WOMEN’S football at the elite level is finally here. That was the message from AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan at the NAB AFL Women’s competition season launch on Wednesday.
"Welcome to a historic moment in our game," he proclaimed to the hundreds packed into a warehouse in North Melbourne, a venue McLachlan jokingly described as "Hipsterville".
"This moment in women’s football – this apparent overnight success has in fact been over 100 years in the making."
Looking on were hard-working champions of women’s football, executives from the eight competing clubs, broadcasters, sponsors, fans, family and friends of players, documentary makers, even a couple of Melbourne comedians, Carlton tragic Tegan Higginbotham and Hawthorn-obsessed Anthony Lehman, aka 'Lehmo'.
The stacked shelves of timber, the yoghurt and coffee trucks and the gourmet goodies (including beetroot-cured salmon, acai bowls and high-end toasted ham and cheese sandwiches) might have created plenty of talk and certainly had many takers, they were but peripheral to the major event, the culmination of what has been a whirlwind year or so for women’s football at the elite level.
Last June at the MCG, the AFL announced the eight teams that would be competing in the inaugural season. Since that day, the news has come thick and fast: marquee player signings, the appointment of coaches, a draft, the launch of female-specific apparel, and the naming of club captains. All historic achievements in their own right.
On Wednesday, guests saw the unveiling of the AFLW premiership cup, another historic first. And it was done with just the right amount of theatrics befitting the occasion, a piece of silver material suddenly disappearing like a magician’s trick to reveal the shining prize.
Just minutes before, the club captains had been introduced on stage. The cup reveal had all of them captivated, and one or three gulping at the thought of being the one to hold it up on March 25.
But the launch was more than just a glitzy event to start the season. It was a reminder of the hard work put in to get to this point, and the reality that year one is only the beginning. The future is now, so the saying goes.
By the end of this weekend, 176 women will officially be able to say they have played in the AFLW.
"It will be football like we’ve always known. There will be upsets, potentially thrashings and hopefully thrillers," McLachlan said.
"But it will also be very different. This group of women players will create their own game."
Recently retired Western Bulldogs director and women’s footy pioneer Susan Alberti was looking further than just this season, saying it was her dream to see the League expand.
"Having 18 women’s teams competing in the women’s competition – I’d like to see that," she said, adding her own take on the AFLW’s promotional campaign.
Alberti, a former vice-president of the Bulldogs, was also named the AFL Women’s premiership cup ambassador. She said the honour was "almost as good as winning the premiership last year", referring to the Dogs’ drought-breaking win over Sydney in the men's competition.
With preparations almost complete, eyes now turn to Friday night when Carlton plays Collingwood in the first AFLW match. Yet another historic occasion looms.