Women & Girls Conference aims to grow the game

Spreading the message that football has a place for women and girls is the goal of a conference being hosted by Football Canada this weekend.

“A lot of women don’t think there’s a spot for them in football, which is not true,” said Katie Miyazaki, manager of competitions and athlete development with Football Canada. “I don’t think there’s a lot of awareness in the pathways for football for women and girls, compared to boys.”

That perception is something Shannon Donovan, Football Canada’s executive director, hopes to change with the Women and Girls Football Conference, a virtual event being held this Saturday and Sunday. The conference features a range of speakers including players, coaches, and women who have made a career in professional football.

“The goal is we want to help associations, as well as parents and girls, know about the opportunities within football for women and girls, as well as provide associations information if they are looking to start girls’ or women’s programs,” said Donovan. “We’re really hoping to provide something for people to walk away with that they can use.

“Part of the schedule focuses on regional discussions, so it’s a closer to home and they can ask more specific questions. Then we do have some national discussions with either national team players or sports phycologists or officials.”

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Morgan Turner (middle), who plays kicker and d-line for the Regina Riot tackle football team, poses with her teammates in a 2018 photo (Courtesy: Living Light Fine Art )

There are women’s tackle football leagues on the prairies, in Atlantic Canada and there’s a team in Quebec. There also are programs for women to play touch and flag football.

“There has been significant growth over the last 10 years or more,” said Donovan.

Between 2014 and 2018, Football Canada says the number of female under-18 tackle players grew from 322 to 809 while flag football increased from 3,652 to 7,252.

On the senior side, there are just over 600 women participating in tackle leagues across the country while 1,500 are playing non-contact football.

“Our women and girls flag programs have exploded over the last 10 years and is one of our main growth areas,” said Donovan.

“It’s another option outside of soccer. There are more opportunities now for all girls and leagues and teams, so they’re not having to necessarily play with the boys. It’s a safe sport option as far as low-cost, no equipment.”

Flag football, both men’s and women’s, will be part of the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, AL. and there is a movement to have the sport included at the Olympics, said Donovan.

The success of tennis players like Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez, the Olympic champion women’s soccer team and Olympic medalist swimmers Penny Oleksiak and Kylie Masse have shown the growth in Canadian women’s sports.

Donovan said many women are still discovering tackle football.

“It wasn’t the norm and now that they’re seeing the women’s leagues growing they also want to experience it,” she said. “We are a very inclusive sport so there are opportunities for all girls and women of different sizes. Nobody is really denied when they come to try out for a tackle football team because we have the opportunity to give everybody a chance.”

Miyazaki grew up in Saskatoon playing tackle football in high school and then went on to play for the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.

“I just loved that football, especially on the tackle side, it’s great for a diverse group of people,” she said. “There’s a position for everyone and that’s what initially drew me to tackle football.

“I’ve always loved watching football. It’s just such a unique sport and there’s such a different skill set that each position needs. I find that a lot of fun.”

Miyazaki later switched to flag football. She is a member of Canada’s national team, scheduled to compete at the 2021 Flag Football World Championships this December in Jerusalem.

Besides growing the sport at the grassroots level, Donovan hopes this weekend’s conference highlights career opportunities for women in football.

Laurence Pontbriand (seen here and in the top photo) has played for Team Canada and is the coordinator of football operations at the CFL. She’ll speak at the women’s and girls online football conference (Photo: Football Canada)

Among the speakers is Molly Campbell, who is entering her ninth season with the Calgary Stampeders and is the team’s director of football administration; Laurence Pontbriand, the CFL’s coordinator of football operations; Saadia Ashraf, a former Team Canada quarterback and current national team coach; Heather Bury, equipment manager with the Saskatoon Hilltops of the Canadian Junior Football League; athletic therapist Michelle Keene; and Miyazaki.

“We’re definitely seeing more and more women within the game, and not just in a traditional position but actually around the football operations or the technical side of the game,” said Donovan. “I think with more women and girls playing and getting involved in the game, we’ll see women breaking other barriers in the sport, either as players or as officials or coaches within the CFL, NCAA and the NFL.”

People interested in attending the conference can register on Football Canada’s Facebook or Instagram accounts.

Early reaction from people about the conference has been positive.

“People are excited about the lineup,” said Donovan. “They’re happy that we are doing regional sessions so it’s information that they really take back. Also, we have a good lineup of speakers.

“The feedback has been good so far.”

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