“Our game is on the cusp of changing forever and changing for the better.”
While women’s football has been on the agenda for almost 100 years, no one could prepare themselves for the sporting juggernaut that took off last year.
The beginning of a new sporting era was officially launched in June 2016, when eight women’s teams were granted official AFL licensing for its inaugural 2016/17 season. Former AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick stood alongside Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan, and together announced the beginning of Women’s AFL.
“It’s a revolution,” McLachlan declared. “Our game will never be the same.”
“The concept of a national competition has been put together in short space of time but this day has been a long time coming,” said Fitzpatrick.
AFLW journalist Sarah Black is amongst those exploring the new territory of Women’s AFL. A journalist for the AFL website, she believes Australia’s love and passion for sport has driven the success of the women’s league.
“There has been a growing demand for elite women’s footy for several years following the televising of exhibition matches. People were keen to just watch sport,” she said.
Before the start of the women’s season, Etihad Stadium hosted an exhibition game between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne – the first two women’s sides officially affiliated with the league. More than one million viewers across the country tuned in to Channel 7 and were left wanting more. The exciting clash displayed a level of skill and entertainment that showed promising signs for the league.
“The women provided a great taste of what’s to come when the national league begins in 2017,” said Gillon McLachlan. The game went “beyond expectations”.
Almost immediately after the AFLW announcement fans were introduced to marquee players such as Daisy Pearce, Tayla Harris, Erin Phillips, Moana Hope, Darcy Vescio and Kate Sheahan (daughter of award winning AFL journalist Mike Sheahan) just to name a few.
With these footballers projected throughout Australia as the face of the women’s game, the AFLW was able to market their stories and showcase their talents in the lead up to round one.
While the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne showcased the first two official AFLW sides, six other teams won the right to licence the remaining sides.
Collingwood, Carlton, Adelaide, Fremantle, Brisbane and the Giants joined the Bulldogs and Melbourne in hosting an AFLW team.
These AFL alignments allowed supporters of these eight clubs to identify with a brand they already follow, and their involvement and engagement allowed the competition to flourish further.
For the Brisbane Lions, the success of their women’s team is a celebrated change. After six rounds, the undefeated Lions sit two games clear on top of the ladder, and cemented their place in the Grand Final. This will be the first grand final appearance for the Lions since 2004, and their first finish in the top 8 in seven seasons. As the men’s AFL side languishes towards the bottom of the ladder, the women are thriving, and giving fans something to celebrate.
That winning feeling has been missing from the Lion’s camp for many years, so the immediate success of the women’s team has injected excitement into supporters and those affiliated with the club. It’s the success that has drawn viewers in to watch and support their women’s side.
The same goes for grand final opponents Adelaide. Despite plenty finals appearances in recent years, the Crows last premiership dates back almost thirty years. The potential for more success and euphoria is a driving force behind the AFLW’s support – and to think that’s just two of the eight sides.
It seems the AFL’s recipe for a successful women’s league has well and truly paid off, and potentially has been way more successful than anyone could have predicted.
With majority of games free to enter, many fans were left locked out as they exceeded capacity – while disappointing for those who missed out, the high demand was an encouraging sign for those in charge.
But how did it become so successful?
Well the answer is quite simple, really. While there’s most likely an element of novelty and a growing acceptance of Women in AFL, on display is great quality football and an enjoyable series of games to lead us into the AFL season.
As the pre-season competition has lacked appeal in recent years, the AFLW has brought some excitement, diversity and enjoyment back to the lead up of the main season.
Black also points to the journey of the AFLW; documenting the stories of our new football heroes and the growth of the women’s league.
“250+ new players means a stack of new stories to tell, especially as the players have lives away from the game,” she said.
As the first season of AFLW approaches its end, it will pass with flying colours as a raging success. Without a doubt there will be further developments made during the off-season, including the potential to expand the league beyond 8 sides.
Following a fantastic first season in the AFL, women can look forward to an era of empowerment and success in our great game.