Women, Footy and Family

20 / 06 / 2013

In this piece for Sheilas, Carlton premiership player and writer Ted Hopkins looks at the role of females in Australian Football & AFL – and what makes footy so special and unique in this part of the world. Hopkins went on to found Champion Data, a leading provider of sports statistics in Australia. This piece follows publication of an excerpt from Anna Krien’s latest book in the last edition of Sheilas – on sex, power and sport.


If, as is the case, 43 percent of the total estimated television audience for AFL games is female, plus registered volunteers 35%, and attendances at grounds 50%, and in acknowledgement of such there is an officially sanctioned “Women’s Round 14”; why then is the AFL failing to acknowledge the remaining male audience percentage by declaring (on a prorate basis) at least two rounds of footy as the “Men’s Round?”

In the spirit of the AFL’s famous ad campaign – I’d like to see that!

The participation rates and contribution of women, and the AFL’s acknowledgement of this, is light years ahead of any other bloke-dominated football codes within Australia and elsewhere. Yet there is still this lingering feeling of ‘female’ as an afterthought in the AFL, worthy of a ‘feel good’ blessing to be driven by clever marketing and sales ploys.

The real story is that the influence of women in AFL is mainstream business and indispensible in terms of the competition’s commercial and social viability. It is because of the exceptional viewing numbers, drawn from all sectors of the public, that the AFL can demand a billion dollar deal for broadcast licence rights. It is because of the exceptional attendance numbers that it is possible to fund and build the ‘world’s greatest sports venue’, the MCG, along with the world-class Etihad Stadium, and now Skilled Stadium in Geelong (not far down the road). Tellingly, the design parameters for the AFL’s newly constructed Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast specifically required proper amenities for family, females, and children.

Australian Football thrives in the southern regions of Australian because, like no other football code or place in the world, it is fundamentally a family and communal concern. Allegiances are handed down from generation to generation, across all boundaries, irrespective of age, gender or class.

If there were ever surveys and statistics gathered as to who makes sure the children are decked out properly, transported to junior games and AUSKICK, that the mess is cleaned up afterwards, and all members of the family wear the appropriate supporters gear when heading to an AFL game; I am sure blokes sit disproportionally in the back seat.

One of the most extraordinary things I have encountered often is the dynamic of family team alliances. In instances of mum and dad supporting the same team, the child has little choice in the matter. In instances where mum and dad barrack for different teams, the kiddies are born into a perpetual state of quandary until the matter is finally settled by eventually latching onto to either mum or dad’s team. The cycle is repeated– either of the same denomination or inter-denomination – when the kiddies grow up and get married themselves.

Which is why the recent historical deaths of the South Melbourne and Fitzroy clubs and the near-death and merger experiences involving Hawthorn, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne hurt so much. They effect the family, and when the family is hurting mum and dad are expected to do something about it.

This is why so many shake their heads comprehending what the new franchise teams are all about. We all know, irrespective of whether a family is functional or dysfunctional, genuine ‘family’ is hard to buy from a supermarket shelf or incubate in a test tube.

What is equally remarkable, given the level of female participation and contribution to the AFL’s viability, is the fact that the Administration has not undertaken or planned for any research, study or specific task force to explore and understand the fundamental question as to why women support the AFL like no other football code elsewhere. This, considering the huge amount spent on consultancies, market research, policy and business development and so forth.

There is no doubt that the AFL Administration is aware of the importance of females and families, as well as the many areas in which this could be catered for. An official spokesperson said to me, regarding the extent of female influence and their specific needs, “this gets mentioned along the way,” and to my question on whether there is any research the Administration has undertaken as to why females like and support footy, the answer was “No.”

If you care to look, there is a wealth of personal testimony that tells the real story of women and the AFL.

In the Age article, ‘Sharing in a football family’s adventure,’ on 10 May 2013, Peter Hanlon interviewed Geelong’s Allen Christensen, a 2011 premiership player, aged 21.

Allen’s father, Brendan Christensen, is described as a footy journeyman notching up over 400 games as a player in various country and Darwin leagues, and his mother, Helen, is born a Melville Islander. ‘Young Allen’ stands only 176cm and is fast becoming a fan favourite of all denominations. On the field, he is lighting quick, incredibly skilled and balanced, daring, courageous, and looks and plays as though he enjoys a game of footy.

Hanlon writes, “Allen’s first football memories are running around at Birregurra [west of Geelong], kicking and chasing a ball to keep warm while dad was out on the oval and mum was on the netball court, on her way to winning an A-Grade best and fairest.”

Christensen says, “I loved it. They’d come and find me when it was time to come home”.

Hanlon continues, “He remembers digging through his father’s bag full of jumpers, more than 30 different teams – of the 11 clubs he played for or coached, gifts given along the way. ’I’d wear a different one to training every day.’”

“Allen is in awe of his mother, who over the past decade has completed a law degree while raising a family, much of the time with her husband away working two weeks on two weeks off.”

Christensen speaks of his mother Helen, “She’s been through a lot, and she’s been one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met…To do that, five kids, dad up and down with work, it’s hard to imagine.”

As for myself, I started out playing junior and senior footy for my hometown, Moe, then progressing to play for Carlton – mostly as a fringe and reserves players. I climaxed with my famous role in the 1970 premiership team. I played my last game of footy in 1975, for my local Yallourn team in the Latrobe Valley League. In my current manuscript, Home Ground Advantage, I describe the influences of mum and dad:

It is unlikely that I inherited my natural sporting ability from dad, or from his side of the family. There was nothing in their make-up or achievements indicating my talents. However, once my ability as a junior became obvious, dad’s interest in my sporting activity intensified.

While he couldn’t play that well, as my sporting career began to blossom, dad absorbed the ingredients of how sport ticked – what it meant to people, its economy, values, on-field tactics and plays. He understood the links that existed between business and social acceptance. He became my early trainer. He knew that sport wins votes.

It seems more likely that my junior ability at most sports, eventually shining at an elite level in water skiing and Australian Football, was inherited from mum and her side of the family. For her, sport was the love of patterns. Rhythm. Participation. Barracking. Preparing for match day. Sewing dresses in club colours. At local football games in which I played she prowled the sidelines, yelling ‘keep the ball low, keep the ball low.’ She adored modern waltzes and I have images of her dancing in her barracking costume, streamers waving. When I played for the local football club, Yallourn, club officials gave mum the unofficial title of ‘Number One Barracker,’ but they did not play the waltzes she asked to be played on the public address system during games.

As I say, family and the influence of women is something you cannot buy from a supermarket shelf.

With my late loving and business partner, Angelika Oehme (1951-2007), we co-founded the footy statistics and analytics company, Champion Data (1995), and eventually sold our shares in 2007. Our mutual interests in founding the company were a mutual love of languages and describing patterns. She arrived in Melbourne as a six-year-old migrant with her German refugee parents, as the oldest of five children with one on the way.

She was incredibly astute, well-read and self-educated. She told me soon after arriving in Melbourne that it did not take long for her to figure out that barracking for a footy team was an advantage. She was born in Berlin and chose the Melbourne Football Club because it was the name of her adopted new city and the Demons were winning premierships under the famous captain, Ron Barassi. She adored attending games even when the Demons were doing poorly. As was my mother, Angelika was absorbed in the detail and patterns of play – a lingua franca that all could share on their own terms.

I am of the view that it is the fabric and patterns of play unique to Australian Rules Football and its family and communal values that all genders can appreciate and support. While the AFL Administration is progressive compared to other football codes, it still comes across as a blundering bloke’s club. Indeed, there is still a lot of work to be done.