UNDERESTIMATE women's football at your peril.
This was the warning from acclaimed sports journalist Gerard Whately at the end of AFLW season 2019.
This is a call worth heeding as the AFLW returns this weekend with more teams, more at stake and after an off-season calling for players to be taken more seriously by the game's governing body.
And this is a call that stands true in Ballarat.
There is no doubt this city's hunger for sport has made its mark on AFLW drawing players from across our playing arenas, including basketball. Now the ground work to build the game at the grassroots via Ballarat Football League and Greater Western Victoria Rebels' talent pathways is really starting to show. Worth noting, the Rebels were one of the first programs in the state to offer under-18 girls.
Fierce AFLW newcomer Richmond is a great example. Rebel Sophie Molan made her debut in the Tigers' season opening debut against Carlton at Princes Park on Friday night. Her teammate Laura Bailey, also a Ballarat export, was a member of the inaugural Western Bulldogs outfit in the AFL foundation season. Bailey is back from a season's hiatus with a wealth of experience to offer.
The Ballarat impact fuels excitement and a belief that extends far beyond football in our community. This is about opportunity.
AFLW is a fast-growing league with plenty of room to still develop. There are still issues to iron out, for example, Richmond's premiership captain and coach are in Ballarat for a dinner event at the greyhound track on the club's historic AFLW debut. Actions often speak louder than words in support.
Or the long-term niggles, for example, do we really need to keep reminding the fact players still need to have 'day jobs' and are not primed to the levels as their full-time, year-round male club mates. Yet.
Only one AFLW club, St Kilda, will sport a female head coach this season.
The Saints are led by decorated women's coach Peta Searle who took shaped Darebin as a powerhouse to five consecutive state titles. Searle is also the only woman to be an AFL assistant coach.
Interestingly, earlier this week San Francisco 49ers' Katie Sowers made history as the only woman lines coach with a team to reach National Football League's Super Bowl.
These are achievements that need highlighting but it will be incredible, come the day, when this is part of the norm in football.
Culture is gradually changing in football. This is epitomised in Michael Wilson's iconic Tayla Harris kicking photograph - now immortalised in a bronze statue - and the positive, powerful and vital dialogue that ensued last season.
Grand final action between Adelaide Crows and Carlton drew a thunderous record 53, 034 fans roaring at Adelaide Oval and another 500,000 tuning into broadcasts for AFLW's third season.
Each woman on the ground is an example of courage and resilience to kick a change with impacts far greater than any game. Each continues to bring to life what many, for so long, said could never be possible.
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