste in my mouth about the role AFLW has in the wider AFL family and the direction it’s being taken.”