Saturday begins the third incarnation of the AFL Women’s Competition, the first under the new expanded format that features a longer fixture, finals series, and two new teams.
Geelong joins a complicated and awkwardly sounding North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos as the new girls on the AFLW block, forcing the league’s talent pool to stretch by a significant twenty-five percent, as the AFLW teams increase from eight to ten. The AFL has also confirmed during the off-season that a game-changing four clubs, who were awarded provisional licenses, will enter the AFLW next year. These clubs are Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast. However, the most rapid expansion of a top-tier Australian Football competition in the sport’s history will not end there.
The AFLW has long-held the public line that it’s vision pertaining to expansion is a full eighteen team competition mirroring that of the men’s league. As the head of the AFLW, Nicole Livingstone told the Herald Sun, “part of our vision is we do want eighteen AFL clubs with women’s teams.” The four clubs currently left out in the dark, like an AFLW forward pocket in a night game at Princess Park, are Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney. Hawthorn in particular have voiced their displeasure, via the regularly-used mouth of President Jeff Kennett, at the lack of a timeline regarding the remaining four teams’ inclusion.
“At the moment, we’re being staged in and Hawthorn and the other teams have no knowledge of when we might eventually play in the competition. I think that is, with due respect, discriminatory.”
However, it can now be revealed that the AFLW is planning on expanding to an eighteen-team competition prior to the beginning of the new broadcast rights agreement for the AFL and AFLW in 2023. Therefore, Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will join the AFLW, either in pairs (to avoid an odd number) or as a collective of four, at some time between 2021 and 2023. Meaning, that ten new teams will be introduced into the league in the space of just five years, for a remarkable average of two new teams per year. The move may place enormous strain on an already limited – but expanding – talent pool, and is especially risky considering the AFL is yet to receive a sample of how this year’s expansion affects the standard of competition.
Essendon and Hawthorn have already declared themselves as prepared to enter the exciting new competition but both Port Adelaide and Sydney cited lack of facilities as part of the reason they have never applied for a license. Port Adelaide will undergo a redevelopment of its training base and iconic SANFL home ground of Alberton Oval, as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations, which is yet to be announced. The redevelopment will see upgraded light towers allowing the venue to host future AFLW night games. Whereas, Sydney’s new administration base surrounding the SCG that is set to be completed in May, will mean the club is ready to support its own AFLW team.
Moreover, AFL New Zealand’s extraordinary bid to have an AFLW team by 2023, reported exclusively by this author in The Mongrel Punt, will be unsuccessful as the AFLW does not have the potential international team in its five-year plan, choosing instead to focus on the pre-established AFL clubs. Excluding North Melbourne’s AFLW team’s arrangement with the state of Tasmania, the AFLW is therefore set to take the exact same form as its male counterparts by 2023.
Consequently, the proposed New Zealand team may be more likely to enter the AFL men’s and women’s leagues at the same time if the AFL wishes to keep symmetry between its two competitions. This would see former New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key’s declaration, on the day of the first international AFL match in 2013, of “Let’s get real. We’ve got to get a New Zealand side in the AFL,” finally come to fruition. It is now clear that New Zealand has positioned itself in the box seat as the first cab of the rank in regards to international expansion which is supported by former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou’s belief that New Zealand is “unquestionably [the AFL’s] fastest growth market outside Australia.”
The fast-tracked expansion is also set to have numerous other ramifications for the AFLW. Namely the fixture and whether that too replicates the men’s league and is moved to the winter months to accommodate the inevitable increase in home and away and finals matches. If this is the case, the women’s league could fill the void of lack of curtain raisers at AFL games, which is a frequent request of supporters in the annual footy fan surveys. But a move to winter, will see the AFL lose its summer alternative and may see the competition struggle to attract significant media coverage due to the lack of clean air that they currently enjoy in the February-March timeslot.
This weekend signifies the beginning of the most critical five-year period in the AFL Women’s competition’s history and will shape the league’s future. The AFLW is about to explode – let’s hope that’s in a good way.
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