Nicole Livingstone is kicking goals as the AFLW CEO

Nicole Livingstone talks like someone who can't quite believe her luck. Animated and emphatic, she's days away from launching the third season of the AFLW, her second in charge and the first one to truly bear her mark. "Female athletes have always been here, since the turn of time," she says, "but now there's so much more focus on their achievements. To be a female athlete from a past era and to be involved in shaping the opinions and thought process of the community about women is, for me, beyond exciting."

The arrival of the AFLW in 2017 was, by some measure, the biggest single event in Australian women's sporting history. Almost overnight women's football went from a fringe pursuit played by a quixotic blend of amateur athletes and pub footy aficionados, to the most prestigious female sporting league in the nation. Women who gave up a couple of nights a week for a hobby were suddenly taking part in high intensity training camps and playing matches in front of tens of thousands of people. The message of that first season was clear: women's football is serious – and it's here to stay.

After the first season the number of registered teams grew by 76 per cent. The code now reports a player base of almost 500,000 girls and women, fully one-third of the national football-playing total. "I've got a little boy who's in grade six and he tells me about girls playing footy in the schoolyard with the boys and it being okay," says Livingstone. "We're seeing a generation that's going to grow up blissfully unaware that footy wasn't always for girls. That's pretty amazing."

Livingstone, who is a die-hard Carlton tragic, is the first to admit that CEO of the AFLW is an unlikely next chapter for her. A champion backstroker who took home medals at both the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, she spent much of the ensuing two decades carving out a successful and highly respected career as both a commentator and broadcaster. "I was aware from an early age that my swimming career would have an end point," Livingstone tells me. "I knew I couldn't just knock on the door of an employer and say 'I used to swim for Australia. Please employ me.' I had to work and plan for it."

A similar foresight has driven her more recent transition into sports administration. When the full-time TV contracts started drying up – "Male sports commentators get older, they're revered and wise. Women heading towards 50 are 'not optically pleasing for television'" – she returned to study and eventually ended up leading the Melbourne Sport and Aquatic Centre, a nationally regarded training ground that sent six swimmers to the Rio Olympics.

We're seeing a generation that's going to grow up blissfully unaware that footy wasn't always for girls.

When the opportunity to apply for the AFLW position came up, Livingstone decided that she'd take the meeting for the sake of her own professional development. "I figured it would be good experience," she laughs, "but then they kept calling me back for further interviews. Next thing you know it's just Gil [AFL CEO Gillon Mclachlan] and I, one-on-one, talking about women's football and women's sport, and what I could bring to the table."

When she was announced as the first CEO of the AFLW in November 2017, Livingstone inherited a competition going through significant growing pains. After the triumph of that first year, the second was always going to struggle to recapture the magic. Attendance waned and TV ratings declined. The grand final was rained out. When the game was criticised for its low scores, the AFL pushed out a series of tone-deaf memos that was seen to undermine the new competition. Then the only two female coaches in the league quit due to a lack of career advancement opportunities. They were replaced by men.

Yet from the AFL's perspective, the struggles of the second season were less a question of delivery and execution than they were messaging and expectation. "You can't please everybody," Livingstone tells me. "I think that's the biggest thing I've learned. And as long as we know that we've consulted with the people and players, the football pioneers, the football community and our corporate sponsors, and everybody feels aligned, then I have to back the decisions that we're making."

The 2019 season has been about resetting the agenda, starting with a marketing campaign that aims to reposition AFLW as a community-led force for change, in both sport and society. "Obviously everyone focuses on the season itself," says Livingstone, "but women's football is so much bigger than that. It's about the community, empowerment and fostering talent pathways." This latter angle has become a major focus for Livingstone, a key to both the professionalisation of the league and its long-term sustainability. "As of this year we have staff in every state and territory office that are specifically looking after women's talent development, which is a huge accomplishment for us."

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Livingstone is keenly aware of the scrutiny she's under. At times, she says, it can feel less like running a sporting league than it does a political movement. And at a cultural moment when women's issues are taking primacy like never before, she knows how frequently those efforts are found to be lacking. "Look, if I wasn't working for the AFL and I was an outsider looking in, I would probably have preconceived ideas as well," she laughs. But the complexity of the task she's been given defies knee jerk responses and grand gestures.

"We have a very long list of things that we know we need to do," she explains, "but I also have a budget that I bid for and that I need to stick to, so we have to prioritise. Managing expectation is a huge challenge. Just because we don't get to a particular issue on our list doesn't mean it's not a priority for us. It just means we're not there yet."

Not that she isn't awake to the inequities being shouldered by those who play the women's game. "I know first-hand what it means to be a fully professional athlete in body, mind, and soul, but never be compensated enough to be full-time," says Livingstone. "We know the women would like to play more and be paid more. Eventually, we will get to that. But it may take decades. It took the men decades."

Decades may be underselling it: it wasn't until 1972, 76 years after the first VFL match, that all the league's players were reported to be earning a living wage. Even in the early 2000s it remained common for rookies to take on a couple of days of work a week in order to supplement their meagre income.

For now, though, Livingstone has to be content with the first collective bargaining agreement of the AFLW era, hashed out late last year, which ensured that both men and women will be subject to the same minimum wage provisions. It's a beginning, but she knows the campaign is only getting started.

"I think we will look back in 10 years time and there'll be a sense of pride as to where we've taken AFLW, and women's football in general," she says. "I hope we'll see that women are equally valued to men both on and off the field. And if I can help be a crusader with that, and lead by example, then I'll be happy."

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