Fairy floss cloud wisps across a twilight sky, merging peach and aqua hues over Sydney’s west. In the east, a cluster of silhouettes huddle in a circle on a rectangular football field.

The figures cut various shapes: some shorter, some taller. Many with ripped arms or bulging hamstrings, clad in an assortment of green and white, the colours of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Raiders gridiron club.

Daylight may be dipping on Tuesday night training, but the women of this gridiron gang — the “Raidy Ladies” — are hoping their code’s time in the Australian sun is only just kicking off.

“There’s definitely increasing hype around American football here in Australia,” Renae ‘Red’ Hahn says.

A player for 10 years in the UNSW Raiders team, Hahn has represented Australia at the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Championships.

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“There’s increasing knowledge as [American] football becomes more popular on TV and social media,” Hahn says.

“Unfortunately, many people still assume it’s only played by men.”

‘Some people think it’s comical that women play’

Hahn, 30, plays the position of tight end: one of the players tasked with wrestling the opposition’s defence then breaking away to receive a ball thrown by the quarterback. She’s easily noticed on a field by the fiery red hair poking out from under her helmet.

However, while Hahn would usually be out there in the thick of tonight’s training, she’s been sidelined after suffering a freak accident in a game two weeks ago and breaking her leg.

Renae Hahn wrestling the opposition's defence then breaking away.
Renae Hahn was one of five Australian women to play in the US Women’s National Football Conference earlier this year.(Supplied: Jim Walker Photography)

Instead, she’s assistant coaching on crutches while her team prepares for its grand final game this Saturday, the season’s culmination known as the Opal Bowl. The Raiders will face off against defending premiers and arch-rivals the Northern Sydney Rebels at Easts Rugby Club.

“Unfortunately, there are some people who still think it’s a little bit comical that women play [American] football,” Hahn says.

“People say: ‘It’s not a girls’ sport’. Some say: ‘Oh why are you doing that to your body?’ when you’ve got a bruise.

“Yeah, I’ve had all the sexist comments. We’re still changing the narrative in a lot of people’s minds.”

A UNSW Raiders player attempts to catch the ball.
The Raiders want to change the narrative and let people know that gridiron is a game for all.(Supplied: Jim Walker photography)

A glance at Hahn’s X-rays tells the story: This is no powder puff football league.

Hahn and her teammates play full-tackle gridiron, with all the body slams, impressive catches, dives, throws and displays of strength and athleticism that enthrals fans of the multi-billion-dollar men’s National Football League (NFL).

It’s a far cry from the — non-contact — state league representative netball that Hahn played as a child.

Earlier this year, Hahn was one of five Australian women to make history by moving to the United States to play in the burgeoning US Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), the semi-professional, women’s equivalent of the NFL.

She and her teammates received subsidised housing, gym access and professional coaching under an international talent program.

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However, unlike the NFL — in which stars earn upwards of $US40 million ($59 million) per year — women in gridiron are not paid. Hahn saved up to make the move and worked day jobs while training and playing.

No stranger to fundraising, Hahn has previously had to set up GoFundMe pages to pay to represent Australia in the Gridiron World Championships.

Major sponsors — including Adidas and Bose — are reportedly beginning to invest millions in the US women’s league, under chief executive Odessa Jenkins’ plan to get women paid professionally in under five years.

However, here in Australia, gridiron will need to move fast to keep up with other codes already paying women.

Growth of the women’s game in Australia

Hahn’s coach, Dane Robertson, was the founding coach of the first UNSW Raiders’ women’s team in 2012.

The pair began dating that year and are still together, having impressively navigated the challenges of a player-coach relationship: “not without hiccups”, Hahn says with a laugh.

Dane Robertson speaks to his team at a break.
Dane Robertson was the founding coach of the first UNSW Raiders women’s team in 2012.(Supplied: Jim Walker Photography)

Robertson says Australian women’s gridiron grew rapidly in its early years.

Talented code-hoppers — including the nation’s most-capped rugby union Wallaroo Liz Patu — took up the game to stay fit between seasons.

Another Wallaroo, Victoria Latu, played NRLW for the Sydney Roosters while also taking the field for the Northern Sydney Rebels gridiron team.

One of the Raiders’ youngest players — Cheyenne Dicker, 18, from the Central Coast — is a talented rugby player who has just accepted a full-board scholarship to play and study at America’s prestigious University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

However, Robertson says, gridiron has recently struggled to compete for talent with codes that are professionalising.

A UNSW Raiders player runs with the ball.
With other football codes now paying players, gridiron is struggling to keep talent.(Supplied: Jim Walker photography)

“At one point we were peaking with talent among women who were jumping on board because the season runs uniquely between rugby league season and other sports [such as] basketball,” Robertson says.

“Ladies who had just come off a rugby season would start to explore this other sport and find they were pretty good at it.

“Then other football codes started paying women to play. The AFLW and NRLW started offering paid contracts and we saw this big shift in the talent being attracted to other codes.”

‘A game for all shapes and sizes’

The 2022 broadcast audience for the Super Bowl peaked at 1.87 million viewers in February, indicating a clear appetite for the game in Australia.

However, while viewer numbers are exploding, participation numbers have crept along slowly since 1979, when the Waverley Oval Raiders — the precursor to the UNSW Raiders — formed Australia’s first men’s team.

A UNSW Raiders player defends
There are about 70 gridiron teams across Australia.(Supplied: Jim Walker photography)

Gridiron Australia reports about 3,500 current playing members in 70 teams across the country. It’s not a massive number.

Green shoots are more obvious in the hundreds of registered volunteers surrounding the game to aid its development: There are 226 coaches, 394 volunteers and 59 officials involved.

Gridiron Australia chief executive Wade Kelly adds there is “huge potential” for flag football — a version of non-contact gridiron — could become an Olympic sport in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

That could be a valuable incentive to drive growth in the women’s game.

Paul Manera — 2022 offensive coach of the NSW women’s gridiron team the Coyotes — says athlete diversity is key to gridiron’s wide-ranging appeal.

A women's gridiron player goes to catch the ball
Players want the opportunity to play in a professional women’s gridiron league.(Supplied: Jim Walker photography)

Manera was a college athlete and coached gridiron at the University of Hawaii. He introduces junior gridiron and flag football to schools across NSW through his school sport business Bring It On Sports.

“Many women really enjoy the fact that this is a game for all shapes and sizes,” Manera says.

“In gridiron, you need big people and small people. You need fast and agile people, but you also want people who like to knock players over and be physical.

“There are positions for those who like to run down the field and catch, or quarterbacks, who like to throw.

A UNSW Raiders player gives a thumbs up.
Women are not paid to play gridiron, but want that option, just like in other football codes.(Supplied: Jim Walker photography)

“I often compare American football to athletics — every position is a different event and can attract different types of athletes.”

It may be a sport for everyone but the women’s game, undeniably, has an enormous way to go to reach the extreme heights and pay potential of the NFL, where Tom Brady is on a salary of $US30 million ($45 million).

However, the Raidy Ladies say they are moving in the right direction. Their mission to win this weekend’s Opal Bowl game is one short drive towards a fabled end zone: the opportunity to play in a professional women’s gridiron league.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Kate Allman is a Sydney-based journalist and sports broadcaster. In 2022, she was a finalist for the Walkley Award for Women’s Leadership in Media for her work as co-founder of the Equal Pay for Equal Play campaign. She has a law degree and is passionate about increasing visibility, fair pay and conditions for women in sport.