AFLW 2019: What we learned
The AFLW wrapped up last month when Adelaide soundly defeated Carlton to secure their second premiership. In its third season, the AFLW grew to ten teams and audiences, skills, and scores were on the up. Here’s four things we learned from AFLW 2019.
1. Erin Phillips is the GOAT
Okay, maybe we already knew this one. After picking up just about every award in the AFLW’s inaugural season, Erin Phillips returned from a injury-riddled 2018 to take the clean sweep of trophies again this year: premiership captain; best on ground in the grand final; AFLW best and fairest; AFLW Players’ MVP; and All-Australian captain.
The former WNBA champ was also responsible for two of the most poignant moments in the season. With her team comfortably ahead in the third quarter of the grand final, Phillips went down with an ACL injury. As she was stretchered off the field, players of both teams came over in droves to wish her well, showing the hugely high respect in which Phillips is held.
And how about that speech as she accepted her second league best and fairest award?
“'I am one of three girls. My dad played footy and when I was born people felt sorry for him because he didn’t have a son to play footy some day and carry the Phillips name. Dad, I know you’re watching and Mum, I hope I’ve made you proud… and we can stick it up those people who said that to you.”
2. Women’s footy pulls the crowds
We already knew this too, but the massive scale of the crowd at Adelaide Oval on 31 March is testament to the strength of the AFLW and the fact that the AFL’s continued reluctance to charge for entry to matches is a missed opportunity.
53,034 people witnessed the home team race away to their second premiership in three years. It was the biggest crowd ever at a women’s sporting event in Australia. Organisers were left so unprepared that it took until almost half time to get spectators in to the ground and most of them without a footy Record in hand after the match programme sold out early in the day. By contrast, fewer than 20,000 turned up to see Brisbane play last year’s premiers, West Coast, in the opening round of the men’s league.
3. The conference system was a failed experiment
While there were improvements to the format of the league this year with the advent of the first finals series, the introduction of the conference system was an unmitigated and widely-acknowledged flop. Some teams never faced off, and Conference A was much stronger than Conference B - meaning teams in the latter qualified for finals while teams in Conference A, with far superior records, didn’t.
Yet, despite its obvious failings, the AFL Women’s Competition Committee recommended this week that the conference system be used again next season. Players and fans alike will be hoping that the AFL Commission has another look before taking this controversial recommendation on board.
4. The AFL can’t have it both ways
In 2019, the AFL again decided to shoehorn the women’s season between the Australian Open and the men’s footy season. According to administrators, the decision to keep the AFLW to just eight weeks and force athletes to ply their craft in the hottest part of the year was for the benefit of the league - to give it an opportunity to gain audiences without competing against other popular sporting events. Yet, at the same time, the AFL persisted with the perennially unpopular AFLX which they promoted to within an inch of its hugely contrived life in the middle of the women’s season. They also let the final two weeks of the season overlap with the start of the men’s - meaning women’s matches were demoted to less popular TV channels.
If the AFL is serious about promoting the AFLW, it needs to listen to the players and get serious about the length of the season. We know from the crowds and TV audiences this year that the AFLW can compete with other codes. A season in which teams play each other once, in conjunction with fair pay for the players, club staff, and officials, is the next step the league needs. It will make life easier for players struggling to balance full-time work with semi-professional sport and will result in better quality footy on the park.