The significance of playing at the MCG: A moment of recognition and celebration of women's footy

As soon as the announcement was made that the first ever AFLW game will be played at the MCG, the significance of it for so many was palpable.

Across Twitter, passionate fans called to "Fill the 'G" and excitement started to brew as many imagined themselves in the iconic stadium, watching Melbourne and Brisbane go head-to-head in a preliminary final.

Yes, the pies will be hot and beers cold (well, depending on the day, to be honest) but it's more than just an exciting and shiny stadium with famous stands: it's a recognition of the spectacle of the women's game and the passion that so many have for it.

Women haven't only just started playing football nor are crowds only now wanting to watch them - but rather female football has largely been boxed out from opportunities, resources and support to be able to develop and thrive.

There have long been women who've played Aussie Rules; they were just confined to charity matches, one-off exhibition games and scratch mates - and it dates back to the early 20th century.

In 2013, an exhibition match between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne even took place at the MCG and featured many players we now know as AFLW stars, including Daisy Pearce, Steph Chiocci, Ellie Blackburn, Karen Paxman and Emma Kearney.

Yet it wasn't until 2017 that a semi-professional female league in Australia was developed. And since then, crowds have shown up, skills have improved, ratings have risen and passion has grown.

This has included games at some of the country's largest stages, such as Western Australia's Optus Stadium and Brisbane's Gabba. And now, as Melbourne defender Libby Birch wrote in an op-ed earlier this year, it's time female players were given the chance to be a part of the MCG's prestigious history.

"Every football lover remembers seeing their favourite team run out onto the famous MCG," she wrote. "It is the beating heart of the sport and the place where fans gather to celebrate the titans of the game."

Additionally, as well as entering the MCG is credit for the players and the competition, it's also a great celebration for, and of, the fans of the women's game. Having the stadium renowned as the biggest one the men play on adds a sense of legitimacy in fandom that many have for the league.

AFLW is still, at times, criticised, mocked or just not taken that seriously. And being an avid supporter of the game isn't often treated with the same legitimacy as the men's competition.

And history has also demonstrated the love of the game is just as real and rightful as any the other noteworthy AFL games played on big stages.

In 2019, when the AFLW Grand Final was held at Adelaide Oval, the AFL granted free admission and hoped for a crowd around 25,000. Instead, 53,034 people flooded the stands and created the fifth highest ever attendance at the venue. It also surpassed the record for a stand-alone women's sporting event in Aus.

Prior to this, the first ever AFLW game match at Ikon Park had approximately 20,000 fans, a number the AFL weren't prepared for. They had to declare an official lockout, with Victoria Police asking the gates to be closed for safety reasons.

This resulted in an estimated 2,000 people outside the grounds, listening to the roar of the crowd inside. "There was this epic excitement," sports broadcaster Emma Race said at the time, as quoted in the National Museum of Australia. "And I don't think it waned - it felt like that for the whole game."

As history shows, when the AFL creates the chances, AFLW fans show up. As the saying goes, 'build it and they will come'. If you open the stadium gates, fans will enter.

Although, crucially and unfortunately in 2022, COVID will surely play a role in limiting crowds for this Saturday's match - some passionate fans have been forced into isolation for the week and others may stay away due to precaution against the virus. But yet there's still expected to be many in numbers and more watching from home.

And that same excitement for the first AFLW game, now matured and evolved, will be felt as the two sides run out to play on the biggest AFL stage this Saturday.

The winning side will head to a Grand Final the following week but every player that runs onto the MCG's turf this weekend will play an unforgettable and important part in the history of the game that keeps on growing. As will the coaches, the staff, the umpires and the fans that all participate in the momentous event.

And if you haven't bought a ticket yet - come and join in filling the 'G.