Weekly AFL meanderings: AFLW’s sweetly surprising success

Gordon Smith Roar Rookie

By , Gordon Smith is a Roar Rookie

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    With the boys taking a week off to gather themselves for the kick-off of season 2017, let’s take a moment to examine the ladies’ work in this experimental first season of the AFLW.

    There’s no question that the hype built up for the opening weekend led to crowds and viewerships beyond even the most optimistic expectations.

    It was clear when the governing body scheduled the backwoods locales for the games that they weren’t thinking anyone would show up for the games, and that despite their hyperbole, this was really a shot in the dark from the AFL’s perspective, a gesture to political correctness more than anything else.

    But then a funny thing happened. People showed up. The attendance for the first six rounds of the inaugural season has been more than acceptable, averaging almost 7000 per game and rivaling the men’s preseason numbers.

    Carlton hosted the spectacular opening night, where Ikon Park shut its doors after setting a record for attendance at an Australian women’s sporting event (which excludes international gatherings like the Olympics or Commonwealth games). Fittingly, the last game of the home-and-away season was at Ikon as well, and drew almost 6000 for a dead rubber. Even lowly Greater Western Sydney averaged 3000 for its home games, despite losing both marquee players and earning the spoon in one of our weakest markets.

    People are still showing up, and the TV viewers are still tuning in. Fox was broadcasting games out of courtesy to its business partner AFL at first. Now, during the last week of the season, they’ve chosen to launch a women’s footy show on Wednesdays. Why? Because they’ve figured out that it sells.

    Commercial stations don’t do anything without the bottom line in view, and while the game telecasts were a long-term investment, this talk show is on solely because of the sport’s current popularity.

    As for the product on the field, it improved demonstrably over the short season. From a first week of low goal-scoring, plenty of scrums and wide margins of victory, the games have become more open and free-flowing (both Adelaide and Melbourne put 70 on the board this weekend in essentially half of a men’s game).

    The most detrimental aspect of the league’s planning and timing was the lack of time the players had to work together before the season, with so many coming from other codes at the last minute. That cleared up as the season’s progressed, as players grew accustomed to the styles of their teammates. It showed most clearly at Melbourne and Collingwood, which took their sweet time getting rolling in the manner we blindly expected looking at their lists before February.

    One of the hidden assets of having the AFLW season in summer is the second laboratory for rule changes it provides the league. While the JLT pointed out some of the flaws in the new third-man-up rules, the AFLW verified the problem and gave the league a place to tinker with the rules.

    It also whetted our appetite for the upcoming men’s season. And something I hadn’t considered: the teams with two rosters have all commented on how it’s improved the atmosphere at their facility, allowing the two genders to train and travel side-by-side. Here’s hoping the league makes a point of scheduling more doubleheaders next summer (with a better eye towards the different needs of the two leagues: one is still working out kinks and needs longer breaks than the other might).

    The men’s game sometimes brings in traffic to the women’s; the women’s sometimes brings in bodies to watch the men! Synergy at its finest!

    My experience watching new professional leagues makes me think the AFLW is here to stay. The blustery billionaires who want to make a big splash with too many teams and compete head-to-head with ‘the big boys’ invariably fail – the only successful league fitting that description I’ve ever seen was the American Football League in the 1960s, which eventually merged into the NFL thanks to Joe Namath and the AFL Jets upsetting the NFL Colts in 1969.

    The leagues that succeed for the most part – the ones that find a niche and fill it – are the ones that do what the AFLW has done. They start small enough to limit their losses and keep the talent pool thick; they have the backing of an organisation that can withstand the inevitable losses of those first few years (the WNBA has lost money for 20 years, but never enough for the NBA to pull the plug), and they make sure that the product on the field is competitively balanced and improving.

    All those things describe what we’ve seen this summer and don’t describe the XFL or the USFL (Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, that’s everything you need to know about the league) or any of a dozen other failures that came in with a bang and died with a whimper.

    Emma Zeilke of the Brisbane Lions (centre) celebrates scoring a goal during their Round 3 AFLW game

    In a short AFLW season, it was Brisbane’s early bonding as a team which allowed them to surprise the Bulldogs in Week 1 and just keep surprising teams who hadn’t quite figured out what they wanted to do, week after week.

    While I have Sabrina Frederick-Traub at fifth in my scoring for Player of the Year, it was the spread of effective teammates that’s led the Lions to be the surprise favourites in the first AFLW grand final.

    Speaking of Player of the Year, my numbers had Adelaide’s Erin Phillips as the leading candidate to win the first such award. The multi-sport star is fast becoming the Babe Didrikson Zaharias of Australia. But like her team, Melbourne’s near-legendary Daisy Pearce charged after a slow start and tied Phillips on my board for the award, both totaling 76 points to lap the field.

    Carlton’s Brianna Davey and Darcy Vescio (the leading goal-kicker), the Demons’ Karen Paxman, Emma Kearney of Western, Frederick-Traub, and Ebony Marinoff of the Crows are all bunched in the lead group of the peloton, between 54 and 59 points in my system.

    (Without losing all the folks who don’t live and breathe maths like I do, the essence of my player scoring systems in footy is based on voting from every possible knowledgeable source I can find: best on ground, AFLCA, rating points, sports media game coverage, you name it. I use game-by-game numbers as much as possible, to emulate Brownlow voting, but I’ll use season-to-date material as well. And as long as I feel qualified, I vote too, of course – otherwise, why have my own system?)

    My first article, I spelled out the ELO-style rating system that I use for footy. Here are the final home-and-away season ratings for the women: Adelaide (59.7), Melbourne (58.6), Brisbane (55.7), Carlton (50.9), Western (50.3), Collingwood (47.3), Fremantle (40.7), and Greater Western Sydney (36.3).

    Amazingly, with a four-point home advantage in this system, these ratings predict a draw for Saturday’s grand final. Personally, I like Brisbane’s ability to win the close ones and expect a repeat of their three-point Round 5 victory.

    Dustin Martin of the Richmond Tigers

    As for the men’s Round 1, here are my prophecies, for entertainment purposes only:

    Richmond and the Bulldogs will top the 15-point spreads over the Blues and Pies; they’ve shown they’re ready in Round 1, while their opponents are still figuring themselves out.

    Saturday: Sydney big. The Saints are farther along than the Demons right now. Take the Suns until their injuries pile up. A big Essendon win would start two avalanching narratives for the Dons and Hawks, but I don’t expect it: Hawthorn by a dozen or more.

    Sunday: Holding my breath that the Roos might not be terrible this year, and taking the 16 points. The payoff’s too high not to bet Freo to win on a flyer, although I really only give them a 20 per cent shot.

    And, in the game of the round, GWS can make a huge statement by winning at Adelaide, and I expect them to do so.

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