On a recent Friday night my kids and I rode our bikes to Princes Park to watch the first game in the AFLW. My daughter is 12. She's been to a couple of footy games over the years but she's not a huge fan. She could probably list off a hundred things she'd rather do with her time that sit in a stand and watch a game she doesn't really understand, but she came on Friday night to celebrate the fact that women had finally joined the big league.
Until Friday night she was just happy that women had been given their own league. She didn't really care that they were playing footy or that the game itself would be thrilling to watch. She just wanted equality in sport. As a netballer she knows of the stories about the teenage girl umpires being paid $12 a game to umpire netball while boys of a similar age are paid nearly twice that amount to umpire a junior footy game down the road. For her, and for many of us, the announcement of the AFLW was a long-time coming, but I suspect initially it was more about supporting the right to play than about us actually wanting to watch the game.
We arrived early and there were still plenty of seats inside the stadium. We found some friends and sat down. Soon the crowd had surged and every free seat was taken with plenty of supporters queuing outside just hoping to get in.
The last time we were at the footy was a Bulldogs and Melbourne match at Etihad Stadium where the crowd was so thin that we had most of the bay to ourselves. At that game, my kids waved their homemade Doggies flags and cheered when a goal was kicked, but spent half the game more interested in the pies and chips than anything else. But Friday night was different. From the moment the crowd stood to sing the National Anthem it was like everyone could feel history being made.
The stadium erupted as players ran through the club banners and onto the ground. The sun shone right into our eyes as we watched the first bounce. There were more Carlton supporters than Collingwood, but the crowd cheered for great passages of play on both sides. Most of us were there to watch history in the making and we didn't really care who won as long as the game was a good one. And it was.
Throughout the night, I kept sneaking glances at my daughter. Smiled when she was the first to her feet to see if Carlton's kick had gone through the posts. And delighted as she cheered for a mark that was taken and kept asking me about the score.
I've taken my kids to the footy before and if you asked them they would say they were Doggies supporters. But I've never seen my daughter so invested in a game like she was that night. It mattered to her that we were watching women play and that 25,000 people had turned up to cheer and scream and chant, but she also started to love the game. That was what surprised me about the most. That we went to support the exercise of women's football, and came away fans of a sport that was thrilling to watch. It reminded me why I used to go to the footy every weekend, and why it was once one of my favourite things to do.
By three quarter time my son was fading. He was tired and wanted to go home. It was my daughter who wanted to stay for the final siren. She wanted to sing the club song, which she didn't know, and soak up every last moment of atmosphere.
As we left the oval and walked through the park to find our bikes that by now were buried in a sea of other bikes, we kept seeing people we knew. Kids from school, neighbours, friends. The game wasn't just the beginning of the AFLW; it was also a return to the local game at the local oval. And for my daughter and her friend, it was also the planting of a seed that they could play footy too.
Now we've found a local club where they can play this season, and they are going to a try-out to see if they like it. It's my son's club, and he's pretty stoked that his big sister might end up playing footy too. The AFLW is not just about equality in sport, it's also about demonstrating that women's football can be as thrilling, as exciting and as loved as men's. And for my daughter it's about opening a window to a new sport that she had never considered before.