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COMMENT: AFL has to splash cash on AFLW

AFL’s head of women's football Nicole Livingstone says no decision has been made on the 2019 fixture - AFLW,AFL
AFL’s head of women's football Nicole Livingstone says no decision has been made on the 2019 fixture

WE ARE on the verge of the next stage of development in the NAB AFL Women's competition without a publicly known roadmap of how the next few years will pan out.

The 2017 and 2018 seasons saw eight clubs take part in a seven-week home and away phase from the start of February, culminating in a Grand Final between the top two sides. 

But with North Melbourne and Geelong joining the competition next year, and four teams – Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast – being added in 2020, we’re still to learn of the structure and length of the seasons, much to the chagrin of players and fans alike. 

It's a complicated decision, with factors including finances, the impact on state leagues, the as-yet unsigned broadcast deal, club workloads and marketing and promotion of the competition itself part of the equation. 

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan made the choice to fast-track the women’s league, which was originally scheduled to commence in 2020. The 2017 start resulted in a massive increase in participation at local level, with young girls and women of all ages pulling on the boots. But we're now dealing with the complications that come with expanding any new venture. 

Despite recent reports teams would be playing just six matches (along with two weeks of finals), the AFL’s head of women's football Nicole Livingstone said on Tuesday no decision had been made.

The AFL is aiming to release the 2019 fixture in late October, presumably after the NAB AFLW Draft, which now is slated for late October.

But the decision is about much more than the pure number of matches, or whether to punt on an earlier start. Should the AFL take a calculated risk and back its product – which has given joy to many people around the country – to clash (at times) with the likes of cricket and tennis? Or will it take the safer option and attempt to shoehorn it into a limited February-March window, an option many see as a backward step that would stifle growth?

The broadcast challenge

The AFL is very keen on giving the fledgling competition "clean air" by running it in the February-March frame, a neat eight-week period which starts after the conclusion of the Australian Open tennis tournament and finishes with a Grand Final in a specially cleared spot during round one of the AFL competition.

Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce, to many the face of the competition, has proposed a nine-week season featuring a four-team, two-week finals series. Her plan would require an 11-week commitment, with the Grand Final on March 16, a week before the AFL season starts.

This option would require the season to start on January 5, a traditionally dead time of year in the sporting calendar, when most people are still on holidays. It would also be a tough on players, who would need to continue training at high-intensity during the Christmas-New Year period. 

The broadcast deal is still under negotiation, but if the rights are once again awarded to the Seven Network and Fox Footy, a conflating factor in 2019 is Seven’s acquisition of the domestic cricket broadcasting rights. 

There are two tests against Sri Lanka starting January 24 (day-night) and February 1 (the logical spot for the AFLW season-opener, based on fixturing for the first two seasons). Seven will also be showing the T20 Big Bash League, previously broadcast by Network Ten.

The Nine Network now has the rights to the Australian Open, while Ten has a relatively sport-free summer. 

Regardless of the structure of the season, it is likely some AFLW matches will be shown on a secondary free-to-air channel. The reality of where AFLW sits as a competition means it is highly unlikely to force cricket or tennis (mainstays of the Australian summer broadcast diet) off primary free-to-air channels. 

Logically, where matches are shown on free-to-air would make no difference, except perhaps to those who might be looking to argue "relegating" content to a secondary channel diminishes its value. If it somehow means the season could be made longer, then we ought to embrace it.

And assuming Fox remains involved and sticks to its formula from the first two seasons, every match (bar the Grand Final) would be shown live on the pay-TV channel. 

Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce has proposed a nine-week season. Picture: AFL Photos

Player payments

It's basic economics: a longer season will cost more. 

It's why the sometimes outlandish suggestion of a significantly longer AFLW season, running concurrently with the AFL season, simply isn't a practical option at the moment. 

Player payments are covered by the AFL. With no money coming in from broadcast rights over the past two years (AFL player salaries are essentially covered by broadcasting revenue), as well as free entry to matches, it will take a big investment to extend the season.

This is not to say the AFL should not go ahead with an eight-week season plus finals, rather to point out the realities of the decision that has to be made. 

Many fans have said they are willing to pay entry to support the AFLW, but the AFL doesn't want cost as a barrier blocking people from attending. 

Gold coin entry, often floated as a favourable option, wouldn’t even cover the cost of a ticketing system, let alone support a fledgling competition. 

Entry to AFLW games has been free during the first two seasons. Picture: AFL Photos

The AFLW effect

The introduction of the AFLW has, on the whole, been one of the best initiatives in football in recent years. 

It's raised the profile of women's football, which has long been played, albeit hidden backstage. It's encouraged young girls to hunt out and create local teams and changed community football clubs for the better. 

Last week, my local club in Melbourne’s outer-east held a fundraiser for endometriosis, a disease which affects one in 10 women. There's little chance the ‘blokey’ club of five years ago would have done that.

A few weeks prior, I played alongside three mums, one of whom is the club president. They had decided to take the plunge and run out alongside their 20-year-old daughters for the first time. 

Earlier in the year, I sat among nearly 42,000 fans at Optus Stadium in Perth, as Fremantle and Collingwood played the first football match at the new venue. It just happened to be a women's match. And the "Freeeeooo" chant that went up in the final minutes gave me goosebumps.

This is why the AFL needs to continue backing the AFLW. To push for as much exposure as possible, to take the financial plunge needed, and support the women – among them teachers, nurses, lawyers, construction workers – who are juggling work and/or study to play a game they love at the highest level possible. 

The AFL started this. Now, it must see it through in the way it deserves.