IN A MOMENTOUS sporting first, the Seven Network will broadcast one of the two AFL-sanctioned female curtain-raisers this season, between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs
The breakthrough, which was not to be formally announced until mid-May, follows the vow from new league CEO Gill McLachlan that the AFL would be considerably more proactive about supporting and advocating the historically neglected, and largely untapped, area of female football.
The news also follows a call last week by Western Bulldogs vice-president, and long-time sponsor of women's football Sue Alberti for the AFL to lift its game in the area or risk losing female talent to soccer.
The AFL was planning to announce the news of what will be a landmark August 16 broadcast – of the second of two league-sanctioned female exhibition matches this season - on May 12.
The plan was to announce the news at an annual industry event that recognises the importance of women to the game and some of the challenges they face in it.
The Seven Network is broadcasting the two home-and-away meetings between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs this season – on May 24 and August 16 – but the second clash between the female sides will be aired on the free-to-air broadcaster. Both men's fixtures are Sunday afternoon matches, due to begin at 3:20pm; the earlier fixture at the MCG and the latter at Etihad Stadium.
This is the first year that the AFL has sanctioned the two women's matches have been sanctioned by the AFL involving players from all over Australia who nominated for a draft.
The third women's draft, which received poor mainstream exposure after it was publicised by the AFL the day before it occurred, was held earlier this month.
It saw 34 of the most outstanding female footballers in Australia selected by the Dogs - to be coached by former Collingwood and Brisbane Bears player Craig Starcevich this year - and the Demons - to be coached by pioneer Michelle Cowan.
A revamp of the women's draft saw a selection of players, including the best-known female Australian rules footballer Daisy Pearce, retained by the clubs they represented – in Pearce's case, Melbourne.
In previous years, Western Bulldogs boss and long-time women's football sponsor Alberti publicly questioned the AFL's commitment to women's football after the draft. She told Fairfax Media last week: "Let's just say I believe that far much more could be done.
"The recognition that these women deserve right here and now is just not happening."
Alberti believes that if the AFL is to achieve its stated vision of establishing a national female competition by 2017 – McLachlan has brought the target in from the initial goal of 2020 – it needs a dedicated executive on the job.
The recognition that these women deserve right here and now is just not happening.Sue Alberti
Currently, the women's football project largely falls under the remit of the AFL's Dorothy Hisgrove, who holds the title of general manager of people, customer and community.
Alberti wondered aloud last week whether Hisgrove's broad-ranging brief meant that women's football was not getting the attention it deserves.
"I think she's been working incredibly hard to try and bring women's football to the forefront," Alberti told Fairfax of Hisgrove, who she met with in the off-season.
"Perhaps they need to give a bit more support and help to Dorothy. She appears to me to be workingunder the pump. She's a dynamo of a woman, but maybe she needs some more resources and support to be able to do this."
According to AFL research, women's football at Auskick, 9s, club and school level has grown in the past year by about 15 per cent, for an estimated tally of 194,000 participants.
There were 268 nominations for this year's women's draft.