7 Jan 2019
Not to be outdone by its more testosterone-laden version, the AFLW is one of the highlights of the sports calendar for the summer. But how exactly did it become one of the most hotly anticipated events of the year? We’ve got all the details on its meteoric rise to the top of the game.
Much like other major sports in the country, there was a pressing need for the AFL to start a women’s league. In the initial bidding stages, Adelaide, Brisbane and Greater Western Sydney were granted licenses to compete in the inaugural 2017 season, alongside Fremantle, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Carlton and Collingwood. The eight-team league played an eight-week season that opened to much excitement and fanfare.
Carlton and Collingwood faced each other in the first ever AFL Women's match on 3 February 2017 at North Melbourne’s Princes Park, to a lockout crowd of 24,568 - the highest attendance of the season. The AFL had initially planned to host the game at Melbourne's Olympic Park Oval (with a capacity of just 7000) but was forced to change the venue to Princes Park due to overwhelming interest and a lack of adequate seating. Unsurprisingly, the game was also a much-viewed event, attracting a national TV audience of over 800,000 viewers.
The women’s Grand Final saw the Adelaide Crows crowned as the league's first premiers after defeating the Brisbane Lions.
According to those already in the industry, the move to starting a women’s league was a long time coming. “Public interest in women’s sport is massive. The AFL is one of the biggest sports in Australia but it has also been male dominated for a long time. Netball, basketball, soccer and cricket have all had women’s teams for quite some time, whereas the AFL had not, so there was a need to catch up,” said Marc Edwards, Manager of Business Development at Melbourne Football Club. “On the other hand, the women’s audience is growing exponentially — participation has gone up 70% in the last two years at a junior club level.”
As the oldest football club in the world (they were formed in 1858), Melbourne Football Club found themselves in the unique position of championing another first, this time in the women’s realm. “Debbie Lee, our ex-coach who has now gone to the Western Bulldogs, and our former GM of Communications Jen Watt were integral in forming the AFLW, so we were there at the start and pushing hard to create the AFLW. We always thought of ourselves as pioneers and wanted to be at the forefront of it all with the AFLW and luckily, we had the right people to drive it,” said Edwards.
From its first year, the number of teams has grown from eight to ten, with the addition of North Melbourne and Geelong to the roster in the upcoming season. “The expansion of the teams makes it bigger and better. Because it was such a big first year, there was always going to be a reduction in attendance and broadcast in numbers for the second. Now the league has settled and we can see the road forward — there’ll be real expansion plans going forward until 2022,” said Edwards.
No game can stand on its own and the calibre of the players in the AFLW are a testament to why the matches are so popular. “The biggest thing is making sure there are players to actually fill these elite athlete level spots and that’s probably why there’s so much interest in the game too — because the calibre of players has gone up. This year we expect to see at least 18 elite level players on the field and this’ll expand further as the league develops,” said Edwards.
“We, as players, have had more time in elite environments which has allowed us to understand the game more and play at a higher level. We’ve gotten fitter, stronger and developed our skills. Year on year, the standard of our game will continue to rise,” echoed Melbourne FC player, Lily Mithen.
And star quality is aplenty within the ranks. The Adelaide Crows’ Erin Phillips, fresh from her time as all-star athlete in the WNBA, has traded in her basketball shorts for full-time footy premiership championship chasing. Incredibly fit and highly skilled, Phillips made a clean sweep in the initial awards season, picking up MVP, best on ground in the grand final, goal of the season and the best and fairest awards.
The Western Bulldogs’ Katie Brennan is another standout athlete, using her strength and agility to help her team steamroll through one victory after another. North Melbourne’s Emma Kearney is also likely to bring her reigning best and fairest rep and clearance winning skills to the Tassie Kangaroos. It’s clearly set to be an explosive season!
Besides phenomenal sporting prowess, the AFLW has brought plenty to the table in terms of progressive cultural nuances. “I think the AFLW has a much bigger part to play than just sport. It improves culture and community and shows how we’re changing as a society,” said Edwards.
Mithen expressed similar sentiments: “The AFLW is special because of the amount of passion that goes into it. No player is there for the money, the accolades or the fame because it just wouldn’t be worth it. We play for the love of the game and the desire to succeed. (In doing that), we’ve brought new and unique fans to the game and continue to inspire little girls across the nation.”
Along with being vocal advocates for same-sex marriage, many of the AFLW players are human rights champions, changing the status quo one kick at a time. “There are plenty of gay men who play footy who don’t talk about it much, so hopefully, this will create inroads for a more comfortable space for that to happen,” said Edwards. “There’s also a great team spirit within the women’s ranks and they showcase an amazing work ethic. They’re helpful, bubbly and willing to do anything — culturally they’re changing the way footy clubs are run.”
The 2019 AFLW season kicks off on Saturday 2 February when the Geelong Cats play against Collingwood. Visit the AFLW website for more information.