New Zealand eye an AFLW Team – What does it mean for footy?

Australian Football is facing its most significant international expansion in its one hundred and sixty year history with New Zealand seeking to join the AFL Women’s Competition within the next five years.

The move forms are part of the key goals of AFL New Zealand, the governing body of Australian Football in New Zealand, in expanding Aussie Rules in one of Australia’s closest geographical neighbours. A New Zealand team joining the AFLW would be the first time that a team based outside of Australia will play in either the men’s or women’s elite Australian Football competition.

The Kiwis are responsible for former AFL players such as North Melbourne and Sydney champion Wayne Schwass and All-Australian premiership Hawk Trent Croad. New Zealand hosted the first ever game for AFL premiership points in 2013 in front of 22,500 fans and played two further games on the ANZAC Day round weekend in 2014 and 2015.

China is the only other international country that has hosted an AFL game, however, the AFL’s foray into the globe’s most populous nation, led by Port Adelaide, does not have an end-game of seeing a team based in China. However, AFL games will be continued to be played in China until at least 2021 with future AFLW matches earmarked for down the track. This may coincide with Port Adelaide entering the competition.

A New Zealand-based team in the AFLW would be a monumental change for the women’s competition, a league still in its infancy. Whilst the impact on AFLW would be significant, it could have equally drastic implications for the men’s league. The AFLW will undergo its first level of expansion this coming season, as announced amidst the hype of its inaugural season last year. Geelong and the Tassie Kangaroos (as a North Melbourne hybrid affiliate) are entering the league, raising the number of teams competing from eight to ten. Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast were also successful in obtaining the hotly contested AFLW provisional licenses and are set to join the competition in 2020 in what will be a rapid expansion to fourteen teams, the league near doubling its size in the space of two seasons.

2021 is the first possible entrance point for the proposed Kiwi side, however, it is unclear where New Zealand sits in the queue for an AFLW team. Both Hawthorn and Essendon applied for licenses when the AFL announced its plans for expansion after the successful inaugural season of AFLW. Despite the AFL making the point that those who applied for the original licenses will receive preference, Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett lashed out labelling the AFL’s decision to overlook Hawthorn as “inappropriate” and “discriminatory”. Not to be left out, Essendon CEO, Xavier Campbell was not happy either, saying at the time that he was “extremely disappointed.”

If the AFL abides by their own principle of ‘first come, first served’ Hawthorn and Essendon would be better placed to secure an AFLW birth than the international wildcard of New Zealand.

The AFL in recent weeks has confirmed to the four AFL clubs without an AFLW team or provisional license (Hawthorn, Essendon, Port Adelaide and Sydney) that the AFL is working towards a full 18-team women’s competition. Port Adelaide did not apply for the most recent intake of teams due to its commitment to the “China Strategy” but is now seeking to join the league at the next available opportunity, which will be from 2021 onwards. Port Adelaide will join the SANFL Women’s Competition next season in preparation, and the yet to be announced redevelopment of Alberton Oval set to be form a part of its 150th year anniversary in 2020, will include upgraded light towers allowing the ground to host future night AFLW games.

Sydney are also on the AFLW bandwagon despite not applying for a license in 2017. Sydney Chairman, Andrew Pridham has now described the prospect of a Swans AFLW side as “inevitable” with lack of facilities the only reason as to why the AFL’s most supported team has not applied for a license in the past. Sydney will rectify the lack of facilities through their new administration base surrounding the SCG, set to be completed in May next year.

Considering the AFL is committed to allowing all 18 AFL clubs into the women’s competition, if New Zealand are to be included prior to 2023 the AFLW would have to expand to a 19-team competition. If the AFL are seeking uniformity across its men’s and women’s competition does this mean the men’s league will follow suit and the New Zealand Kiwis would become the 19th AFL team?

A timeline for such a radical shake-up will certainly be beyond the five-year period AFL New Zealand have set themselves for a tilt at an AFLW team, but would it be at all logical for the women’s league to expand to more teams than their male counterparts when the female talent pool is significantly limited in comparison currently? On the flipside, an AFLW entry could be an appropriate springboard into the AFL.

The other option for the AFL to consider is New Zealand forming a part of St Kilda’s AFLW entry in 2020, in a similar vein to Tasmania’s AFLW partnership with North Melbourne as the “Tassie Kangaroos”. St Kilda were the New Zealand trail blazers in the AFL, playing three home games in as many years in New Zealand’s capital of Wellington from 2013 to 2015. Since then the Saints’ grand overseas venture that was supposed to secure 10,000 NZ members by 2018 has gone on a long hiatus. Despite some noise about moving the game to Auckland by 2019, there has been no action. This could be the perfect opportunity for the AFL to force St Kilda’s hand and have their women’s teams play home games out of Wellington or Auckland – or both. St Kilda is in a dire financial position with a rising debt of approximately $14 million triggering recent crisis meetings amongst the club’s hierarchy. ‘

The AFL is assuming significant control of St Kilda’s decision making after the appointment of former AFL executive Simon Lethlean, to the extent that they, alongside the Victorian Government, negotiated the club’s new involvement in Port Adelaide’s China game on the club’s behalf. Simply put, the Saints need money. AFL CEO, Gillon McLachlan put it on the Saints earlier this year, demanding “they have to get their business to work now”. This could be how they do it. Desperate times call for desperate measures. They’ve got to get brave.

However, if the St Kilda partnership does not eventuate in 2020, and the AFLW instead includes New Zealand as a 19th team within the next five years, this could pave the way for Tasmania in both the AFL and AFLW. The Mongrel Punt has reported extensively on the AFL’s preferred proposal to relocate North Melbourne to Tasmania as the “Tassie Kangaroos”. This has been flatly rejected by the Kangaroos, with the club recently confirming that they will play no more than four games in Tasmania, ongoing. North Melbourne could opt to relinquish its involvement with Tasmania at AFLW level which could open the door for Tasmania to join the competition as a separate entity, creating a more desirable 20-team competition in the process. This could provide a nice pathway from  the women’s league into the men’s league, and finally, a real Tasmanian team in the AFL.

The Northern Territory have also applied for an AFL license at the next available opportunity, however this is viewed to be a more long-term proposition due to an upgrade of Darwin’s Marrara Oval being a spec
ified condition for AFL entry. The NT’s desire to join the women’s competition as well as the men’s is also not known, unlike Tasmania where the state government have consistently stated that they wish to have their own team in both the AFL and AFLW, as seen through their involvement in the incoming “Tassie Kangaroos” AFLW team.

New Zealand’s planned push to join the AFLW in the next five years will change everything for footy. The New Zealand Kiwis (it has to be, right?) based in either their capital city of Wellington or their most populous city of Auckland (assuming Western Springs Stadium is redeveloped by 2022, as expected) may even result in a name change for the AFL and AFLW. How does the ANZFL sound? Perhaps, the Australasian Football League is the way to go.

Australia’s game may be getting a little bigger… and a lot more complicated.

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