As AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan put it, the AFLW competition is now “whole”.
By late 2022 (which will mark the beginning of season seven), the AFLW will boast all 18 existing clubs, including the final four of Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney.
It’s yet another chapter in the remarkable growth that has taken place in AFLW’s short history, after it launched in 2017, three years earlier than was initially planned.
As he did then, it was McLachlan who fronted cameras to make Thursday’s announcement, signalling the momentous nature of the occasion.
“Today is a pretty defining day in the history of Australian football,” said McLachlan.
As Sam Lane wrote in her book ROAR, the inauguration of an AFL women’s competition was “the AFL’s single most profound act of inclusion in a 121-year history.”
Over the span of five seasons, AFLW has been a game-changer for participation of girls and women in the sport, which has almost doubled from 318,000 to over 600,000.
With yesterday’s announcement, those girls can now aspire to play for any of the league’s 18 teams. In symbolic terms, the gesture of inclusion is now complete.
AFL’s gamble a play for national consciousness
Granting all four teams a licence for next year is a gamble by the AFL.
Detractors will be quick to note that adding four extra teams stretches the so-called talent pool thinner (and wider) in a competition that looked decidedly lopsided in season five.
In 2020, four new teams were introduced: Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast.
This year (in their second season), those same teams occupied the bottom five positions on the ladder, with Gold Coast failing to win a game.
But while newer clubs may have suffered, the quality of the competition has not, with the calibre increasing year on year.
More importantly for the AFL, the move to expand is not about wins and losses, but the grip of the game on the national consciousness.
When the Eagles joined the competition, for example, the inaugural West Australian derby with Fremantle drew a crowd of 35,185 at Perth Stadium.
Now, with Port Adelaide and Sydney’s arrival, the league will seek to cash in on the prospect of two more blockbuster derbies.
The Showdown, in particular, promises spicy viewing if Erin Phillips can push on for another season, potentially donning her father’s famous guernsey in what the Power are already cheekily calling her #HomeComing.
AFLW faces uphill battle to retain elite talent
Such golden opportunities to market the game are increasingly important at a time when invaluable exposure has been heaped upon the code’s rivals such as soccer.
Off the back of their record-breaking semi-final run at the Tokyo Olympics, for example, The Matildas drew an audience of 1.8m — the largest for women’s team sport in Australian TV history.
The Matildas’ success highlights one of soccer’s key advantages over Australian rules football: it’s an international sport played on the biggest of stages.
And in just two years’ time, Australia and New Zealand will host the FIFA Women’s World Cup, an event that drew 1.12 billion viewers in France in 2019.
At Thursday’s press conference, McLachlan pointed out that expansion would make the AFL the largest employer of female athletes across the country (with 540 AFLW players across 18 clubs).
The exciting prospect promises more opportunities for aspiring footballers across the country, but the AFL will have a fight on its hands to attract and retain top talent.
As Carlton star Darcy Vescio pointed out on Twitter, while AFLW players are currently paid for 15 hours a week over six months, being an AFLW footballer is not a half-year commitment. As the competition grows, so too do professional standards, as well as external scrutiny.
The women who play AFLW are expected to perform as “elite” athletes, but are remunerated as part-timers.
This dance has forced some of the game’s most exciting young players, including most recently Fremantle’s Sabreena Duffy, to step away from the game in what is an enormous blow to the code.
With all 18 clubs now represented and the promise of more eyes on the league, it’s a situation that will continue to cause headaches for the fledgling competition.
The AFL took a leap of faith in 2017 to bring the women’s competition forward by several years. To keep things in perspective, that means AFLW has grown to 18 teams just two years after it was meant to begin.
If AFLW is to keep prospering, the AFL may need to go out on a limb again by outlining a clear path to professionalism.