AFLW brings positives for sport
As I stand on the hot pavement under Casey Fields stadium, it strikes me how different the world of AFLW is from that of AFL “M”. It’s the Melbourne Demons versus Fremantle Dockers match in the opening round – we’re 55 kilometres from the MCG, 20 minutes from anything that resembles public transport, and the cricket is on the radio. It’s 38 degrees in the shade, there’s an inflatable waterslide towering over the outer, and the lingering smell of the Grantville bushfire in the air. As far from winter as you can get. But the weather is the least of the differences. The standout moment for me was last year, watching Carlton’s Darcy Vescio, in full kit, signing autographs for two little girls in Collingwood jumpers, an hour-and-a-half after the game had ended. She hadn’t left the field. And those little girls didn’t care that she wore a different jumper.
That’s women’s footy. That’s the AFLW.
After the huge success of the inaugural season that took some – including the AFL – by surprise, the 2018 follow-up was somewhat muted. Plagued by questions around insipid marketing, suspicions that the AFL was making it up on the run – epitomised by a leaked memo forcing rule changes in response to a single, low-scoring match – and a subsequent drop in attendances, there was deep frustration among fans but also, for the first time, players. This was exacerbated by the AFL’s decision to run a lavish, heavily marketed “football lite” AFLX series for men in the middle of the AFLW season.
In 2019, the AFL seems determined to redress some of the damage of 2018 with the launch of the GenW campaign, featuring motivational images of girls, women, boys and men, embracing the game. Women’s football head Nicole Livingstone was on the front foot doing the rounds of the media in the lead-up to the launch and GenW billboards were positioned at key intersections around the country. Once the AFLW found the much vaunted “clean air” the previous year lacked, the competition has featured on social media and TV.
The biggest change, however, is in the structure of the competition, with a new system introduced to allow for two additional clubs – North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos and Geelong Cats. Conferences A and B were drawn from last year’s ladder based on results, with designated “crossover games” scheduled to make the most of traditional rivalries and tentpole matches. The jury is still out on whether the schedule will produce the best-quality games, particularly given aggressive trading in the off-season. North was able to lure away marquee players, including competition MVP Emma Kearney, face of AFLW 2017 Moana Hope, and 2017 All Australian Emma King. The loss of high-profile champion Daisy Pearce, while she takes time out to have twins, plus Melissa Hickey’s new role as captain of Geelong, leaves Melbourne a vastly different team to the quality outfit of 2018.
On the upside, the opening weekend’s results suggest the changes might produce something closer to the high-scoring, fast-moving game the AFL covets. The rule changes, most of which apply to the men’s game, too, are having an immediate effect – and the level of skill has improved markedly, as predicted. The rule changes particular to the AFLW produced better-looking football, too. The exclusion of the “last touch rule” from the 50-metre arcs and bringing the boundary throw-in an extra 10 metres in worked to force the ball into the corridor, minimise stoppages and provide more scoring opportunities and a freer-flowing game. This was evident in the high scoring in the Melbourne versus Fremantle match, one of the best AFLW contests to date. Of the five round one matches, four produced winning margins of less than a goal, with the season opener between Geelong and Collingwood at Kardinia Park drawing a crowd of more than 18,000 to a thriller that gave the host a one-point win, and saw the debut for Collingwood of former Australian Diamonds netball crowd favourite Sharni Layton.
The exception to the close contests was the most predictable. The all-star Kangaroos’ line-up handed the struggling Carlton team a shellacking in North Hobart on Sunday. If this continues for the rest of the season, the AFL will be forced to reassess how they police expansion team recruiting – and quickly, as four more teams join the competition in 2020.
Despite this, there is much to admire about the shape the AFLW is taking as it continues to make its presence felt. Female participation in Australian rules has increased in the two years since the inaugural season by more than 30 per cent. And it has had a flow-on effect. There’s been an average increase of female participation across all football codes of more than 4 per cent since 2016, taking the number to almost 550,000 nationwide. There was a consequent push by other elite sports to bolster female participation, driven by a fear of losing players to Australian rules. The AFLW is littered with “cross-code” players, from traditional AFL recruiting grounds such as Gaelic football, soccer and cricket, to less likely sports, including baseball, basketball, netball, NFL and Ultimate Frisbee. In the months following the inaugural AFLW season, Cricket Australia announced their female player payments would lift from $7.5 million to $55.2 million. Soccer followed suit with packages that offered expanded income streams and sponsorship options. Netball Australia doubled players’ minimum wage on the back of the AFLW announcement in 2016, and the NRL launched its own elite women’s competition in 2018, played during the men’s NRL finals season.
At a community level, female Australian rules player numbers have trebled in some states. Various governments and councils have offered grants to build extra change rooms, training facilities have been redeveloped, grounds have been rejuvenated and female participation in administration and management has become a goal for many clubs, rather than something tolerated, or even discouraged.
The competition is far from perfect. There is still discrimination and inequity when compared to the men’s game. The skill development is still in its infancy and the small number of games – due largely to a reluctance by the AFL to encroach too far into the men’s season – limits the speed with which they can develop. Player salaries are insultingly low: in 2019, the basic wage is $13,400 for five to six months’ commitment. And the loss of the only two female senior coaches – inaugural premiership coach of Adelaide Bec Goddard, and former Football Woman of the Year Michelle Cowan from Fremantle – was reportedly due to frustration at being the lowest-paid coaches in the competition, and being restricted to part-time roles. There were also stories of a lack of mentoring and professional development. Adding salt to the wound, both clubs have replaced these women with full-time male coaches.
Back at a hot and dusty Casey Fields, I wonder whether full-time football will soon become an option for women. But more than that I am mindful that the AFLW’s success goes far beyond what is happening on the field, or at AFLW clubs. It’s about football special comments being delivered by a heavily pregnant Daisy Pearce in the commentary box on prime-time TV. It’s about Erin Phillips kissing her wife full on the lips upon winning the AFLW MVP. And it’s about Darcy Vescio signing autographs for little girls wearing the wrong coloured jumper, hours after everyone else has gone home.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "More to play for". Subscribe here.