Formed in 1877, the Victorian Football Association (VFA) was the first formal organisation set up to control Australian Rules football. By the 1890s, dissension between the clubs was threatening to divide the Association. A suggestion by VFA Secretary Thomas Marshall that the Association take control of club finances and give the bulk of revenue to charity proved to be the final straw and eight of the wealthier clubs seceded in 1896 to form the Victorian Football League (VFL).
The VFA had lost four other clubs to the VFL by 1925 but continued to grow throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Although its strongest club was the inner-suburban Port Melbourne, which had joined in 1886, most of its clubs represented the outer and developing suburbs. Brighton and Northcote joined in the first decade of the 20th century, Coburg, Camberwell, Oakleigh and Sandringham during the 1920s. Box Hill, Mordialloc, Dandenong and Frankston were outer-suburban clubs admitted to the VFA in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Association experimented with various innovations to the game, including 16 players, an order off rule, a free kick for a ball out of bounds, two substitutes for injured players, and medical attendants at the ground. Relations between the VFL and the VFA were very often hostile, the main source of conflict being over players transferring from one competition to the other.
Many famous VFL players finished their careers playing or coaching in the VFA, including Roy Cazaly, Bob Skilton and Bob Pratt, who kicked 183 goals in 1941. In 1945, Ron Todd, who had left Collingwood Football Club in the prime of his career and crossed to Williamstown without a clearance, kicked 188 goals. Other VFL champions, such as Kevin Sheedy, Wayne Johnston and Peter Bedford began in the VFA before joining VFL clubs. Pastor (Sir) Doug Nicholls played for Northcote after Carlton Football Club had rejected him on racial grounds.
During the 1970s, the final years in which the VFA drew large crowds, its most colourful players were those who had not had successful VFL careers such as Jim 'Frosty' Miller and Fred Cook. With its more relaxed atmosphere, the VFA promoted itself as family entertainment, but part of its appeal was a greater tendency to fights and vigorous contact. The VFA represented local football and it is not surprising that its two best-known officials were also both prominent in local government. J.J. Liston, after whom the VFA's best and fairest medal was named, was VFA president from 1929 to 1943 and served seven terms as mayor of Williamstown. Alec Gillon, VFA president 1954-81, also served multiple terms as mayor of Brunswick.
From 1960 the VFA began to play games on Sundays, with the match of the day televised from 1967. As a result the competition enjoyed increased popularity and by 1983 had grown to two divisions comprising 24 teams. However, its success was not to last. The VFL, which had been prevented by State laws from playing on Sundays, circumvented these restrictions after South Melbourne Football Club had transferred to Sydney and Channel 7 broadcast the game to Melbourne. The subsequent repeal of restrictions on VFL Sunday play and the inflation of player salaries and other costs led to the decline of the VFA in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1994, the VFA effectively ended its separate existence and became a subordinate competition of the Australian Football League (AFL). Renamed the Victorian Football League in 1996, from 2000 all but three clubs (Frankston, North Ballarat and Tasmania) functioned as Reserve teams for the ten Melbourne-based AFL clubs.