What a moment for the triple-premiership Hawk!
Professional women’s sport is dynamic, inspirational, and has the ability to be an easily viable product in the tough Australian sporting market.
However, this high perception often struggles to be maintained. Throughout social media, every moment is met with heavy criticism and the media coverage is often lacking the wider impact that men’s sports may bring.
During this COVID-19 period, all sports are facing tough decisions, and we are slowly learning what is being done for a return to sport. But there is a distinct lack of conversation around the return for women’s sport.
The code that currently lacking the most communication is the AFLW and the only suggestion that is being widely discussed, is that change is inevitable.
This season AFL CEO, Gillion McLachlan announced that there will be no premiers for this season which left fans and players with a general unease about the future of the code. If change is inevitable, then the fabric that made the AFLW such a good spectacle, may have to evolve.
Looking back on previous seasons of the AFLW, there is a certain brand of players that excelled the league at its current rate. Despite many of the women currently being drafted to the league having an exclusive history in just playing AFL, the league continues to be built around cross-code players that bring a dynamic element to the way the league is built and played.
Sharni Layton ended her netball career in 2018 before joining the Collingwood AFLW program the following year and has already excelled in the sport of AFL, earning an All Australian selection this season.
Former Australian Cricketer Jess Duffin was part of one of the most successful sporting teams Australia has, but similarly joined Collingwood to extend her sporting career.
Now at North Melbourne, Duffin provides a sense of seniority in a relatively young club still trying to find their feet in the league.
The most notable example of these cross-code players is Adelaide’s Erin Phillips. Phillips has an extremely successful basketball career with two WNBA championships, a world championship and an Olympic silver medal from Beijing in 2008.
However, Phillips retired from the game of basketball to join the Adelaide Crows in 2017 and now provides a case to be one the best players the league has seen to date.
Phillips won the premiership, best and fairest award, most valuable player award, and grand final best on ground in both the 2017 and 2019 seasons and will be hoping to add to this impressive career when she hopefully returns fully fit from injury in 2021.
Phillips athletic ability is obvious and is key to her success, but it’s her basketball knowledge that has allowed her to bring a unique style to the game and allows her to dominate the game.
Like Layton and Duffin, Phillip’s understands the competitive nature of the professional women’s sport and knows the struggle of making a career in this area.
Phillips love for the game of AFL was from an early age and her talent was first spotted in a charity match between ex-players and local celebrities representing both the Crows and Power over fifteen years ago.
Back then her talents were obvious, but she now suggests the lack of pathways as the reason many of these athletes are only joining the sport now.
So, as the code continues to develop, only time will tell if clubs will continue to rely on these high-profile cross-code players, or if more time and resource will be spent on building from these newly developed pathways.
The issue is that developing players takes valuable time and money, which when looking at the impact this COVID-19 period has had, may not be in a much supply as previous seasons. The AFL especially has enjoyed a period of great financial success in recent years, but this shutdown period has unveiled some poor business decisions which may unravel this.
The worry is, that when push comes to shove, the AFLW will be the first to feel the harsh financial restrictions in the wake of this period.
The league currently has 14 clubs with four of the codes clubs still not having a women’s associate. One of the interesting cases from these four remaining teams in the Sydney Swans.
The Swans have an extended history in academy players and are often criticised for their talent control come draft time. And this trend has continued with the introduction of the women’s league.
The Swans have chosen to develop an academy for girls in Sydney prior to the introduction of a professional team in the top league in the hopes of developing ample top-level talent.
The league is often criticised about the addition of new teams due to talent dilution, but if the Swans are successful in this strategy, then it may pave the way for the future of the league.
Despite the issue of finance coming back into play, which may limit the Swan’s ability to introduce a top-level team, the potential this has on developing the code, especially in the challenging market of Sydney, is immense and needs to be considered for the long-term success of the league.
Many of the cross-code players previously mentioned already have established careers in other sports. However, for up and coming athletes like Carlton’s Chloe Dalton, this ‘code hopping’ is a way of building a career across multiple sports.
At age 26, Dalton already has a more than impressive career In Rugby Seven’s highlighted by a Gold Medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. But in 2018, Dalton joined Carlton’s VFLW team as a rookie listed player which lead to her debut in the AFLW the following year.
Dalton has gone between sports before, representing the Sydney Uni Flames for several seasons in the WNBL but being from Sydney, the pathway the AFL was unclear until now. Being able to compete at such a high level across a range of sports is the most impressive feat of Dalton’s career and can sometimes be difficult to manage.
Rugby Australia has similarly been put in a difficult position during this time. So the hope is that the AFL gives Dalton some much-needed reassurance once sport does return.
These code hoping players like Dalton, Layton, Duffin, and Phillips are the reason why the AFLW is in such a good position. Thus, these athletes deserve the best from the AFL.
Long term change is inevitable, and as women are finding new pathways to strive in the league, these players will become less common. But for now, it’s these ‘code hoppers’ that people are most looking forward to seeing, once sport returns and need to be reassured in the coming months.