Holding two AFLW seasons in one year was always going to be messy.
When season six ended with the sealing of an Adelaide Crows dynasty in April this year, rumours were already swirling that the following season would be pulled forward, beginning just a few months later.
After years of holding AFLW in the sweltering heat of the Australian summer — in search of somewhat-mythical “clean air” in the sporting calendar — headquarters, and many of the playing cohort, were keen to try something new.
One of head office’s hopes was that launching an AFLW season around the time of the men’s finals would encourage new and different fans to the women’s game.
It wasn’t until late May, however, that the official start date for the season — the pre-finals AFL bye — was confirmed, after protracted collective bargaining negotiations saw the players secure a much-deserved pay rise.
This meant that the four teams who were yet to enter the competition — Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney — were effectively given just weeks to pull their lists together, before completing rushed pre-seasons and going up against the hardened bodies of long-established teams.
As has been customary with AFLW for a long time, players and staff agreed to the changes with a fair dose of goodwill, up-ending and putting lives on hold for the greater good and growth of the competition.
The jury is out on whether the short-term pain will pay off.
Meanwhile, the AFLW’s head of football, Nicole Livingstone, is on record, saying that the switch to August was a success, and there are multiple reasons why the gamble was worth the risk.
Although many in the industry are exhausted and burnt out from running two seasons in 2022, it wasn’t viable to wait almost a year and half to run AFLW season seven in August 2023.
That would almost certainly have spelled the end of a multitude of the game’s much-loved veterans, including — potentially — now premiership captain Daisy Pearce.
There was also a plausible romanticism in the idea of making AFLW front and centre for AFL men’s fans to get behind because their teams missed or were bundled from finals and they entered their customary post-season malaise.
Season seven’s metrics — particularly crowd attendances — would suggest this is yet to occur, but there is something to be said for being patient, too.
After years of experimentation, including a deeply unpopular conference system, COVID-19 disruptions and more, the competition is owed some stability and time before those numbers can be judged too harshly.
AFL on borrowed time to professionalise
These concessions aside, the AFL is arguably running out of time to prove it is doing everything it can to help AFLW succeed.
It has had seven seasons to iron out the issues that have long grated with fans, but has, at times, seemed unwilling or unable to give the league the professionalism it craves.
The obvious example this season was the vexed decision to host the grand final at Springfield, which was not confirmed until little over a week before the biggest game of the season.
By tradition, AFLW’s minor premier earns hosting rights for the decider, and Brisbane had been on top of the ladder since round three, losing just one game all season.
That the grand final could be held in Queensland was not just foreseeable, but the most likely outcome.
Yet, in the same breath as announcing the logistics for a men’s “magic round” in 2023, the AFL appeared to have no answer for the question of where the game would be held.
With all due respect to Brisbane — and Springfield will make for an outstanding boutique AFLW stadium — the venue was not fit for a grand final, with a capacity of 8,000 and just 600 seats, especially not when the turf had only just been laid, and the stadium was yet to host a practice match let alone a grand final.
That posed too great a safety risk to players, and is a situation the AFL men’s cohort would never have found themselves in.
Once again, this is to take nothing away from Brisbane and the ground staff, who did an astonishing job of getting both the turf and amenities as ready as they could for grand final day.
The problem was the way the AFL handled the situation, which — as journalist Sam Lane put it on The W podcast — came across as “slapdash” and “made the whole thing look like amateur hour”.
However, the scheduling of the AFLW grand final is not the only issue that the league needs to address.
The first and most obvious is the integrity of the fixture, which can only be solved once the AFL commits to a full season where each team plays the other once.
Until then, and for those looking on, it’s often the little things that exasperate, such as the:
- ongoing inferior and inconsistent standard of umpiring
- lack of goal-line score review technology
- insistence that games be played at inaccessible suburban grounds when superior facilities — such as an AFL-owned Marvel Stadium — are available.
There is a balancing act to be had in taking the game to the outer suburbs and regions, and embracing the grassroots history of women’s football in this country.
However, there comes a point at which the league will need to show the public that the time for greater professionalism has come, that it is willing to hold games at the bigger stadiums, knowing that better change rooms, media facilities, technology and so on will have a flow-on effect on the product and public perception.
Timing of the essence with World Cup looming
With its stated aim of making the playing cohort professional by 2030 — and the AFLPA’s desire to bring that forward to 2026 — there’s a strong argument that that time is now.
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In a competitive sporting landscape, in fact, the timing may be more urgent with the growth football (soccer), in particular, is enjoying.
Next year, Australia and New Zealand will host a World Cup that is expected to draw record numbers of spectators and will capture hearts and minds.
Yet the AFL, at times, appears to misunderstand its own market: for example, by inexplicably scheduling the North Melbourne and Richmond semifinal at the same time as the Matildas’ Melbourne clash against Sweden just a fortnight ago.
To state the obvious, many fans of AFLW are also fans of the Matildas — and will generally support a variety of women’s sport.
Scheduling two AFLW semi-finals back-to-back, therefore, made little sense, unnecessarily splitting its potential audience.
The Matildas game — the first they had played in Melbourne since 2019 — would also go on to draw a crowd of 22,065, higher than any AFLW attendance figure this season.
While AFLW has proven it can pull crowds twice that size (for the grand final held at Adelaide Oval in 2019), the league likely needs to act now to build on any momentum that has been squandered since.
The most obvious way to do this is to up the professional standard, once everyone has taken a much-needed break.