Sport AFL Three years on, what the AFL chief got right about AFLW

Three years on, what the AFL chief got right about AFLW

Hard work: Carlton's Tayla Harris hits the deck during the AFLW season. Photo: Getty
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“I can guarantee you that AFLW in three years will be vastly different to year one,” proclaimed AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan at the oh so fancy inner-city Melbourne launch of the women’s league in 2017.

McLachlan was certainly right about that one, but is it better or worse than the league its players and fans had hoped for?

Sunday’s Grand Final between formidable Adelaide and the plucky – or is it lucky? – Carlton at Adelaide Oval came after a season that has been beset by issues surrounding player payments, the inclusion of transgendered athletes and the impact of incessant trolling.

The rules have been tweaked and fixturing has become a source of controversy.

There is a growing fear the league is expanding far too quickly, and without a cohesive vision.

“I want to be clear, this will be good for business … [it’s about] equality and aspiration,” McLachlan told the assembled sponsors, media and players at that 2017 launch among the Pantone coral paintwork, the chic chandeliers and the food trucks laden with frozen yoghurt.

This was a branded exercise designed to do one important thing: Sell the AFL’s latest product, but even then it seemed McLachlan was keen to temper expectations.

“I’d like to remind everyone, this is year one,” he said.

“The 176 women making their debut this weekend carry an extraordinary amount on their shoulders and I ask that we give them the time and space to grow into the elite footballers that we know they can be.”

Three years on and it’s fair to ask whether the media and the fans have given the AFLW what McLachlan asked for – time for the league to find its wings before launching into the sort of criticism that Australian Rules attracts.

The AFLW has undoubtedly provided its loyal followers with more than its fair share of “wow” moments.

The crowd may not always be as big as their male counterparts, but they are certainly as passionate. Perhaps the ire has all been too cutting, too incessant for a fledgling enterprise?

But this league has, from its birth, been sold as an agent of change, an arbiter of equality. In McLachlan’s own words, “We have a revolution happening in our game.”

And like any good spectators at a revolutionary event, yes, we all lost our heads in those potent early days.

However, trying to market and sell equality as a commodity is a tricky thing.

Unlike many of the AFL’s other marketable concepts such as pride, inclusion and “Zooper” goals, equality, by its very definition, is measurable.

Equal means half. Equal means the same for all.

And at this present juncture, about the only thing female players get more of are ACL injuries.

So you’ll forgive us if we don’t go popping the champagne just yet – even after Erin Phillips won her second competition best and fairest at the AFLW awards on Tuesday night.

With the success measured by the record crowd at the grand final, the focus should rightly be on the game. This is our September.

But the week before the final it was the issues around the game that dominated airtime.

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