Since its inception, the Australian Football League for Women (AFLW) has been a huge success. The first AFLW game brought a crowd of 26,000 fans to the Melbourne Stadium. What started as eight teams in 2017 has almost doubled to fourteen in 2020. This year 53,000 people watched the grand finale – a number that exceeds the Hong Kong stadium by 13,000 seats.

Hong Kong’s role in accommodating AFLW stems mostly from one person. We previously caught up with her in 2017, when she was still in the early stages of recruiting women to make a team. What started as one woman with a passion for AFL has now become a 26-strong unit capable of changing the AFL HK club culture.

Two years ago, Jess Cole orchestrated a clinic to help recruit more players. Since then, the AFLW Hong Kong Dragons have played in the Asia Championships twice and have made it to the Grand Final twice, missing out by very small margins

“There are three main focus areas for promoting AFLW in Hong Kong,” says Cole, “them being growth, player development, and more interaction with AFL Asia teams.”

Cole and Coach Will Burgess have tried to focus on creating  structure for the team and teaching basic skills. This includes small things like knowing the rules of the game, to understanding the progression of a kick. Jess’ vision has given the team strong foundations and established expectations, as well as laying down a path for AFLW HK to follow. “This is supposed to be fun, but you still need some structure and a path to follow if you want to mature as a player and as a team,” Cole explains.

With the new hire of Asia Development Manager, Simon Highfield, by the AFL, AFLW can hope to get more support in times to come. Last year we saw the first AFLW Asia Championship, where four women’s teams competed, growing to six in 2019 and hopes are that all eight will represent at the Asia Championship in 2020. This is the most important step to bridging the gap between a local and regional standard of play.

Cole stresses the importance of this, saying “It’s nice to have a seat at the table and to get to talk about these things in Asia, once you have representation in AFL Asia for women you are able to grow and build the structure”.

AFLW has presented opportunities for growth not only in Hong Kong but also all over the world. In 2018 there was a 14.2% increase in female participation in AFL, reflecting 32% of all participation for that year.

AFLW HK is in a unique position because they are part of a well-established club, the Hong Kong Dragons. Therefore, many hardships that new teams may face when starting were less of  a setback for the Dragons.

Within female sport and the  fight for equality, many of us like to think that the support comes from other like-minded women. It is most important however to leverage your networks, regardless of gender and seek support from your community.

Jess has been very vocal about giving praise where it is due, and she believes that the team’s  rapid growth would not have been possible if it were not for the HK Dragons’ committee and teams. They offered support in terms of running the clinics,   playing grounds, and finding a coach to nuture the team.

“At the beginning of each season, its common that players drop out or do not want to pay the membership fees yet. So having the Committee’s support for AFLW development, has alleviated an often crippling  financial burden from the team.” – Jess Cole

They also offered Jess valuable advice, since most of the players have been part of the club for many years and also had to face the same complications. Furthermore, the men’s team helped tremendously in giving support both on and off the pitch.

When AFLW Hong Kong first started there was originally a sense of apprehension to change, fearing that it would not be the same club in the end.

“And to be honest it’s not the same club, it’s a better club” beams Jess, explaining how the club has become more inclusive. AFLW has changed the club culture and helped shape it to what it is today – a family-friendly environment where everyone is made to feel part of the team.

“It’s no longer a place where people go ‘ugh why don’t you know how to play the sport?’ because, we are all learning. This has been massive for local-player and female-player development. The way in which the club wants to improve has now changed, it wants to share AFL with everyone, regardless of ability which is a huge, positive step.”

Jess says that the introduction of AFLW has brought new ideas and a fresh perspective. It has helped to move the club forward, and welcomes different characters and nationalities to the club.

“Our team is  a collection of women that come together because they are interested in playing and learning – and they keep coming back because they like the people and they like what the club is about!” Jess Cole has played a huge part of the  AFLW growth in South Pacific Asia, and this could not be possible without a bit of love and commitment. It is sometimes easy for people to throw encouragement around, but it is not always smooth sailing when doing the little things right, consistently. For now, Hong Kong can be proud of the club they’re a part of and could even say the future of AFL is female…