Ssince the first AFLW game at Ikon Park in February 2017 – when the AFL memorably had to impose a lockout due to massive under-crowds – women’s football has been on a rapid upward trajectory. Participation rates have risen across the country and, ahead of the seventh round of the competition, which starts on Thursday, ticket sales have hit an unprecedented high. These are very promising times for the league.
The inaugural clash between expansion sides Essendon and Hawthorn – one of the highlights of this week’s opening round of fixtures – is testament to the increased interest in the women’s game and after an initial allocation of tickets sold out within 24 hours , the “move it to Marvel” campaign proved successful.
The decision to move the game from ETU Stadium to the 53,000-capacity Marvel Stadium has been hailed as ground-breaking, as the league has been given a complete shake-up this season with women’s teams from all 18 AFL clubs in first time . Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney have joined the AFLW wave on the back of a new CBA agreement for all players and the implementation of the longest AFL fixture ever.
The (mostly) welcome addition of expansion sides means that existing teams will have to give up some of their best players, reshuffle coaches and support teams, and look to expand where they are. recruit their talent. This creates the opportunity for a season full of significant learnings across the league.
The feverish speculation following the end of season six that the next edition would be brought forward has proven true and just four months since the Adelaide Crows were crowned premiers, IKON Park will once again host the first bounce this Thursday night. However, this comes with a new set of complications that will directly affect the nature of the season.
Many of the young draftees are still in school and don’t finish year 12 until November, which presents another hoop to jump through just to get to practice and games. In recent years, there’s not just one season to contend with per calendar year, but most draftees have already finished school by the time the season begins and are fully committed to their club.
This season’s changes also play, quite literally, into the changing of the seasons. With the AFLW traditionally contested throughout the summer, players will now have to train in cooler conditions due to the August start date.
Importantly, however, the new schedule coincides with the end of the men’s home-and-away season. It’s a bold move by the AFL to pit the women’s competition against the men’s finals series and one that walks a fine line between success and failure with broadcast and viewership at stake.
The AFL has tried to combat this by allocating floating start times to all Saturday games throughout September, allowing for potential double-headers to coincide with the men’s finals series. Friday night footy will also be played for the full 10 weeks of the competition, with more double-headers possible and the Melbourne v North Melbourne clash in round two having been moved to the MCG to be staged before the Melbourne-Sydney AFL men’s qualifying final.
The maneuvering of this fixture presents a real opportunity for AFL fans to get to know their club’s AFLW team and an opportunity for those female players to enjoy more exposure.
The calendar shift, however, was not uniformly greeted in a positive light. The league was riddled with ACL injuries last season and an earlier start date didn’t suit those on the mend. With an average rehabilitation time of 12 months, those who sustain ACL injuries in season six will not miss two seasons of football. It includes some of the AFLW’s brightest stars such as Collingwood’s Brianna Davey and former Bulldog now GWS Giant Isabel Huntington, who is recovering from her third ACL rupture.
The new season also begins in the glow of a shiny new collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated earlier in the year and resulted in significant pay increases averaging 94% across all four pay levels. For the first time, some players may have the benefit of focusing solely on AFLW football, rather than balancing difficult work, study and personal schedules to make ends meet.
With more time to devote to the game, this could be the first time some of the league’s top athletes can showcase their full potential.
Completion of the expansion was originally predicted for 2023 – another positive sign of the league’s growth – leading to the addition of more home-and-away games and an extended finals series, something the playing field has openly campaigned for. group since the start of the league.
It also means a shorter pre-season compared to previous years, which could be the make or break for some clubs, particularly expansion sides who don’t have the advantage of gelling as a playing group before. The likes of Hawthorn or Essendon, who have recruited heavily from their VFLW lists, can avoid the inevitable teething issues experienced by expansion sides in the past. But it’s not just the new kids on the block who will be affected; West Coast, for example, have 15 new players looking to acclimatise at the club.