Fan Fave Steph Chiocci Talks Authentic Leadership and Footy Fandom
POPSUGAR has partnered with AFLW to celebrate women in sport and their impact beyond the field.
Steph Chiocci is a well-known face in the footy world. The widely-regarded Saint has witnessed the transformation and growth of the AFLW firsthand — from inaugural draftee, to captain, leader and fan-favourite — she continues to hold an unshakeable love of the game.
Born into a Carlton-loving family of Italian origin, Chiocci’s earliest footy memories are of family trips to Prince’s Park (now known as Ikon Park) to watch her beloved Blues.
“[We’d be] In the same green seats, at the opposite end to the Legends Stand, sitting there with my family and my Nonno, cheering on the Blues. We’d get there three or so hours earlier to watch the Reserves and then watch the Seniors,” Chiocci recalled. “I was absolutely obsessed. I went to the ‘93 Grand Final, with my face painted and I remember being at the ‘95 Grand Final too.”
Despite her rusted-on fandom, Chiocci only took up the sport in her teens, having just missed the age cut-off for the Youth Girls Competition. But her parents took some convincing before she was able to get her hands on a footy.
“I’d heard of the VWFL [Victorian Women’s Football League], but never got into it. I asked Mum and Dad if I could play when I was about 16 or 17 and they said ‘no, you’re still too slight and they’ll absolutely kill you’,” she said.
At the time, Chiocci was working at Rebel Sport. Her colleague, the captain of the women’s side at Diamond Creek Football Club, invited her down to join a training session. “I convinced my dad to let me go down to a training [session], and I went down there and just fell in love with it. I was 17, straight into the women’s competition — I actually won a flag in my first year.”
Her footy career built from there.
Along with claiming the VWFL North West Conference Premiership honours in that first season, Chiocci was awarded both her club’s Best and Fairest and the league’s Best First Year Player. A second Premiership came when the ‘Creekers’ overcame women’s footy institution Darebin in 2012, and for Chiocci, another Best and Fairest nod for her season.
The accolades held much significance for Chiocci, who revealed it was a particularly tough year for the footy club.
“That 2012 win was really significant. I think the ball just sort of fell our way that day, we were really prepared. It’s probably one of the best wins I’ve had in my career. And then we found out after the game, and in the weeks following, that our club actually was going bankrupt.”
Chiocci recalls that not even the senior leadership group at the time was aware of the trouble; and that it was their coach, Darren Logan who dug into his own pockets to help keep the club afloat.
“To win the Grand Final, and to then have people like Darren around the club and doing things like that — it was just even more significant, I won’t forget it.”
In 2013, as Chiocci puts it, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons wanted to “put on a bit of a clinic for women’s footy” and showcase their game to the broader AFL community. The Exhibition Series began, and Chiocci went pick number 2, to the Bulldogs, in the mini player draft.
“It was a really good opportunity to showcase the best players in the country on a big stage. And at that stage, we were talking about a 2020 AFLW competition with Gill McLachlan,” she recalls.
“It was a great experience. I got to play with some of the best players in the league — Bri Davey, Bianca Jakobsson, Nick Stevens, Kaitlin Ashmore — people that I’ve grown up playing against, I got to play with. I think that last game in 2016 where we won the Hansen Hardiman Cup, we played in front of 6000 people at Whitten Oval and there were over a million viewers on Channel 7.”
Chiocci believes it was the buzz and subsequent pathway opportunities the Exhibition Matches produced, that caused McLachlan to fast-track the national competition into creation, three years ahead of schedule. “He obviously brought that forward to 2017, so old people like me could actually play,” she laughs.
In 2017, after captaining her side at Diamond Creek for the previous 3 years — and playing for the club for 12 seasons — Chiocci was drafted to the AFLW. The life-long Blues fan went to Collingwood at Pick 11.
Most Carlton fans will regard this with horror; a promising young footballer drafted to their sworn on-field enemy, but Chiocci was grateful for the opportunity.
“There was talk of being selected with Carlton, Bulldogs and Collingwood, in the second round of picks. I knew the order, it went Collingwood, Bulldogs and Carlton. I was just really stoked to be picked up by the Pies, the biggest club in the land. I was overridden with emotion at the time, but I loved every second of it.”
Landing at Collingwood, Chiocci was immediately recognised for her leadership qualities, bestowed with the inaugural captaincy of the AFLW side. She held the role for her entire seven seasons with the Pies, and was joined by a co-captain in Bri Davey from 2021 onwards.
She quickly won the admiration of the club’s die-hard fanbase, the Magpie Army, with her clever goal sense and speed on the outside wing. Most of all, they connected with her easy-going and generous nature — a respected athlete, always happy to engage with her adoring fans. Chiocci is quick to acknowledge the significant connection, and its importance to both her and the development of the national competition.
“The fans are the crux of our game, aren’t they? And I think we’re seeing now, especially with the W, that we want to grow the game. It is a product that we want people to engage with it. And the fans are a massive, massive part of that,” she said.
“We can’t play our game without our fans — that’s the reality of it. I love engaging with them. I’ll always make sure I give back. I’d like to think that I will engage with everybody that will message me on the socials and I’ll make sure that I get around people at games. It’s really, really important to me.”
In both the men’s and women’s competitions, AFL clubs offer fans the opportunity to support their favourites through player sponsorship. The packages see extra financial support for the individual players, and fans receive boutique access to their club and player alike. This kind of fan engagement feels particularly pertinent in the AFLW— as the competition remains a part-time endeavour for many of its athletes.
Unsurprisingly, Chiocci has been sponsored since day one.
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve been sponsored by the same sponsor since day one at Collingwood — Ferny Harrison. I’m not too sure why she chose me. But, yeah, I’m very lucky, she’s very selfless in that. She gives herself to footy — she loves a lot of teams and a lot of different people. She absolutely loves the W game, and it’s brought her a lot of joy,” Chiocci says of Harrison.
“She’s pretty open when she talks about what it means to her. To have her as my sponsor, that is significant to me — and for eight seasons running. I don’t think there’s many other people that can say they’ve had the same sponsor for eight. And if it brings her joy, then I’m pretty happy to be running around with her as my sponsor.”
After 55 games in the black and white, Chiocci chose that eighth season in the AFLW to be one of change; making the choice to move to St Kilda during the league’s Sign and Trade Period. It was a tough decision, but one that promised a fresh start for the veteran.
“I absolutely loved every minute of being at the Pies, for seven seasons, and obviously captaining and co-captaining with Breezer. I just felt like I’d given everything I could to that footy club and that team, and it was probably time to for a change. I suppose with leadership comes a lot of selflessness at times, and I think it was time to sort of put me first,” she reflected.
“The fact that I knew people helped — I already knew Locky Harris (Assistant Coach, St Kilda), and Tessie McManus (Head of AFLW, St Kilda) who I had a good relationship with at Collingwood. I played with Nicola Stevens, and I knew their captain, Hannah Priest. Nicola Xenos was with us at Collingwood VFLW. I could really see a future there and see this group going somewhere. And, for me, it was more longevity in the game.”
Chiocci added a dash of red to her usual strip of black and white, and debuted for the Saints in Round 1 against North Melbourne, alongside fellow former Pie, Jaime Lambert. Her eperience was recognised with a spot in the leadership group, and she was a feature in every game up until Round 6 — when an awkward tackle saw her rupture her ACL. The debilitating injury has relegated her to the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Disappointed, but certainly not deterred, Chiocci took the unplanned turn in her stride; turning her focus to the impact she can make as an off-field leader. It’s clear that the foundation player sees it as an important part of her legacy in the game.
“I think leadership’s not something you really choose. I was really fortunate to be given those opportunities to lead. I’m very aware of where I’m at — I know I’m not the best player — and you don’t necessarily need to be the best player. You don’t have to tick all the boxes as a leader, that’s why you’ve got a leadership group. I took on that and did what I do really well — getting around people and being really personable and really genuine — leading by example. That’s what I try to bring at the Saints,” Chiocci said.
And if that’s something that people take on board, then great. If not, that’s ok too. Being authentically me and helping others, continuing to pave the way for future generations. And, you know, I’m an old girl, I’ve been around a long time — if I can help impart some knowledge to these younger kids then I think I’m doing my job.”
Despite the setback, it’s clear that Chiocci has boundless love for the game and those around her.
“I love playing football because I love playing alongside people who are goal orientated. But I actually just love the feeling of achieving something as a group. Even on a weekend when you’re not playing, the non-playing players are all together. We feel like we’re riding every bump, we feel every emotion and that pride you get when you have success,” she said.
“I think that’s the best part, those moments just after a win. The fun that you have, the elation. I think that’s the best, the absolute best.”