Here’s a list of things the AFLW needs to do differently next year.
Seven rounds isn’t enough. For elite athletes who could be playing other sports, a 45-week offseason is pushing it, and a relatively minor three-week injury like Katie Brennan’s ankle ends up costing her (and the fans) half the season.
Whether the season expands backwards into summer, forwards into the men’s football season, or sideways into an alternative dimension, it must expand eventually and there’s no time like the present.
Next season the number of teams increases by two, so there’s the obvious place to start. And also, the competition desperately needs…
A semi-final round
A final two in a ten team competition would be silly, for obvious reasons. Already the final round this season felt like a lottery, with so many teams crammed so close together in the short season, teams were missing out by percentage and random events rather than because they were demonstrably ‘better’ or ‘worse’.
Sporting competitions are supposed to be about discovering who the best teams and players are. The Bulldogs were clearly the best, but however well the Lions played this season, an argument could be made (particularly by Giants and Demons fans) that they were not demonstrably the second best team in the comp.
Also, the AFLW desperately needs more high-profile games that feel like ‘events’ to whip up public interest and create those all-important emotional bonds between fans and clubs — there aren’t enough of them at the moment, so more finals ought to be a no-brainer.
But in order to fit in all these extra games, the AFLW also needs…
A new TV deal
The AFLW needs a television partner with an active interest in seeing the competition expand. At present, that partner is not Channel Seven, because seven has the tennis on earlier in summer, and the AFL later into autumn and winter, and wants as little competition as possible for both of them.
But Channel Nine has just bought the tennis for the next five years, starting in 2020, so Seven now has a gaping hole in its summer sports programming from that date. Thus it probably makes sense for the AFLW to stay with Seven for now, given that Seven ought to be properly receptive to the idea of a summer expansion, and might even show some interest in promoting the games.
But next season will probably be a squeeze if they do stay, because every team playing each other once, plus a semi-finals round, will add three weeks to the league, putting its starting date one week before the Australian Open.
In the same vein, the AFLW have to stop being scared of competition. Trying to find ‘clear air’ for the league’s early years was a good idea, but pretty soon the notion of clear air will disappear from the summer sporting landscape.
Channel Ten’s Big Bash is expanding into tennis and AFLW territory, Australian basketball is newly resurgent, and many others have no intention of letting women’s football rise unchallenged.
The AFLW lately has said the women’s game is drawing its own unique audience, many of whom don’t necessarily watch the AFL.
If so, there’s no reason the women’s game couldn’t eventually start expanding into the men’s season — something that a network other than Channel Seven would be more interested in accommodating.
But there’s two ways to watch footy — on TV or at the ground, and if the latter experience is to improve, some real movement will have to occur in…
Better football grounds
Next year, the Bulldogs, Carlton, Fremantle, Geelong, Adelaide and maybe GWS will all have home grounds adequate for the current AFLW competition (though some in serious need of renovation).
Collingwood, Melbourne, North Melbourne and Brisbane will not. Solving the problem is complicated, and will depend on state government funding for improving second-tier grounds suitable for AFLW and other below-AFL-level games.
Queensland’s government appear likely to support the Lions’ request for funding a second-tier football ground in Brisbane, and the Victorian government talks endlessly about rationalising the stadium situation in Melbourne, but nothing is concrete yet.
It’s nice that the AFLW plays matches in regional centres, too, but at some point the competition has to decide whether it’s an elite professional competition or a bush league. Hastening that decision, I think, will be the much-needed shift to…
This isn’t just about revenue. Of course, if the Bulldogs (for example) were charging $10 a head with free entry for kids and concession to EJ Whitten Oval, they might make an extra $60,000 per home game — no small thing in a league where the average player only makes about $10,000.
But it’s also about getting the big crowds to places like Ikon Park, because counter-intuitively, free entry has resulted in disappointing crowds to a pair of Season Two matches that should have been bigger — the season opener, and the Grand Final.
No tickets meant that fans couldn’t reserve a seat, and memory of that infamous Season One lockout actually hurt attendance, because fans knew there was a chance they’d miss out.
To ensure they’d get in, they’d have to turn up hours early, and when it’s raining on Grand Final day, plenty decided not to bother, ruining Nicole Stevenson’s hopes of a ‘great atmosphere’.
If fans could get a ticket, they’d be guaranteed a seat in the spot they wanted (under cover on a rainy day), and ten bucks is a small price to pay for not wasting your afternoon, or getting soaked on the fence.
Plus, of course, there’s the revenue mentioned above. Those revenue concerns would increase pressure from clubs currently without decent home grounds, because if the Dogs are pulling in sixty grand for each home game while the Demons are struggling to get twenty from Casey Fields, the need to move somewhere better will gain prominence in the minds of the Demons’ board… to say nothing of the Collingwood board.
That will mean more urgent lobbying in the Victorian Parliament, and an increased chance that something might actually happen.
And lastly, I can’t finish the article without adding one final plea to the AFLW administration…
Don’t do anything stupid
Like waiting until after Round 1 to decide the congestion rules need to be changed, and to ensure it hits the media with all the calm and grace of a drunken Captain screaming that his ship is sinking.
If you have a problem with congestion, and want to introduce new rules to deal with it, do it sometime between now and the beginning of Season Three, and then leave it the hell alone.
Whether such rules are a good idea or not, we’ll have to wait and see — I doubt it, the league’s more aggressive teams this year finished higher up the ladder and the overly defensive ones finished lower, indicating that the women’s game may be evolving of its own accord and should be left alone to evolve some more.
But whatever — rules and gamestyle are the AFLW’s prerogative, and they can change them if they want. Just do it with a modicum of common sense this time, and that will be an improvement.
In addition to his interest in sport, Joel Shepherd is a professional Science Fiction author. You can read more by him here.