In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Victorian Women’s Football League, The Inner Sanctum speaks to the people who made women’s football into what it is today.
You can read part one of our series with women’s footy legend Debbie Lee here.
After spending 10 years running and captaining the Spurs that she founded, Debbie Lee began to look to even bigger ventures.
She’d won five league best and fairests, undoubtedly one of the biggest and best of the VWFL competition.
In that time, the league saw a 215% increase of registered players, an overwhelming number of Victorian women interested and excited to play footy.
It would furthermore expand from one division to three, a record number of teams participating in what was a quickly growing and flourishing competition.
Lee, however, still saw the growth it could have.
A struggle to find volunteers to step up to the plate would inspire her to put her hand up to become president of the VWFL in 2004, a position she held until 2012, continuing to play for the Spurs while did.
“No one was willing to do it,” Lee told The Inner Sanctum.
“It was really hard to find volunteers. [It was] just that drive and passion that I had about making things better.
“That’s been my driver throughout my whole footy career, whether that was as a player, president, administrator or my current day role [at the Western Bulldogs], just to make sure things get better and the girls get provided with opportunity.”
While so many things changed for the better throughout Lee’s time as president, many things would also stay the same.
Attending the W Awards this year showed her just how far women’s footy has come.
“I remember when I was president, and we thought that we were really progressive,” she said.
“We held [the best and fairest] at the Western Bulldogs, and we rolled out a whiteboard and we rolled out a TV with a VHS highlights package. We thought we’d made it.
“I can still remember that, and I remember saying ‘make sure you check the votes!’ We were putting them on strokes on a whiteboard… that’s how we rolled.
“That’s how we started the ‘Brownlow’.
“In a sense you’re proud [watching the W Awards].
“You’re just proud of the fact that women have a platform to celebrate. We’re actually where we should be. You reflect, and it’s interesting, some of the players that are involved I’ve funnily enough played against or coached, so there’s still that element from a Victorian-based connection.
“Jeez it’s good to watch.
“Who would’ve thought, we had to put dress codes, non-smoking, this whole journey of re-educating, of trying to get those steps to professionalism, and the W Awards now is where we’ve got it to.”
The AFLW era and ‘letting go of control’
Lee’s presidency came to an end at the end of the 2012 season, with huge changes and advancements on the horizons for women’s football.
In the years leading up to the end of Lee’s tenure, her league had gained more exposure and notoriety than anyone would have ever thought possible back in 1981.
League media manager Leesa Catto successfully navigated negotations to provide media coverage for the VWFL, featuring the sport in newspapers, radio and television in 2010.
VWFL legends Shannon McFerran and Daisy Pearce would represent the women’s game in the E.J. Whitten’s Legends Game, one of the biggest stages to showcase that women playing footy had up to that point.
All this culminated in the beginning of the women’s exhibition games.
From 2013 to 2016, a series of exhibition matches were held, first between teams representing Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs before ultimately being opened up to the rest of Australia too.
The best of the best from South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, the ACT, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory strutted their stuff across 2016.
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The VWFL had at this point been handed over to AFL Victoria, requiring a significant restructure of how the competition was run both from a football and administration standpoint.
This was exacerbated even further when the VWFL become the Victorian Football League Women’s competition alongside the formation of the AFLW, many historic teams handing over their licenses as established AFL clubs took over the programs.
It was a challenging transition for Lee, but one she knew would be the best way for women’s footy to grow.
“In the early transition when we had Nicole Graves and Chyloe Kurdas in the VFL state league roles, you had confidence because they knew what it was about and they’d been on the journey themselves and then the transition where it is now,” she explained.
“AFLW obviously needs the AFL machine behind it to make that quantum leap, there’s no doubt that.
“It was letting go of the control.
“The biggest thing was we’re handing this over and we don’t know how they’re going look after it, how they’re going to protect the history, how they’re going to understand the length of journey, how are they going to understand women playing the sport.
“When we handed it over, they’d only ever managed men’s football. From an administration point of view that’s fine, but from a coaching and, to a degree, the decisions made and how you can gain support to bring people on the journey, that was a worry.
“The worry was, we’re going to hand it over, but are they the right people to hand it over to and will they care for it? That was essentially the hesitation.”
In the five seasons that the AFLW competition has run for, the growth has been built upon year on year, for both good and bad, Lee believes.
What once was eight teams doing battle for the premiership has become 14, with plans recently announced to have all 18 teams AFL clubs participating by the end of 2023.
AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan further announced the numbers behind the AFLW competition in 2021, with “4.5 million fans, 155,908 attendees and 6.1 million viewers”.
Seeing the running of the competition from the inside as the head of women’s operations at the Western Bulldogs, Lee still sees more that needs to be done before the women’s competition is truly equal to the men’s.
“I thought when AFLW was here this was going to be a great opportunity to visually see more women,” she said.
“I think we did at the start, and now we’ve detracted from that. People in my position, coaches, people across the board, particularly in decision making positions, I think we’ve retracted.
“As an industry, we need to really review that and make sure there’s a good representation. When you look at our male counterparts, it’s not depicted the same way.
“Often we’ll hear that women aren’t ready, they haven’t had enough coaching experience.
“What everyone forgets is that they’re a woman, and they’ve got one up on everyone because they understand women. Footy content is footy content, relationships and understanding your players and how to get the best out of them I think is the top priority.
“And then in administration and operations, that’s an area where we’ve got to improve our weight of numbers, we really do. I’m not shy in coming forward and saying that.
“We had women who ran the competition for 30 years, and that was when it was the toughest it ever was. That’s something I’d been keen to advocate for and challenge the calls and say ‘what are we doing?’
“Let’s stop the notion of saying they need more experience… if you’ve got the willingness and passion and understanding that can be fast-tracked easily.”
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