Blazing trails, a unique culture and on-field excellence: the success story which is AFLW

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The 2021 AFLW season has rightly earned plaudits from many new converts as the skill and the spectacle of the games continues to improve. But there is another element to AFLW that sits apart from the kicks, marks and handballs that is almost impossible to compare with the men's game.

Five years on the league has flourished into a very distinct personality. The pioneering women of the competition, whether consciously or not, are quietly rejecting decades of accumulated conventions of what it means to be a footballer, embracing honesty and escaping the straitjacket that the men's game is often bound by.

To the untrained eye the 2017 launch of AFLW seemed a wholehearted and symbolic attempt to create a league for women based on the existing AFL structures. A faithful facsimile that built upon the traditions and emotional investment of more than 150 years of accumulated capital in the men's VFL/AFL competition.

The women were going to leverage off the men, a long overdue helping hand would be given. Or so people thought.

Lauren Arnell captained Carlton on the instantly legendary first night of AFLW when Princes Park burst at the seams. Today she is a veteran of the game at the Brisbane Lions who this week prepare for a Grand Final, and perhaps a well-deserved premiership.

But long before AFLW was born Arnell found something strong and vibrant in the women's game.

"I joined Darebin Football Club as an 18 year old and it was a women's sports club, it wasn't tied to a football/netball club. It never had big sponsors, it was this group of volunteer women just trying to keep access to a council ground each year. Everything I've since seen in men's football at a local community level; sponsorship, big fundraising nights, big celebrations when a premiership is won where players don't have to buy a drink is so far from that volunteer experience I had in women's footy. We won ten premierships at Darebin, and we were lucky to have one drink handed to us," she told ESPN.

"Men's footy for a long time has been a business, women's footy was always a community sport, held together by volunteers. To appreciate where AFLW has come from, is to understand the purpose of why we played.

"When I was working at AFL Victoria I remember talking to some of the guys in the office who played community footy and not training anywhere near the level I was putting in at state league level. They were getting $500 or $600 a game in a local league, but I was paying that much to play per year that they were earning each week. That changes the drive and personality of an environment when people are paying for the privilege to work that hard.

"When a group of women choose to be training at night in the middle of winter like we'd been doing for years, with no financial rewards, we already had something pretty special."

When AFL executive Josh Vanderloo was first tasked with the setup of AFLW it was a naive, but understandable assumption that it would be creating a women's league with the men's competition cookie cutter.

"We were going to build national league for women to aspire to, with the main objective to help inspire the next generation - to get young girls playing and following the game. There weren't any expectations beyond that," he said.

Vanderloo quickly found that the existing culture that Arnell knew so would be the strength of women's footy. That needed to be harnessed for it be successful rather an 'AFL knows best' approach.

In journalist Samantha Lane's chronicle of the birth of AFLW, 'Roar', she speaks of the principles of a strategy paper Vanderloo and marketing whiz Jemma Wong presented at the time that has been more prescient with each season.

"The paper references a 'fourth-wave feminism', and this contemporary iteration is summarised by a 'make it our own' goal. It is presented as a progression from guiding principle of 'third-wave feminism', which said everything should be the same for men and women.

"The research told us that the players voices would be the driving force for the league. When the two marquee players were drafted to each foundation team, well before we played a game, they were talking about the league and shaping the direction of it. The players made a lot of the decisions at the development stage on what it would look like both on and off the field, and that's what made it unique."

This instructed the tagline of 'See What We Create' in that first year, the same threads of identity remain in 2021's tagline 'This is Us'.

Many of these 'marquee' players had already been shouldering broader development roles at a community level just to keep their clubs and leagues alive in addition to their excellence on the field. Vanderloo hopes they are never forgotten in the success story.

"Those players did an enormous amount of heavy lifting. In the future, history really should recognise what they did. They and the entire first crop of players quickly went from just being appreciative for the chance, to a collective voice for equality that took on a leadership role to ensure that this competition is strong for the next generation," he told ESPN.

There was creeping understanding that while the colours of the guernseys would be the same, the dynamics of who plays and how they express themselves would be different.

150 years of tradition in the men's game can also be the weightiest millstone at times. It's hard to pinpoint when the winning is everything, us against them siege mentality of football clubs became the norm, but it's something that frames coaching, playing and even fan support.

Keeping emotions in check, speaking in cliché that will supposedly protect against arousing any opponent's retribution and, perhaps most importantly, that the only joyful part of football is the winning of games.

It's still a regular media trope when a male player is caught smiling or laughing with an opponent, or in the recent case of Adam Treloar and Collingwood, when friends embrace after a match. Social media lights up.

The absolute fierceness of AFLW competition is evident every time the ball is bounced, but Arnell explains that there is a healthy balance that breaks those shackles that often apply to the men.

"We're not fully professional, so we have to sacrifice just to play in this competition. So any level of success, we find a way to enjoy it. If a player gets to kick a goal, even if their team is six goals down, teammates get around and celebrate because behind that there's been a huge sacrifice, no matter what the scoreboard says," the Lions player said.

"Our players probably do show their emotions and enjoy the game more outwardly compared to the men."

This is indicative of a subtle but important difference Arnell sees between men's and women's footy.

"Tribalism is a really strong word for the following of men's AFL footy, but for women's footy the word that stands out is belonging. In the early days there had to be a lot of movement in teams across the competition so the expansion teams could grow and be competitive. Without an overall understanding of the big picture and the support and cooperation of players from every team the league wouldn't have been able to grow."

Ferocious on the field, a supportive culture has grown between clubs, players and fans off the field. This is a long way from the vitriol that flies from social media trolls when it comes to the men's game (often the same trolls, it should be said, that are the ones to attack women's footy).

Which is not to say the 'traditional' club fan has not embraced AFLW. The ingrained DIY-ethic from the recent history of women's footy saw AFLW players gravitate to the areas of clubs that best exemplified that background. Arnell found kindred spirits.

"When I was at Carlton I spent time getting to know the cheer squad. They would volunteer each week to make the banner as being close to the club gave them that belonging. There was a real bond with the AFLW players in that environment, we had the common thread in footy of being motivated by belonging to something."

Belonging is the word so many around the women's game use, and it has been the catalyst to attract fans that have never been drawn to the men's side of footy before.

Dr Kasey Symons is a writer and research fellow at Swinburne University who spends a lot of her professional life studying the causes and effects in women's sport. She told ESPN she sees a different crowd at AFLW games to what the men's game has traditionally drawn.

"Women's sport leagues, not just AFLW, are often formed out of being excluded. People were told directly or indirectly that they didn't belong, so they went away and formed their own safe space," Symons said.

"For many of us as fans of male sport you got indoctrinated in an environment that was highly masculinised - dress a certain way, drink a certain type of beer and tolerate a certain type of language. For fans who don't identify as a white, straight, cisgendered men - going into such a hypermasculine space is really confronting, and some do not want to try it.

"Because women's sports have often been ostracised from the get-go, it's been built upon a come as you are and not who you should be. AFLW looks different, it feels comfortable and those people want to give it a go, and have enjoyed it."

It cannot be argued that the historical culture of men's footy has been at been at best dismissive of anyone not heterosexual, and at worst outright hostile. It has played a role in the historically detached (and wrong) attitude of men's footy to women's footy. Symons told ESPN that the openness of AFLW players in its short history has already created a legacy.

"You look at the number of AFLW players who have had open conversations about their sexuality, and those stories have been told in mainstream media and on broadcasts.

"That visibility is so important to so many people in the community who may not be sports fans, but are fans of having heroes who will speak up for them. Many of them are now AFLW fans.

"The women's footy culture has brought that with them to the AFLW, and the AFL broadly owes a lot to those players who've shared their stories."

For future generation of men's and women's players at all levels of the game, these stories may well be seen as turning points similar to those that caused long overdue enlightenment on race. Its also given the AFL a new audience that Vanderloo concedes was not part of their initial thinking.

"AFLW was never envisaged as targeting the LGBTIQA+ community, but for that community that already played, there was a clear love and commitment to the game. Women's leagues were a safe space, but this provided a new avenue to be part of the broader AFL community - which they are a big part of now," he said.

At a time when the enjoyment of the game from players and coaches is being questioned, there is something to be learned from the players of AFLW who are leading the way in what appears to be a healthier outlook on the sport.

The notion that perhaps the players and attitudes in AFLW are more in-tune with the younger generation is demonstrable through the generation gap divergences on the aforementioned Treloar discussion.

That would not have raised eyebrows in the AFLW, the attitude of belonging overriding the tribalism. It provoked the feelgood image of the season when St Kilda great Nathan Burke coached his Bulldogs AFLW team to a loss against his old club and his daughter Alice. Burke dismissed the stoicism that was supposed to surround losses in his era by joyfully embracing his daughter after the final siren, and it wasn't questioned at all by AFLW fans.

In addition to her day job as a teacher and her playing and commentating, Arnell also coaches in the Brisbane Lions Academy. She sees the generational change materialising in front of her.

"I teach a class of year 7 students, eight of them are girls and seven of them are boys and they all love watching our games, they celebrate our wins sometimes more so than the men's team. There's elements of our society growing up who are challenging what's been accepted previously, that you have to be a certain way, or if you lose to have to show you're grumpy."

"The whole Treloar story of the way he was moved on, but then his old and new teammates accepting and supporting him publicly is the way it should be."

It goes without saying that the peer support for the greater movement is something that existed in women's footy decades ago, and has stayed that way despite the growth of AFLW.

"Walking into a women's football environment as an 18 year old from a conservative background, it taught me to accept people from all walks of life."

When young boys or girls are watching AFLW they are seeing an attitude to the game more in line with their first love of the game, driven by the players of AFLW who've taken the AFL megaphone to bring women's footy culture to the masses. Vanderloo thinks its also having a gradual effect on men's programs.

"Seeing female players come in and be appreciative, I think has taken away some of the mystique and pressure for the men about what a professional athlete should be. The women have shown how enjoyable it can be."

Amongst all the other benefits, the men's game may well end up leveraging off the enjoyment that AFLW provides like they never imagined.

In 2021 sponsors that bankroll the AFL demand that they are attached to AFLW as well as the men's competition. That thirst is similar when it comes to broadcasters and government. Today any corporate or public funding into sport needs to support a bona fide female team or competition. It renders the argument about AFLW not paying its way as ridiculous.

Vanderloo says that this is acutely understood at club level.

"All the metrics that the men's game uses for success, the women's game keeps increasing in. The sentiment now is that clubs without an AFLW team do not feel they are a whole club."

But for all those benefits, it ultimately comes down to what the AFLW players have done to inspire, the original reason for the competition. In five short years AFLW players have inspired young girls and boys, attracted new supporters to the game and are showing the men new ways to approach the game. Even its biggest stars.

"When Dustin Martin gets asked who his favourite footballer is and he says Ellie McKenzie, clearly it's having an impact beyond what we could ever imagine, and all of that credit should be given to the players."