Kate Surman reaches for the football amongst a pack of Port Adelaide and Essendon players

AFLW player Kate Surman feels ‘uncomfortable’ calling herself an athlete. Here’s why

At 31 years of age, Kate Surman has played 40 games of AFLW across five seasons and three clubs.

But the experienced forward still struggles to call herself an athlete.

“I feel uncomfortable saying that,” Surman says.

“I think once the season gets to at least 12 games, I’ll be a bit more comfortable with saying I’m an athlete.”

Surman has played 40 games of AFLW across three clubs. (AFL Photos via Getty Images: Josh Chadwick)

Last year, the AFL Women’s competition expanded to include teams representing all 18 AFL clubs.

Yet, as it stands, there are only 10 rounds of regular competition.

That compares to 24 rounds of the AFL men’s competition, after an extra round was introduced this year.

Ideally, Surman would like to see AFLW expand to 17 rounds, to enable all teams to play each other once.

As per the recently-announced Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the number of AFLW games will increase to 12 in 2025, but further increases are yet to be promised.

Surman references a recent podcast in which controversial former AFL player Wayne Carey claimed he “can’t take [AFLW] seriously”.

“Because AFLW is only ten rounds, I look at it as a Mickey Mouse competition,” Carey said on The Truth Hurts.

“I think that’s a pretty fair comment,” Surman says.

“He’s not devaluing our product; he’s saying give them more games.

“You’re not giving AFLW legitimacy if the season is only 10 games.”

Players will find it harder to balance work and football

Having now represented the Gold Coast Suns, Port Adelaide and Geelong across five seasons, Surman is in a unique position to assess the way the competition has evolved.

Kate Surman reaches for the football amongst a pack of Port Adelaide and Essendon players

Surman played one season for Port Adelaide before crossing to Geelong. (AFL Photos via Getty Images: Sarah Reed)

While she notes that it is difficult to compare across clubs, she says “professionalism has gone up” broadly.

“All the skill levels have gone up. And I’ve noticed we’re playing more intelligent footy; smarter footy instead of just ‘surge’ footy.

“I think that’s where we’re gonna start seeing those people who are like ‘oh I don’t watch women’s footy’ get behind us.

“Like after we played round one this season, a lot of people came up and said, ‘oh, you guys were actually pretty good.’”

Surman argues the previous CBA, in which players received a 94 per cent pay rise, has made a significant difference.

Put simply, Surman says, “more money means more time.”

Kate Surman handballs the ball at Geelong training at Alberton Oval

Increased wages for AFLW players have allowed them to spend more time training. (AFL Photos via Getty Images: Sarah Reed)

As the competition trends towards full-time professionalism, however, she envisions some growing pains.

As it stands, most players continue to balance part-time work with football.

Surman, for example, works 30 hours a week as a physio in an aged care facility.

Under the new CBA, AFLW players will receive an average wage of $60,000 in 2023, rising to $82,000 in 2027.

But as Surman explains it, as the players are paid better, there is also an expectation that they prioritise football full-time.

This includes attending training sessions during ‘routine’ work hours.

“It just means players are going to have to limit the amount of work they do [outside of football],” she says.

“I just think it means you’ll lose some of the 25 to 27-year-olds who have established careers and can’t really afford to only have the one wage, if they’re paid at the lower end of the scale.”

She also cites concerns about the resourcing of coaching and support staff.

As it stands, few AFLW employees (such as physiotherapists and other medical staff) are employed in a full-time capacity, with many ‘doubling up’ across both the men’s and women’s programs.

Senior coach Dan Lowther addresses the Geelong AFLW players

Surman wants to see more resourcing for AFLW support staff, including coaches such as Geelong’s Dan Lowther.(AFL Photos via Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

“They can increase our hours, and our pay, but where’s the support coming from?”

Why Surman plays for Geelong, but lives on the Gold Coast

Surman is aware that at 31, she will retire as one of a pioneering generation who faced unique challenges.

In a situation that will likely no longer be feasible when players become full-time, she currently lives on the Gold Coast despite playing for Geelong in regional Victoria.

She describes it as a “six months on, six months off” arrangement, where she arrives in Victoria a couple of weeks before pre-season, and departs after the season ends.

Kate Surman of the Gold Coast Suns talks to supporters on the boundary line

Surman played three seasons for the Gold Coast Suns, before being traded to Port Adelaide. (AFL Photos via Getty Images: Kelly Defina)

In doing so, she leaves behind her partner Brett and their labradoodle Doug for half a year at a time.

“We’re lucky enough that our relationship is strong enough for it to work,” Surman says.

Were she in her mid to late 20s, Surman says, she would consider moving permanently.

However, Brett only recently started his plumbing business, and they own a house together in Queensland.

“We’re very settled … and he understands that it’s a dream for me to play for Geelong.”

That dream goes back to childhood, when Surman grew up with a family of “massive” Cats supporters in Ballarat.

Kate Surman attends a Geelong family day as a child

Surman grew up supporting the Geelong Cats. (Supplied: Geelong Football Club)

She remembers attending games at a standing-room-only Kardinia Park, and idolising the men’s team.

“I had the woollen jumper, and a CD with all the Geelong songs on it,” she says.

“I even knew the second verse of the theme song.”

Footy stigmatised as a ‘butch’ sport

But despite her passion for football, Surman never played football as a kid (outside of Auskick).

“Obviously there were no pathways,” she says.

“But you also can’t deny the stigma that comes with playing football [as a girl].

“I guess it was considered more of a ‘butch’ sport. I was definitely still more of a tomboy, but it had that more ‘masculine’ vibe.”

Kate Surman of Port Adelaide tackles Emma Kearney of the Kangaroos

Surman says she was put off playing football by the “stigma” of it being a “butch” sport.(AFL Photos via Getty Images: Sarah Reed)

The stigma initially turned Surman off playing.

“I’m a bit shattered that I didn’t start footy sooner,” she says.

“I’ve had this discussion with a couple of people who were the same, and they were kicking themselves a little bit that they didn’t start earlier.”

Surman went on to pursue basketball instead, before eventually coming back to football after the first season of AFLW.

A friend was selected as a top-up player for Carlton, which inspired her to come back to the game she loved.

She started with local footy at Maroochydore, before eventually being drafted by the Suns.

“I’m just grateful, because a lot of people didn’t even get a chance,” Surman says.

Kate Surman meets the Geelong mascot as a kid at Kardinia Park

Surman pursued basketball over football, given the lack of pathways available to girls. (Supplied: Geelong Football Club)

‘It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come’

That doesn’t mean she isn’t jealous of those starting their footballing journeys now.

“I’m definitely a bit jealous, because they’ve got so much more of a sense of ‘one day I’m gonna be able to do this’.

“But then I’m also very lucky because I had the opportunity to work.”

Surman says she’s determined not to take her career for granted:

“I never thought I’d be doing this, let alone playing for Geelong.

“I think when you’re around footy for a while, it can become the norm. It’s like flying first class all the time, the first time it’s amazing but when you do it regularly it doesn’t become as exciting.

“I have my own jumper; my name is going to be on the wall in the change rooms. I’m going to be able to come into the club any time I want.

“Obviously we’ve got to fight for more, and make sure of our future, but it’s also worth remembering how far we’ve come.

“The men had to do this at some point, and that’s where we are at the moment. It’s very exciting.”



Author: Russell White