AFLW as a side hustle: How work, life and everything is impacted

Round 3 of the AFLW's season seven is upon us and as the injury-riddled cohort of the women's competition push through a 10-round season, the effect which severe injury has on the players' lives becomes vastly clearer.

With multiple ACL injuries across the league already and a gruesome double leg break for Bulldog Brit Gutnechkt, the lifestyle implications these debilitating injuries have on part-time athletes is vast, affecting their ability to go to the jobs they must keep to subsidise the AFLW salary.

Disney+ documentary 'Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW' explores this, delving into the semi-professional league and the women who are expected to perform like full time athletes, while holding down a career outside football.

Collingwood skipper Steph Chiocci articulates the complications perfectly, when referencing the harrowing moment her co-captain Brianna Davey ruptured her ACL in the final quarter of the Magpies' 19-point victory over Carlton in January.

"In the commentary we heard Bec Goddard say it's not just her football career, it's her life that's impacted by that injury and it's so very true," she told ESPN.

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"I've actually taken leave without pay for the remainder of the year, so I'm juggling that quite well at the moment but in the past I haven't done that - I've had to work and play football and it just became way too challenging. There's plenty of girls that do it."

Chiocci is a school teacher herself, and although believing she is privileged to play the sport she loves, the 33-year-old expresses her hope that players will soon be paid enough to solely focus on football, so they can take the league to the next level.

"We've got girls that are paramedics, nurses, work in factories and things like that that are up at who knows what time and doing shift work, and it's just a struggle at the moment," she explained.

One of those is North Melbourne's Grace Campbell, who travels between work and football while she works as a critical care nurse in Bendigo.

Another is Richmond's Courtney Wakefield, who balances being a mother of two and a farmer on her south-west NSW sheep property.

In Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW, we are given insight into Adelaide's Abbie Ballard who takes us to her family pig farm in her hometown of Coomandook, South Australia. With exhausting four-hour round trips from the country to the Crows' training sessions three times a week, Abbie's family hope the sacrifice will finally pay off, as the 19-year-old has been pushing for selection.

Her dream finally comes true with an emotional phone call from senior coach, Matthew "Doc" Clarke. It's a victory to be selected into an indomitable Crows side but the travel and other commitments mean the sacrifice isn't over for Ballard.

With the new collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated in the offseason, players have been handed an average rise of 94% in pay brackets, meaning, for the league's top performers, this may be the first time they can commit to footy full-time, factoring in sponsorship deals as well.

While it's an improvement, the top tier players will still only receive $71,935 (previously $37,155), a far cry from the top paid male athletes, with Dustin Martin, Lance Franklin and Jeremy McGovern reported to have been on more than $1.2 million in 2021.

For others, lower down the pecking order and balancing demanding work, study and personal schedules to make ends meet will continue to be a fine art, with the lowest tier bumped to earn $39,184 (previously $20,239). It's a tangible challenge across the league as players conduct media interviews in the car on their way to training from a full day's work, or from the line at childcare to pick up their kids, unable to attend traditional media calls in the middle of the day at the drop of a hat.

GWS defender Pepa Randall works as a carpenter when she's not playing for the Giants and admits it was a struggle initially to find a boss who was prepared to be flexible about combining a full time job with the constant demands of the AFLW.

This is something Randall will now need to balance with the recovery of rupturing her ACL just this week, during the second quarter of the Giants' Round 2 loss to Brisbane on Sunday. Something Hawthorn ruck Tamara Luke, St Kilda's Jayde Van Dyk and Gold Coast forward Jaimee Stanton will also need to navigate after also falling victim to knee injuries during Sunday's slate of matches.

Chiocci said of the first ever AFLW game that there was an overwhelming sense of "this is bigger than a game, this is bigger than us" - a sentiment widely shared across the AFLW's most decorated players.

Davey also said she plans to "leave the game in a better place than where we found it", which gives hope to the up and comers for where their professional football careers may sit in coming years.

With the AFLW at the forefront of celebrating diversity and inclusion and redefining gender norms, the six-part documentary explores the journey, sacrifice and history in the making, as the trailblazing women of the AFLW pave the way in professional sport and help change the sporting and cultural psyche of Australia.

Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW is now streaming, only on #DisneyPlus.