During the 2009 NAB Cup, history was made.
Sports journalist Kelli Underwood would make the move to become the first female voice on football broadcasts as Geelong took on Adelaide.
Fast forward to 2022 and the AFL Women’s competition is in its fifth season and Fox Footy has put together the first all-female broadcast team.
Underwood, Cath Durkin, Chyloe Kurdas and Jess Webster would make up the quartet – with Underwood and Webster both as play-by-play callers.
For the Gippsland-born Webster, it was a dream come true, one that was written in the stars from an early age.
“I was born in Gippsland but grew up in Brisbane and always wanted to be a football broadcaster since I was a little girl,” she told The Inner Sanctum.
“Footy is in my blood – my grandfather on my mum’s side, Mort Diston, played for Essendon in the 1950s and my grandfather on my dad’s side, Wally Webster, was a star for Nar Nar Goon and has the club’s senior best-and-fairest award named after him.”
Naturally, Webster was drawn to the established names covering AFL men’s games – McAvaney and Cometti.
“I think I was drawn to commentating because we would watch more footy than attend growing up, given the nature of only having one AFL team in town,” she said.
“My childhood was spent listening to Dennis Cometti and Bruce McAvaney, and I was a really big fan of Clinton Grybas before his tragic passing.
“I still listen to some of Clinton’s work on YouTube to pump me up before my games.
“He was my favourite caller. I love the art storytelling through commentary and connecting people to some of their most treasured moments. It’s a wonderful feeling that I feel very privileged to experience.”
However, it wasn’t a dream which was going to come easy, especially growing up in a rugby league heartland like Brisbane.
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“It’s fair to say growing up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to achieve my dream,” she said.
“AFL broadcasting in Melbourne genuinely seemed like a world away.
“I had to try and forge my own path like many of my peers today.
“After high school I completed a degree in journalism and then moved to Darwin for job opportunities.
“My first broadcasting gig was as a boundary rider for ABC TV’s coverage of the NTFL season in 2010.
“I then worked for the NT News as a sports reporter and spent five years in the NT at the paper as well as doing a few different freelance gigs across TV and radio.”
But, in 2016, she’d get her first taste as a boundary rider back home in Brisbane before achieving her dream a year later, on radio.
“I moved back to Brisbane to try and take my career to the next level and was recruited to ABC Grandstand in 2016 as a AFL boundary rider by Quentin Hull, who then also taught me the technique and mechanics of radio calling,” she said.
“He’s been a massive support of me and has had a big impact on my career.
“I’d practice calling in the NEAFL competition and Quentin would review my calls and give me tips as I developed.
“In May 2017, I made my AFL calling debut for ABC in a Gold Coast v Geelong game at Carrara.
“Over the next couple of years, I did a mix of boundary and calling for ABC and continued to develop in the NEAFL.”
Webster wasn’t done there and made the move to the sporting capital of the world to continue achieving her dream.
However, as it had done to many, Covid hit. Hard.
“In mid-2019 I decided to make the big move to Melbourne to try and take the next step in my career,” she said.
“I did some boundary work for ABC in the back end of the 2019 AFL season and things were going well…until the pandemic hit.
“I debuted for Fox Footy in the 2020 AFLW season, did one game on the boundary before COVID hit, and then as we all know the world completely changed.
“I was still working for the AFL at this time as NEAFL Media and Communications Manager, but when they suspended the season, I was stood down and eventually made redundant, and had no commentary work for the rest of the year. It was without a doubt the hardest year of my life, especially watching the season move to Brisbane while stuck in lockdown in Melbourne. How cruel.
“Fortunately, I got back into commentary in 2021 for ABC and Fox Footy doing a mix of calling and boundary for both AFLW and AFL seasons.
“This year I did my first play-by-play game for Fox Footy in Round 3 (Richmond v Fremantle), and then obviously called with Kelli for the first time in my third game for the network as a caller. It’s certainly been a long journey, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
After a rollercoaster journey, Webster would work alongside the woman who was the trailblazer for female commentators around the country, Underwood herself.
Webster had worked previously with Underwood and they’ve been in regular touch since they met over a decade ago.
“I respect and admire Kel a lot,” she said.
“We met while I was working for NT News in Darwin over 10 years ago at a press conference for an AFL game right after she became the first female caller on TV.
“I don’t remember who the AFL player we interviewed that day was, but I remember meeting Kel.
“We worked our first AFL game together in 2016 at the Gabba when she was calling and I was on the boundary.
“She called me before my calling debut in 2017 to wish me good luck and offer me tips, and she’s been a constant source of encouragement ever since.”
Five years on and they were a part of history.
However, neither of them were aware of the historical significance of the game until later on.
“We didn’t realise pre-game that it was a historic moment,” Webster recalled.
“Kel and I were just looking forward to calling together and watching a great game of footy.
“It’s a nice feeling to be a part of history but what I enjoyed most about that night was how normal it felt.
“We were just four broadcasters going to work and doing our jobs.
“What that night represented to me was simply what many female broadcasters have collectively strived for – a sense of belonging in a commentary box.”
Reflecting after the call, Webster said ‘we can never underestimate how important Kel’s contribution to sports broadcasting is.’
“Growing up, as much as I had big dreams and was hellbent on making them come true, there was a small part of me that probably doubted if women would ever call AFL games,” she said.
“When I saw Kel on TV in 2009 when I was studying journalism, I thought to myself, “if she can do it, I can”.
“In that moment, Kel removed any shadow of a doubt for me that this life was possible.
“Whenever I’ve had a bad day over the past 13 years, those words served as a reminder to keep fighting.
“She has inspired a generation of female broadcasters. We’re lucky to have her, and I am lucky to have had the chance to work with her.”
Looking forward, Webster is eager to continue her growth and has her sights set on an AFL men’s game in the future.
“I am looking forward to continuing to work on my craft for the remainder of the AFLW season with ABC and Fox Footy,” she said.
“I’m really excited this year to be a regular on ABC’s call team for the AFL season calling every Saturday night in Melbourne with Joel Peterson.
“The next big goal is to call AFL on a television broadcast, but as the old saying goes, I am just taking it one week at a time.”
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