It was earlier this year when the AFL CEO, Gillon McLachlan, publicly announced the AFL’s intention to have a national women’s football competition commencing 2017.
At the time, the Herald Sun rightly described the plan as ambitious.
Up to that point, there had only ever been one game of elite women’s Australian football when in 2014 Melbourne played the Western Bulldogs with squads of the best female players in the country allocated via a draft.
The same format was repeated this year when the women played the curtain-raiser to the Round 20 game between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne at Docklands. Not only did the women have a much closer encounter than the men, the women drew impressive ratings of 175,000 – higher than a few other AFL games that round.
With netball, basketball, cricket and football already featuring national women’s competitions, it makes sense that the AFL would want to enter the same space, especially when one considers that around 40 per cent of all AFL attendances and TV ratings are women.
The other prompt is the huge growth in female participation numbers the past two seasons. The 2014 AFL Annual Report shows female participation figures of just under 195,000, representing 15 per cent growth on the previous year. Similar growth patterns have continued into 2015.
The state-by-state numbers reveal some surprising figures. Queensland had already become the number one state in terms of female participation in 2014 with 51,722 (i.e. one-quarter of the national total). That figure jumped again in 2015 to 71,293, which also included the addition of 43 new teams.
In terms of performance at the national women’s championships, there is now a big three: Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland, and it is now looking likely that the teams which make up the inaugural season will be sourced from these three states.
In the last two to three weeks there has been what could only be described as a flurry of activity in relation to the new women’s league, so much so that there is now very little doubt that it’s a starter for 2017.
In late November, the AFL ran an elite women’s academy in Melbourne with invitees coming from as far afield as Canada. SBS News described it as a ‘game changer’.
As a precursor to the national competition, a new elite tournament will start in Victoria for 2016 featuring 10 teams: Darebin Falcons, Diamond Creek, Eastern Devils, Melbourne University, St Kilda and VU Western Spurs, Cranbourne, Geelong, Knox and Seaford.
By early December, at least six Melbourne clubs had expressed interest in securing a license to compete in the new league.
Caroline Wilson has reported in The Age in the last couple of days that clubs are already in a battle royale for the limited number of start-up licenses.
Wilson writes that the new competition will most likely be modelled as follows.
• Four clubs from Victoria, a Brisbane Lions team and one from Western Australia, with both the Eagles and the Dockers fighting to gain the first women’s WA licence;
• The AFL is expected to cover the establishment cost of the foundation teams, estimated at $500,000 per club, incrementally reducing that funding each year;
• The women’s AFL competition will start with a televised national league in March 2017 and finish in May;
• The AFL is considering a national draft to spread talent, but faces the problem of relocating the cream of the country’s women players in the early years, given the expected low player payments; and
• Next week’s commission talks will pave the way for clubs to officially tender for women’s licences early next year.
While Wilson mentions the Brisbane Lions as getting the one Brisbane license, as of yesterday the Suns were stating publicly that they are in the race for that one license, and while South Australia looks unlikely to have representation in the inaugural year, both the Crows and Port are already battling out in the local press for the first expansion of the league.
As for NSW, both the Swans and Giants announced on girlsplayfooty as recently as yesterday that they were not ready to be a foundation team.
An interesting point which came out of their announcement, and which the AFL will need to contemplate, is that if there were to be a national draft, and the top dozen women were taken out of NSW and Canberra to compete in the inaugural season – would that not hamper their efforts to put together a competitive team in the future?
Indeed, the whole question of a draft is problematic in a start-up league where the women will not be earning all that much money (the top players might be earning $20,000 per annum). Can women be expected to move across the country for such a low sum of money?
No doubt one of the many challenges the new competition will face as we tick down to the inaugural season, but one thing is now for sure: the Thunderbirds are go!
The momentum for a National AFL Women's competition is building…. and this is why ?? pic.twitter.com/Y1GxEJY3yi
— Michelle Cowan (@MishCowan) December 10, 2015