With the early shutdown of the 2020 NAB AFLW season, Yokayi Footy celebrates the improvements in the competition while fleshing out the challenges.

IF THE AFL 2020 season started strangely, spare a thought for the AFLW year and how it finished.

With the men's first round fixture commencing to empty stadiums, it was shut down once the round was completed leaving us all feeling depleted. At least there was a ray of hope peeping over the horizon in the form of a season.

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The AFLW, on the other hand, saw the women play the best part of a full season, have that mutate into a strange finals series which, ostensibly, on the eve of the Grand Final it was game over. No premier. No victory lap. Forever the 2020 AFLW season will have an asterisk next to it and COVID-19 will be to blame for the omission. 

Given the advent and rise of AFLW the success of footballs newest iteration cannot be understated.

The numbers speak for themselves. With the AFLW coming online in 2017, the game has seen participation rates rise from 195,000 in 2014 to over 580,000 in 2019.

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2020 was significant because the AFLW was expanded by four teams with Richmond, West Coast, St Kilda and Gold Coast. 

This predictably saw some teams struggle. Ironically, it was Richmond and West Coast proving that despite success in the AFL and having significant club resources the challenge of building a new team from scratch is hard.  

By and large the on-field outcome was overwhelmingly positive as the game had got demonstratively better. As the highlights from Yokayi Footy revealed there were improvements in skill level and the quality of matches.

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 Off field, the significance of the AFLW also grew as partnerships with Coles and BHP were announced enabling the AFLW to develop a women's coaching and umpire academy as well as funding for issues of inclusion and wellbeing. So, to have a season where so much had happened but there was essentially no actual outcome was hard to deal with.   

Despite these improvements, there are still challenges around the development, recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female talent. In comparing the AFL with the AFLW, it was thought that the AFLW would follow suit regarding the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. In the AFL, the men make up approximately 11 per cent of the elite AFL. As First Nations Australians make up approximately 3 per cent of the general population this is a significantly positive figure.

In 2017, 6 per cent of the AFLW was made up of First Nations women. For the last two years this figure has remained at 5 per cent.  

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This is something that the AFLW has sought to understand further by undertaking a research project of interviewing current and past Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have played in the AFLW. This is a proactive stance by the AFL to understand what the specific issues are and to improve the talent pathway and the retention of the women when they get to the elite AFLW.

For the AFL's Indigenous and Social Policy Manager, Katriina Heikkanen, having worked in the industry for nearly 10 years at both state and national level she sees the current situation as a chance to re-set.

I think this a chance to begin implementing different pathways for many of our Indigenous players, especially the women, whose circumstances are really complex and compelling. The talent pathway into the game needs to ensure that the same set of criteria that is applied to the men is not applied to the women. The same goes for the transitioning out. I have seen so much talent on my trips around Australia and I think it is time for the AFLW to really capitalise on that.

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From the information that has been gathered to date, there seems to be some crossover with men's issues as it pertains to cross-cultural awareness. However, this is made more challenging regarding the issue of gender given the AFL and the clubs have had some 25 years to implement and refine programs that have dealt with Indigenous men playing in the elite competition. For example, the All-Stars camp has been running for 20 years enabling the discussions from them to be folded into the industry more broadly and resulted in things like cultural leave for funerals and Indigenous liason officers at clubs.

For many First Nations women coming into the AFLW, this is the first time they have come into an organisation that is elite and hyper masculine. The professional demands that are then placed on them are several levels above what they have been used to in the second-tier football competitions or from other sports like netball and basketball.

Similarly, clubs have had to adapt realising that dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men is somewhat different to dealing with the women. Feedback and messaging can be lost as it is delivered in a way that can be viewed as too critical or culturally inappropriate (i.e. a white middle aged male coach engaging with a Aboriginal teenager, in some cases who is already a mother).  These experiences can for some be too overwhelming and the fallback position for the player is to return to that which is familiar, their community. The cost of this is that the talent that has been identified is not given the opportunity to develop which in turn denies them the chance to fully pursue their goals and the football public looses the opportunity to enjoy the football talent on offer. 

As the season awaits to be rebooted at least the AFL will have a semblance of completion, that is the hope. As for all the players and staff associated with the AFLW it will be a winter of 'what ifs'. What cannot be underestimated is the resilience of the women that play the code.  

Given the challenges that many of them have had over many years: being told they were not good enough, or the pathway at the age of 15 was no longer available, or the massive effort of returning to the AFLW after having a baby was not assured, one thing is for sure: the AFLW in 2021 will be the best and it will be the women who play it that will make it so.