The Massive Success Of The AFLW Grand Final Proves We Need To Take Women’s Football Seriously
More than 53,000 people turned up to Sunday's game. It's time the AFL paid attention.
On Sunday afternoon 53,034 people made history as not only the largest crowd for women’s football, but the largest ever crowd for a women’s sporting match in Australia. The AFLW Grand Final saw Adelaide Oval more than doubling the expected 20-25,000 through the gates, and another 409,000 watching from home.
With the 2019 season coming to a close, now is a good time to review just how cooked the AFL, the governing body who oversee the women’s league, has been in the way it manages the competition.
The Grand Final was a landmark event, but AFLW fans are still wondering what the hell they and the players have to do to be taken seriously.
Conferencing And Other Nightmares
After decades of women playing grassroots footy and campaigning for a national competition, in 2017 AFLW finally came to be.
However, the AFL underestimated the public’s appetite for women’s football from the first AFLW game and they’ve been doing so ever since.
The AFLW season is played in what the AFL deem to be the time that fans are most likely to engage with the league — February and March — meaning the brutal winter sport is played in the two hottest months of the year. The AFL regularly cites this timing as key to avoiding competition from other sports, such as the Australian Open, to give the AFLW space to grow.
So when the AFL launched a modified (read: bastardised) version of the men’s game — AFLX — to be played at the same time as the women’s league, everyone from fans to club presidents was pretty pissed.
The AFLW finals also overlap with the early rounds of the AFL, seeing broadcasters Channel Seven and Fox Footy move women’s games to secondary channels so that the men’s games are more visible. This might be less of a blow if the women played a full season in a comparative structure to the men. Instead the women play significantly shorter competitions, and in 2019 were divided into two separate conferences, which is, to be frank, absolute bullshit.
During its first run in 2019, conferencing saw a completely uneven weighting where the teams in Conference A beat the absolute pants off the teams in Conference B. This left everyone wondering why this choice was made, with both fans and players pleading that the system be disbanded as the AFL reviews how to administrate the competition ahead of 2020 when the league will be increased from 10 teams to 14.
Fans Just Want To Love Footy
Despite the barriers they face fans still love women’s footy and come out to support it week after week.
The AFL often cites financial reasons as to why the league can’t pay players higher wages, saying they are focussed on increasing the audience. Yet it did not sign a broadcast deal to earn money from Seven and Fox until late 2018, and continues to keep entry to AFLW games free.
Fans want to help grow player salaries, they want to help invest in the future of the league, and they recognise that takes money. While online trolls who regularly reply to any mention of AFLW are keen to argue that crowds only attend because it’s free, at every ground you’ll hear fans say that they would happily pay to be there.
When fans are able to put their money where their footy-loving mouths are, they do so. Friends of mine have purchased multiple memberships for women’s teams outside of their usual-aligned club in the men’s competition in order to show their support. Richmond — who are one of the four new teams who’ll compete in the 2020 competition — have already seen significant take up on foundation women’s memberships after only a few weeks of being on sale.
The lack of financial investment from the league doesn’t stop at ticket prices: it also carries through to a lack of merchandising. At Adelaide Oval on Sunday the commemorative guide (the Record) had sold out by midday, half an hour before the start of the game and well before anything close to the 53,034 punters had taken their seats.
There was also limited merchandise available aligned to the women’s teams with almost no low-entry items such as highly-coveted player badges.
Women’s footy has its roots in a DIY culture because for a long time no one would let us play. This means engagement has a DIY aesthetic to it too: everything from cute-as-heck homemade signs, to people dressing up as a fridge, to printing their own t-shirts.
But despite limiting its own income streams for AFLW, the AFL recently claimed trademark rights to Carlton player Tayla Harris’ iconic kicking style after a company started selling t-shirts featuring Harris’ image (the same image that sparked horrific online trolling). The AFL threatened to sue the company, League Tees, who were donating all profits from the shirt to charity, baffling fans eager to throw their support behind Harris and women’s sport.
going to women’s footy games all you see are fans attending with homemade t-shirt’s, badges, signs, etc which is beautiful to witness but it should be pretty clear to the afl that if you make the merchandise people will buy it
— andie (@anndeejam) March 26, 2019
It’s More Than A Game
The AFLW has created a new audience for women’s footy — kids who can’t remember a time without Sabrina Frederick-Traub and Erin Phillips. But before them are generations who poured their blood, sweat and tears into local competitions that helped players like Daisy Pearce and Katie Brennan become household names.
No matter their age, fans of women’s football have a deep-seeded longing to engage with and support the league in ways the AFL either don’t see, or are preventing entirely. Let us pay for tickets and help boost player wages. Let us make our own and buy licensed merchandise to show our support. And let the players have a fair competition, one in a proper time slot where a full season can run.
— Brodie Lancaster (@brodielancaster) March 31, 2019
Women’s footy is rightly seen as normalised by a new generation.
But as important and as significant as that is, the AFL needs to remember that there is still a lot they need to do. It would be awful if after waiting a lifetime for a national women’s competition, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends become so disenfranchised with the league that their hurt trickles down to the kids who don’t know life without the AFLW, making landmark moments like Sunday faint memories instead of records to be broken in the years to come.