The new women’s AFL competition has its origins in an exhibition match played between the Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs in round 20 of 2015.
The main event – the men’s match – was a forgettable affair, a 98-point win in favour of the Dogs. The preceding clash between the two women’s teams however would change the immediate future of the game. The Melbourne Demons won the keenly contested match by four points. The skills shown by the female players turned some heads and won some hearts and minds, too.
Shown on television, that women’s match had a higher average audience than the men’s match between Essendon and Adelaide the day before. At the AFL it became crystal clear that the time to move on a national women’s competition had come. Right now.
The code’s general manager of game and market development, Simon Lethlean, says an “unannounced announcement” from AFL boss Gillon McLachlan quickly followed. “If my recollection serves me right, we announced at a function the next night that we always planned to do this in 2020,” he explains. “But we are going to [get a women’s national competition] off the ground in 2017.”
How it happened
Those who would be pulling the competition together would barely have time to catch their breath. Suddenly a four-and-a-half-year project had been trimmed to a skinny 18 months.
As Lethlean explains, there was only one full-time internal secondment to make the competition happen. There were around six people working on the AFLW regularly and up to 40 people involved somewhere along the line – but there would be no new administrative team to take on what would be a tricky project with a short deadline.
“We didn’t appoint anyone to take on a new role so that was a resource challenge. But we’d wanted to improve our collaboration across the business, so I guess this was the perfect project to do it.”
The main indicator of success for us with this competition is continued growth in girls’ football, not corporate dollars.
Josh Vanderloo, the head of female and football and junior development, would play a key role in the project. He found someone from every department to head up the streams of work within their area, but they had to absorb it into their existing roles.
“It was clear from very early on that we would only succeed if we leveraged the existing infrastructure and expertise from across the business,” says Vanderloo. “I was fortunate that many people volunteered to be involved. Over time, I was able to take a step back and steer a group of highly talented, engaged people towards a common goal by letting the functional leaders simply do what they do best.”
From licensing clubs to listing players, booking fixtures, making a viable commercial model and having a broadcast deal – there was much to be done. But done it was.
“It had such goodwill and good energy that it happened reasonably organically and naturally. It’s been a challenge time-wise but, like anything, when you have a deadline you tend to get things done,” says Lethlean.
Kicking off with a match on February 3, the AFLW features eight teams including four from Victoria (Carlton, Collingwood, Western Bulldogs and Melbourne) and one each from New South Wales (Greater Western Sydney), Queensland (Brisbane), Western Australia (Fremantle) and South Australia (Adelaide).
The competition proper will run over two months and training is capped for players at nine hours a week. With an average wage of around $8800 per player and a $200,000 salary cap per club it makes it very much a semi-professional league – something that’s drawn a mixed response.