Life’s all about change, and Youi’s the insurer for all the changes – big and small – that happen to you. That’s why the Brisbane Lions and Youi have teamed-up for the ‘Moments of Change’ series, where each week they’ll look back at some of the defining moments that have shaped the club you know today.
Sarah Kelly was always a rugby girl. League or union. Lang Park or Ballymore. It was a family thing. Until she got an ultimatum from her then boyfriend and now husband. It was ‘real footy’ or else. So he took her to a Bears game at Carrara, and as one romance flourished another began. She fell in love with AFL football.
That was 1991. Now 31 years on she’s a mother of four children to her AFL-loving husband, and Deputy Chair of the Brisbane Lions. A key part of the off-field team driving the club towards an exciting next era and a massive supporter of a much-admired Lions AFLW program.
And while Kelly is quick and strong in sharing credit far and wide for the Lions’ AFLW success, and insistent that her football passion is spread equally across the men and the women, there is no underplaying the significance of her involvement with the club.
It has been, just as it was when the young article clerk was being wooed by the then solicitor, a big moment of change for the Lions. Another piece in the off-field puzzle fundamental to the club’s resurgence in recent years.
As her bio says, Dr Sarah Kelly OAM is an Associate Professor in Law and Marketing at the University of Queensland specialising in sport and an experienced commercial lawyer, and a non-executive director across sport, tourism, technology, and professional services sectors. She is globally known for her research and consulting in the sports field and is also leading a research hub at UQ in Trust, Ethics and Governance.
Her current research projects are focussed upon esports, women’s sport, sponsorship strategy, sports integrity and mega-event legacy. She is the Queensland Chapter Leader for the Minerva Network, providing mentoring to professional sportswomen nationally, and was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2021 for service to sports administration and to tertiary education.
It’s a mouthful, but to exclude any of her credentials is to undersell the Kelly package, which not only takes in the Lions but this year saw her appointed to a prized position on the Board of the 2032 Brisbane Olympic Committee. She is also Deputy Chair of Tourism & Events Queensland among other board roles.
She has come a long, long way has the Sydney-born girl who moved to Brisbane as a youngster, grew up in Kenmore and Chapel Hill, attended Ipswich Girls Grammar School and insists these days she is “110% maroon”.
The oldest child and only daughter of prominent Brisbane businessman Clive Kitchen and his wife Yvonne, she was into netball, swimming and debating in her youth, and initially adopted her father’s football passion for the rugby codes.
But there was a family connection to AFL via her uncle Bob Gibbs and his family. He was a long-time president of the Queanbeyan Tigers Football Club in Canberra, which counts among its AFL products Michael Kennedy, who played 23 games with the Brisbane Bears from 1988-90, and Lindsay White, a champion Geelong and South Melbourne full forward who captained the Cats in 1945-48-50 and was the VFL’s leading goal-kicker in 1942 and 1948.
“We’d always get together as one big family at Bilinga (on the Gold Coast) at Easter or Christmas and then it was always about football and famous footballers and in summer cricket and tennis. But really our family just loved anything to do with big sporting events,” she recalled. “The Coolangatta Gold was a really fond memory.
After finishing school Sarah Kitchen studied law at UQ and was an article clerk when she started dating a young Brisbane solicitor whose father was an AFL tragic from Melbourne, was a long-term commercial QC and is now a Supreme Court judge.
It was a romance which she insists came to an early crossroads when he told her “I can’t date anyone who doesn’t follow real footy” and flourished after their first venture to a Bears game at Carrara was a raging success.
The romance survived ‘long distance’ while the young solicitor spent 12 months studying at the University of Oxford when, in pre-email days, they would correspond regularly via airmail letters which of course included all the latest football news.
Married in 1995, Sarah and Declan Kelly have four children – twins Lauren and Riley (24), son Jack (20) and Griffin (19) – and are a family that loves the Lions and the AFL.
Having graduated from UQ as a commercial lawyer and worked in a national law firm, Sarah went into the family business, which was heavily involved in the hotel game after her father, who died earlier this year, had bought and managed several hotels, including Wickham Hotel, Grand Central, the Belvedere and The Full Moon on the bayside, and the North Gregory Hotel in Winton.
She later did an MBA at UQ and then a PhD in sports marketing and its relationship with the law, and as her priorities changed the one-time lawyer slipped more and more into academic pursuits, with a strong sports marketing focus, because it suited better her busy family life and her sporting passion.
A long-time Lions member, Kelly had enjoyed the glory years of the 2001-02-03 premierships and seen the club through the dark times that followed until one day she received a phone call from then director Leigh Matthews, who floated the possibility of her joining the Lions Board of Directors.
She met first with Leigh Matthews, Lions Deputy Chairman at the time, and his fell director and close mate Mick Power at Manly, and later with Bob Sharpless, chairman at the time. “It was a thorough interview process, but we all got on really well. The club was pretty much at rock bottom and after having enjoyed so many good times with the club I was happy to help,” she explains.
In May 2014 Kelly joined the Board as an expertise director at the same time Andrew Wellington, now the Lions Chair, filled a casual board vacancy. As history now shows, it was like having picks #1 and #2 in the National Draft.
Kelly was quickly introduced by the AFL to Peggy O’Neal, who had been Richmond president since October 2013 and hosted a twice annual all-female dinner in Melbourne for women involved at Board and senior management level across all clubs.
“It was something that all women involved in the AFL as directors would always attend. At the time there were maybe 16 of us, but pre-Covid we’d got up to more like 40. It was a collaborative means via which we shared ideas on how we could help the game,” Kelly said.
Eleven months before Kelly joined the Board the AFL had taken the first steps down the AFLW path by staging an exhibition match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs – the first under the AFL banner. Another game was played in 2014, followed by two more in 2015.
Originally the League had announced aspirational plans for a national women’s competition by 2020, but when the second of the exhibition games of 2015 attracted a bumper free-to-air television audience there was a major re-think. The new preferred AFLW start date was 2017.
Kelly found herself a key part of a Brisbane ‘team’ that was going to make it happen after AFL boss Gill McLachlan had travelled to the Gabba to pitch the idea to the Lions.
But even before the club had formally secured an AFLW license Kelly had played a driving role in the formation of the ‘Women of the Pride’ coterie group, which she launched in conjunction with Christie Leppitsch, wife of then Lions AFL coach Justin Leppitsch, on 9 March 2015.
Cathie Reid, another important figure behind the ‘Women of the Pride’ launch before joining the Lions Board in February 2016, delivered the keynote address at the inaugural lunch. Other original drivers included Breanna Brock, Leonie Swan, wife of CEO Gregg Swann, Bev Warren, Sinead Hastie, Nicole Radice, Mel Lambert and Jody Lord, while Wendy Andrews, mother of AFL vice-captain Harris, Julie Bates, mother of AFLW star Emily, are now involved.
The Mission Statement of the group was: “A group of women with a shared passion for the Brisbane Lions working to promote the sporting and financial interests of the Club in a social environment”.
Key aims of the group were to grow membership and engage female members, fundraise for the club and our charitable partners, to provide a legitimate corporate networking option for local professional women, to engage and support players' partners and parents, and to support player welfare.
Very quickly the Lions had established themselves as market leaders in the AFLW space.
Breanna Brock, a one-time professional tennis coach and long-time women’s football advocate, was recruited to help with the Brisbane license application. Having been AFLQ Female Programs Co-Ordinator from 2003-16 she was a natural fit, and after the Lions were included in the inaugural eight-team competition on 15 June 2016 she was appointed Women’s CEO the following day ahead of the February 2017 start date.
Craig Starcevich, former Collingwood and Brisbane player who had been the Lions Strength & Conditioning Coach through the 2001-02-03 premiership run, was appointed inaugural Lions women’s coach.
And advocating strongly from the ‘inside’ was Emma Zielke, later to become the inaugural Lions women’s captain. Employed at the time as PA to Lions CEO Greg Swann, she had been a pioneer of women’s football in Queensland, which had long been regarded as second only to Victoria for quality and numbers.
“We were so lucky to have people like Bree, ‘Starce’ and ‘Zilks’ who were so passionate and so good at what they did. It was a huge ask to pull it all together so quickly from scratch and with the support of Swanny and the Board and the help of a lot of other people they did a fantastic job,” Kelly said.
Tayla Harris and Sabrina Frederick-Traub were the club's first signings, unveiled along with the League's other 14 marquee players on 27 July 2016, before a further 23 senior players and two rookie players completed the club's inaugural list.
In November Starcevich’s three assistant-coaches were appointed - 200-game Brisbane Lions fullback Daniel Merrett, ex-West Coast and Brisbane forward Brent Staker and dual AFLQ premiership coach, Queensland and PNG coach David Lake, who ironically was a former Fitzroy Under 19s and Reserves player.
On Sunday 5 February 2017 Brisbane played their first AFLW match against Melbourne at Casey Fields in Melbourne at 5.05pm. Even more so when they pulled off an upset 4-1 (25) to 1-4 (10) win in front of 6500 fans who braved wet and windy conditions. A proud day for all.
It was a match that will be remembered as much for a 12-minute delay late in the second quarter due to lightning as it will be for a magnificent defensive effort from the Lions to restrict the Demons to three points kicking with a strong wind in the first term and then hold them scoreless in the second half after Sunshine Coast-born Shannon Campbell, a one-time soccer player. had the distinction of kicking the team’s first ALFW goal after a 50m penalty.
The team for the club’s historic first match as named was:-
B: Sam Virgo, Shannon Campbell, Leah Kasler
HB: Tahlia Randall, Kate Lutkins, Breana Koenen
C: Megan Hunt
HF: Sabrina Frederick-Traub, Kaitlyn Ashmore, Kate McCathy
F: Shaleise Law, Tayla Harris, Jess Weutschner
R: Sharni Webb, Emily Bates, Emma Zielke (c)
INT: Nikki Wallace, Jamie Stanton, Nicole Hildebrand, Selina Goodman, Ally Anderson
EMERG: Jade Ransfield, Kate Deegan
Brisbane 0-0 2-0 2-1 4-1 (25)
Melbourne 0-3 1-4 1-4 1-4 (10)
Goals: McCarthy, Frederick-Traub, Campbell, Gibson
Leading Possession-Winners: Bates 13, Gibson 13, Anderson 12, Ashmore 12, Weutschner 12, Virgo 11, Hunt 10, Lutkins 10.
Best: Bates, Virgo, Frederick-Traub, Randall, Ashmore, Gibson
It was the beginning of a fine season in which the Lions topped the home-and-away ladder with a 6-1 record, thereby earning the right to host the 1 v 2 grand final. Originally scheduled for the Gabba, the match sadly had to be moved to Carrara when the club’s AFL headquarters was unavailable, and there Adelaide, coached by former Brisbane ruckman Matthew Clarke, won 4-11 (35) to 4-5 (29).
Emily Bates won the inaugural Lions AFLW Best & Fairest Award and was chosen in the All-Australian side with Frederick-Traub, Virgo, Harris and Kate McCarthy.
Another grand final appearance followed in 2018 before the Lions broke through for their first AFLW flag 2021, when Kate Lutkins was judged best afield in a 6-2 (38) to 3-2 (20) grand final win over Adelaide at Adelaide Oval.
Unashamedly, Kelly refers to the Lions AFLW team as “our $70m team”. Because without the women’s team the Lions would not have secured the Government and AFL funding which allowed for the establishment of Brighton Homes Arena, the club’s soon-to-open training and administration base at Springfield.
“As I keep reminding people, there is no way the club would have got that sort of money if it wasn’t going to be home for the women’s team and provide dedicated women’s facilities. Access to high performance is critical for women’s sport if we are going to succeed in moving the dial in realising the growth, commercial potential and social impact of women in sport.
“The women’s program has added so much to our overall program with things like new revenues, new fans, culture, media profile, community engagement and high-performance intelligence … it’s something that should never be under-estimated.”
“Half the Lions membership are women and most mothers run the household budget and decide on sporting participations for their kids and yet we weren’t talking to them,” she admits bluntly. “It just made sense and it worked really well. Interestingly, the AFLW has revealed new supporters – men, women, boys and girls – and will always be an important part of our club.”
As the AFLW team prepares for the expanded 2022-23 AFLW season in which all 18 AFL clubs will be represented for the first time, Kelly is especially keen on the strategic and planning side of football and says she is “really happy” with the state of the club and delighted to play her role.
“If I’m going to do something like this I’ve got enjoy it, I’ve got to feel like I can add value and I want to learn something.”
“I love everything that our club stands for … the challenges, the people, the volunteers and the impact we are having and will continue to have at grassroots level, talent pathways and professional levels.
“Professional football is just like grassroots football in so many ways … it has the same feel, everyone is so down to earth, and we trade on nicknames, banter and repartee. It’s a great working environment and I’m privileged to be part of it.”