The fourth season of AFL Women’s begins on Friday, and while the competition is tackling one of its greatest challenges yet in expanding to meet the needs of four new teams, the future of the league appears undeniably bright.
From when it began in 2017 to the present, the AFLW has seen year-on-year improvement in stats indicative of the quality of performance.
The kicking efficiency of players improved from a competition-wide average of 51 per cent in 2017 to 56 per cent in 2019, and the average side took 5.6 more marks per game in 2019 than they did in 2017.
Broadly that suggests players are using the ball more effectively and finding teammates for uncontested marks more often, allowing sides to control the ball better and move away from what was often called a rolling-maul style game in 2017.
The eye test agrees here too – the 2019 comp was undoubtedly a better watching experience as sides became more willing to play aggressively and take the game on.
In a good sign for longterm direction, the sides that did so were the ones who enjoyed the greatest success.
Of course, the place where improvement will draw the most attention is on the scoreboard. In 2019, the average total match score was about a goal higher than 2017.
That may not be the great leap forward many would like, but it’s impressive under the circumstances – when the league expanded last year it put more demand on the talent pool, so to see the overall trend continue to improve was an underrated win.
And while extraneous comparisons between the men’s and women’s game don’t generally benefit either, it’s worth contrasting the AFLW’s upward scoring progress with the fact that total match scores in the AFL have gone down by three goals per game over the same time period.
Two new teams was one thing, however four more arriving in 2020 is a new magnitude of challenge and possibly the greatest yet that the competition has faced as it seeks to continue going from strength to strength.
The additional clubs require an extra 120 players at the elite level, more than a third of the existing player base.
When you consider that it consisted of just eight clubs as recently as 2018, the league has needed to nearly double in size in the space of 24 months.
And yet, the league appears equipped to meet the demand for players.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the AFLW has kept improving is that every year it receives a fresh influx of talent in the form of 18-year-old draftees.
The 2018 season was notable for the immediate impact of top-five picks like Chloe Molloy and Monique Conti, and then last year Madison Prespakis needed only a handful of games to push herself into superstar status.
This year the likes of Gabby Newton, Lucy McEvoy, Georgia Patriokis, Roxanne Roux and Ellie Gavalas enter their first season with optimism about the early impact they could have.
It seems like each draft crop adds more talent than the last, and as the sport grows greater in stature with each passing year there’s little reason to believe that trend will be curtailed any time soon.
Of course, the other big driver behind the ongoing improvement is simply that the longer it goes on, the more time Australia’s best female footballers get the chance to spend in elite environments, working with elite coaches.
Players like Conti and Jess Duffin (the latter before being ruled out due to pregnancy) have knocked back the opportunity to play at elite levels in basketball and cricket respectively in order to play AFLW – and while it’s a shame they can’t do both, it speaks to the value they are getting out of the AFLW experience.
While expansion places greater and greater demands on the talent pool, it also means more and more players have this opportunity, which can only be positive in the longterm.
These two trends continually work to reinforce each other. If players like Conti or Prespakis are this good now, we can only imagine the level they’ll be at when they hit their prime – and as they reach new heights, they’ll only inspire more girls to chase their football dreams.
So, the question might be asked: can the AFLW continue to improve as a spectacle in 2020 despite needing to rustle up another 120 players? And certainly, it remains unclear whether the upward trajectory of scoring numbers will be maintained in the short term.
The long term, however, I have no shortage of confidence about. What began with a bang in 2017 has only picked up momentum since. 2020 may prove a bump in the road, but I’m not yet even convinced of that.
One only needs to flash back to three years ago when the number of players who were household names could be counted on one hand. Now all your fingers and toes might not be enough.
Season 2020 will also bring to bear for the first time all the media and marketing power of two of the most widely followed and well-run clubs in the competition in the form of Richmond and West Coast.
In particular the season-opening clash between last year’s runners-up Carlton and newcomers Richmond – who boast a star-studded roster with Conti, Katie Brennan, Sabrina Frederick and Christina Bernardi – has some real heat in the build up.
The Tigers are determined to turn Ikon Park yellow and black, Carlton are just as set on keeping it navy blue. I’m looking forward to getting caught in the middle of it.
Media coverage is beginning to trend away from meta-discussion of the competition and towards genuine, invested anaylsis of individual clubs and players. In that spirit, I’ll close with my hot tips for the season.
Thirteen teams are chasing the Adelaide Crows who, on pure talent, feel likey could win the next five flags without lifting a finger. But they’ve been strafed with injury concerns this season and it just might be enough to disrupt them.
While I hold every hope of watching North Melbourne raise the premiership cup in April, my gut feeling is that the Melbourne Demons will finally reach the heights they’ve been threatening to every year so far.
In 2020 for the first time we’ll see a star player in Daisy Pearce return after missing the entire previous season through pregnancy – giving birth to twins, no less – and I tip she’ll win the MVP and captain the Dees to the flag.
But one of the best parts of the AFLW is that with the competition in its infancy, it remains volatile and unpredictable, all while boasting a genuinely community-oriented, grassroots vibe that can be hard to find in modern sport.
Here’s looking forward to season 2020.