Women's footy pioneers set for AFL glory

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If fortune favours the bold, then to Debbie Lee it comes as no surprise Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs are on the verge of AFL glory.

The Dogs and Demons have embodied the spirit of fearless football throughout their different paths to this year's grand final.

But to Lee, both clubs showed their willingness to take one big risk when they were in the AFL doldrums some eight years ago.

In 2013, Melbourne's AFL team finished 17th while the Bulldogs weren't much better, landing in 15th.

But that year, those two AFL clubs pioneered top-level women's football by holding a draft, then an exhibition match - an initiative that grew over the following three seasons and led to the AFLW in 2017.

"(When you look at) where both clubs were at the time this initiative was put on the table, I'm sure there were internal conversations around 'well we need to get our investment right in our men's program before we bring a women's football team in,'" Lee told AAP.

"But just the intuition and the ability to do the right thing for the sport but also for the club, and clearly they could see a pathway of benefit to the club as well - growing supporter base, growing commercial assets.

"Now, that wasn't the main focus, but there was an opportunity for that to become an outcome.

"But equally, it was a risky business decision at the time, because we didn't have any data or understanding of what the outcome would be - (though) I was pretty sure what the outcome would be.

"But as a result, it's been phenomenal for both clubs and both clubs deserve that kudos, because they took a risk and they were foundation clubs and they should be celebrated for the creation of AFLW."

The Bulldogs have since won the 2016 AFL premiership and the 2018 AFLW premiership, while Melbourne have also come on in leaps and bounds, though success has eluded both the Demons' top teams.

But to Lee, the impact of concerted, genuine efforts to embrace the women's game on a club is intangible.

"Footy clubs are a snapshot of your community and now we've got a true representation of that," Lee said.

"We represent both genders, across four programs (AFL, AFLW, VFL, VFLW). It's a strength of the club, it's in terms of culture, it's fantastic in terms of the representation, the different lenses both programs bring, and the different learnings.

"Because you've got more people involved, different genders involved at the same time, there's a different perspective and a different lens and that only can benefit your organisation.

"... We've seen the outcomes the clubs that have had a women's team (gain) from an organisation point of view, an environment point of view and a revenue point of view - how that's been of benefit."

It will also be the first time two clubs with female presidents face off in the season decider.

Kylie Watson-Wheeler and Kate Roffey head up the Dogs and Demons respectively, joining Richmond's Peggy O'Neal as women in the top job.

It's something that doesn't surprise Lee, having seen first-hand the "genuine and authentic approach they've had to women in sport".

Lee was the Bulldogs' community manager from 2005-2008, then crossed to Melbourne in 2009 to head up their community program.

She drove women's football while at the Demons, then led their women's program, before returning to the Dogs as general manager of women's football in 2017.

Just weeks after becoming the first woman inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, Lee, a legendary player and administrator in her own right, will relish watching the two clubs face off.

"Obviously I'm going for the Bulldogs - I'll make that very clear," Lee said.

"But they're two great clubs that really have shaped a different lens for football and had the ability to change what our football code looks like."

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