Back in early 2017 the excitement and momentum around the official launch of the AFL Women’s competition, a moment the AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan described as ‘100 years in the making’, was undeniable.
“The AFL has been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and support of the women’s competition over the last 12 months and now the wait is nearly over for us to see the new stars in action in their first season,” McLachlan said at the time. “We are thrilled that the players are already making their mark, empowering girls and women and being role models for a new generation of athletes. It has been very exciting to watch this unfold over the last 12 months.”
The television commercial heralding the AFLW competition featured Cathy Freeman, Michelle Payne, Moana Hope, Turia Pitt and Lee Lin Chin and was viewed more than 200,000 times within 24 hours of being released.
Less than a fortnight out from bounce-off the AFL moved the inaugural game from Olympic Park Oval, a training ground without much capacity, to Ikon Park which can seat up to 22,000 people. The decision was made after 2,000 people turned up to watch a practice session between two of the sides.
Ikon Park wasn’t big enough. Officials were expecting a little over 10,000 attendees but more than 25,000 people flocked to the historic match.
The interest wasn’t unprecedented.
The exhibition AFL women’s final match, which was broadcast live by Channel Seven in September on 2016, delivered bumper television ratings: it was the largest overall average audience in Melbourne of any AFL game during the 2016 home and away season.
It makes the proposal to cut the 2019 AFLW season to six games, while adding additional teams, inexplicable.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Victorian of the Year and AFLW pioneer, Susan Alberti told Women’s Agenda. “It was always anticipated that we’d grow the competition so cutting the number of games is a backward steps. Less games and more teams is not logical.”
Some players have moved their lives, given up work/study and $ to play AFLW. These decisions are voluntary, but made on the assumption the game is getting bigger. Not shorter. The ramifications of this won’t improve the AFLW as a commercial product. It will do the opposite.
— Alicia Eva (@AliciaEva2) August 3, 2018
Alberti has been fighting for the right for women to play AFL for 60 years.
“Ever since I stopped playing myself at age 15 I have been waiting for the day that women can aspire for the same great heights as men in the game – whether that’s playing or coaching,” she says. “I really thought we were well on our way. It’s absolutely thrown me.”
AFLW CEO Nicole Livingstone announced on Tuesday that no decision has been made, insisting they are still canvassing a number of options.
Alberti says cutting the season back is a huge step backwards.
“It would take us back 100 years after we’ve been fighting so hard to get this game up,” she says. “It’s a real slap in the face to women. It’s sickening. I feel so sad.”
“23 rounds is a really long season and a recent poll came back saying the men want a shorter season,” Alberti says. “It is an ideal opportunity to give women the extra games and everyone can be happy.”
The bottom line and profitability count but Alberti says it short-sighted to cut the game before it’s had a chance to flourish.
“You have to invest in a business to then make it profitable and you cannot do that in two years,” she says. “You cannot ignore the momentum of this game, or the half a million women and girls who are now playing footy.”
I imagine this was @DaisyPearce6 face when she heard of the @AFL reduced @aflwomens season. It’s particularly ridiculous once you’ve read @SamJaneLane brilliant book ROAR tracing the steps & sacrifices countless women have made to get to this point #AFLW pic.twitter.com/yVCaSx0tXZ
— Peter Helliar (@pjhelliar) August 4, 2018
Alberti was on the AFLW advisory committee and genuinely believed the AFL saw the women’s game as a priority but she is no longer convinced.
“I don’t believe the women are being given a fair go. I don’t see it as a priority of the AFL office. I don’t believe Nicole [Livingstone] can run this league with just two staff,” she says. “How on god’s earth is that possible?”
For the women’s game to succeed it needs resources, commitment and vision.
“This is about more than football, it’s a cultural change that translates into other endeavours for women,” she say. “What would this decision [to cut the number of games] say to the women and girls who are coming to the sport in droves? What does it say to the players to the parents, the coaches, the spectators?”
As a lifelong lover of AFL, Alberti only wants the best for the sport and she fears how the game will fare if the AFL proceeds with cutting back the women’s competition.
“Its absolutely thrown me. There could be a real backlash. I hope there’s not because I love the game but women make up 50% of spectators and fans. How will they respond to this?”