Brisbane Lions AFLW opening match a sell-out as women’s footy participation grows

Talk to any company that’s grown 331 per cent in five years — business is clearly booming.

Even after a year that has been marred by COVID-19 cancellations and social distancing restrictions surrounding sport, the AFLW is experiencing exponential growth in Queensland.

For the first time in 2021, fans will have to purchase tickets to AFLW matches, which in the previous four seasons had been free of charge.

Brisbane Lions captain Emma Zielkie said it showed momentum and support was building for women’s football.

The Lions opening match this season on Sunday against the Richmond Tigers is already sold out.

“The amount of fans that are disappointed that they missed out in getting tickets — that’s fantastic for our game and I think it’s definitely the way forward,” Zielke said.

Brisbane Lions captain Emma Zielke leads the team onto the field for the AFLW Grand Final in 2017
Brisbane Lions captain Emma Zielke leads the team onto the field for the AFLW Grand Final game in 2017.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Growth in numbers and talent

A former player himself, Lions coach Craig Starcevich has witnessed the growth, both in numbers and talent, across the past four seasons.

“[We’ve] got a really good bunch of 20 to 25-year-old’s who are all just starting to blossom as athletes and footballers,” Starcevich said.

Emma Zielke, Craig Starcevich, David Lake, Sam Virgo and Hannah Dunn.
Lions captain Emma Zielke and coach Craig Starcevich, with Suns coach David Lake and Suns co-captains Sam Virgo and Hannah Dunn.(Supplied: AFL Photos)

In 2017 — the inaugural season of the AFLW — females made up 30 per cent of the 1.5 million people that were participating Australian rules nationwide.

The percentage of females playing the code at a grassroots level has now surpassed 40 per cent, just five years later.

Head of AFL Queensland Trisha Squires said the move to charge fans to watch games live was proof of the code’s commitment to women’s football.

“It shows how important the women’s game has become to our competition and also it’s allowing us to have crowds in a COVID-safe way,” Squires said.

“We’re passionate, we’re inclusive and we’re really passionate about our footy.”

Hannah Dunn, Emma Zielke, Trisha Squires and Sam Virgo stand together on an AFL field.
Suns co-captain Hannah Dunn, Lions captain Emma Zielke, head of AFL Queensland Trisha Squires and Suns co-captain Sam Virgo.(Supplied: AFL Photos)

In the spirit of inclusivity, Queensland also boosts the 2021 AFLW Premiership Cup with its ambassador, Jaimie Howells.

The Yeronga South Brisbane Devils Football Club player is profoundly deaf, but Howells made an impression in her maiden season with the club.

So much so, her teammates all learnt their winning song in Auslan to surprise Howells after a win late last season.

Howells said she dreamt of one day playing professionally in the AFLW.

2021 AFLW Premiership Cup ambassador Jaimie Howells from the Yeronga South Brisbane Devils Football Club.
Jaimie Howells is profoundly deaf, but made an impression in her maiden season with the Yeronga South Brisbane Devils Football Club.(Supplied: AFL Photos)

Part-time profession still a struggle

That’s not to say female AFL players aren’t still up against it.

Gold Coast Suns player Sam Virgo has been a part of the code since its introduction and said while the pay and conditions are improving, COVID-19 has added another challenge to being a part-time professional female athlete.

“It’s a challenge — add it to the list of challenges we’ve already got to face and the favours we’ve got to ask our employers for currently just to leave work early for training,” Virgo said.

AFLW Premiership Cup ambassador Jaimie Howells with Suns captain Sam Virgo and young Yeronga Devils players.
Jaimie Howells (left) with Gold Coast Suns captain Sam Virgo (third) and young Yeronga Devils players.(Supplied: AFL Photos)

While the 2020 AFLW season was cut short due to COVID-19, the AFL gave players a commitment to play the entire schedule this year through the pandemic.

“All players were encouraged to speak to their employers early about the potential for going into hubs, and the AFL and the AFL PA [Players’ Association] have been really strong on supporting us in that process,” Virgo said.

The GWS Giants are already in a training hub in Adelaide, due to the COVID-19 situation in Greater Sydney.

Where to from here?

This year, all 14 teams will play nine home and away games, with the top six teams then progressing to three weeks of finals.

The AFL said a single ladder was in place this year, with the competition divided into bands — top four, middle six, and bottom four — based on last year’s ladder positions “to ensure maximum competition integrity”.

Head of the AFLW Nicole Livingstone said they had only announced the first two rounds of the AFLW season to date due to the ever-changing COVID climate and border restrictions across Australia.

“We’ll continue to monitor the environment that we’re encountering around the nation before we announce any future rounds,” Livingstone said.

The AFLW is forecast to add an additional round in 2022 and Starcevich imagines more clubs will be added to the roster in the next few years.

“I’m sure the four other clubs are still banging the door down to get their licence as well, so that’ll be another challenge for the league going forward,” Starcevich said.

Carlton Football Club and Collingwood kick off the 2021 season tonight in Melbourne.

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