The AFLW’s fight from within

A general view of the Whitten Oval which hosted the Carlton v Western Bulldogs clash earlier this season.

How does a league respond from added competition coming from within?

Normally a sports body will face competition from other sports trying to vie for television time and support from all parts of the globe. When the AFL begun their AFLW competition in season one, they had launched a competition designed to compete against the W-League, WBBL and Super Netball competitions.

For season two, however, the AFLW faced added competition from the most unlikely source – the AFL itself.

Months earlier, the AFL had announced their newest idea – the AFLX competition. A 10-a-side competition which was designed to take the game to the world stage. However, it was brought in for a February start; colliding with the AFLW premiership season – much to the chagrin of AFLW followers, who had then learned that the creation of AFLX had taken a large percentage of AFLW’s potential marketing money for 2018.

Danielle Croci, co-host of the Footy Gospel podcast and a writer for the Footy Almanac and the Women’s Game, was ‘disappointed’ at the AFL’s attiude towards prioritising AFLX over the AFLW, given both are in their infancy as competitions.

“Scheduling it (AFLX) smack bang during the AFLW season, when it was only in its second year, felt unfair and a reflection of their priorities, even if it was just an attempt at branching out and following the success of the BBL.” Croci said.

However, the most pleasing aspect for the AFLW’s second season is that fans have elected to vote with their feet. With the competition now hosting stand-alone games, instead of being played as curtain-raisers or curtain-closers to AFL pre-season matches, fans now have a genuine choice to see both men’s and women’s teams over a weekend.

Local councillor Joe Nicita says that the passion of the fans has allowed the AFLW to continue to thrive in the competition’s second season.

“There’s a real community building here, in places like Twitter and offline in local clubs, and it’s led to art pieces, books, video content and podcasts that take the sport far beyond what the AFL itself is doing in terms of promotion.” Nicita said.

Croci, likewise, believes that nothing was going to stop the AFLW from growing.

“I felt that the people who wanted to watch AFLW would not be deterred, and still go and pay attention to it anyway”, she said.

Women’s footy has also held its own compared to the crowds that have seen AFL pre-season games and AFLX

Consider this – the first round of the AFLW competition this year attracted just over 44,000 people to their games, compared to 42,000 across all three days of the AFLX tournament. Admittedly, while the AFL had charged a fee for the AFLX tournament, the crowd numbers still show that the AFLW is still a force to be reckoned with in its second season.

Perhaps more impressively, the AFLW’s fourth round held its own against the JLT Community Series, the AFL’s pre-season hitouts. Over 14,000 people attended four games of the AFLW, compared to 18,000 people at the men’s games. Considering that two of those games were affected heavily by wet weather, it has shown that the AFLW has succeeded in making games stand-alone affairs which can attract a crowd.

Nicita agrees, drawing on his experience from his attendance at three games around the country thus far this season.

“Standalone games make it easier for fans to invest time into watching and attending matches, and place the focus on AFLW as a main event (as it should be), not the precursor to the AFL or another sport”, he said.

“I think it’s testament to the love and passion that they have for this young sport that the fans are not just turning up for the season opener, special matches or the Grand Final; they’re turning up and staying for the really demanding ones too.”

Croci says that the amount of people supporting women’s footy has been ‘great’, especially at the three matches she has attended this season.

“I have friends who are not otherwise interested in footy attending and talking about it, which admittedly is one of the positives of games still being free – they can come and try it out. Seeing families there and young children enjoying it is my favourite part – these women deserve to be heroes”, she said.

Indeed, the supporters of the AFLW has contributed an enormous amount to the success of the league in season two, an incredible achievement considering the lack of marketing compared to what was received for AFLX.