ALL 18 clubs will have a NAB AFL Women's team by the end of 2023, with the AFL Commission throwing the doors open to expansion and bringing the start of the season forward to December.
The next AFLW season will begin in December this year to give the 10-round competition clear air and prevent an overlap with the AFL competition, with the Grand Final to be held in mid-March, 2022.
But that season – also known as season six – will still be contested by the existing 14 AFLW teams.
The clubs without AFLW teams – Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney – have now been invited to submit proposals by July 9 as to why they should be included as early as season seven, which is likely to start at the end of 2022, with details to be worked through.
A decision on when the four new clubs will be admitted will be made at the AFL Commission meeting in August.
After its beginnings as an eight-team competition in 2017, the AFLW will consist of 18 teams when season eight starts in late 2023.
North Melbourne and Geelong joined in 2019, with Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast added the following year.
Female participation numbers have risen by 100 per cent since 2015, with more than 600,000 female participants and more than 67,000 women and girls playing the game each week.
"The NAB AFLW Competition has built a new audience base for the code with some 4.5 million AFLW fans, 155,908 attendees, 6.1 million viewers and an incredible 20 per cent of supporters who are new or first-time AFL attendees," AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said.
"But we don't feel that the competition is whole without all 18 clubs and we know from the clubs that they don't feel whole now without an AFLW team. AFLW is not just a competition that makes our game better but a culture that makes our whole industry better.
"We have seen the interest grow as we went from eight teams to 10, and then to 14, and we expect that growth to continue as we move to engage all 18 clubs and their supporters. Clubs and their supporters want to be part of the AFLW, and we want another two million supporters to get behind their AFLW teams.
"AFLW has significant momentum and we want to keep that momentum and bring the power and the supporter base behind all 18 clubs before the end of 2024. The standard of play has continued to lift as we have expanded the competition and we are seeing more free-flowing and attacking football as more talent comes through the pathways."
McLachlan said the four clubs would have a range of criteria to meet in order to be brought into the competition.
"If they can get ready for season seven, they will come in and meet the submission if they meet the criteria. [If they are unsuccessful,] they will have to reapply and hit a threshold, but I'm confident we'll get them in by season eight," McLachlan said.
"Broadly, it's list build strategy, a whole-club look at how the program will be integrated into the club, the facilities are incredibly important, business model, corporate support, consumer support, the business case they're going to build out around it."
The AFL's general manager of women's football, Nicole Livingstone, said AFLW was the biggest single employer of professional sportswomen in Australia.
"We have 420 women playing the game at the elite level and that will grow to 540 players by the time all four remaining AFL clubs join the competition,” Ms Livingstone said.
"We have created a clear pathway for girls and women from Auskick to the elite competition and we are committed to continuing to work with the players, the AFLPA and the clubs over the coming years, to ensure AFLW is not only the sport of choice for women, but it is a sport that provides more women the opportunity to choose to make it the career of choice."
Details surrounding the upcoming AFLW Sign and Trade period – including whether existing clubs will be limited to one-year contracts this year to allow for free player movement come expansion – are expected to be finalised in the coming weeks.
"We're working through with the clubs now. Clearly, the overall talent distribution – how new players enter and how existing talent is redistributed as we expand the league – is critical," McLachlan said.
"We've got a meeting with the clubs in late May and the team is working on that now. It will be informed somewhat by how wide we expand, if we go to all four clubs in season seven, then there is one seminal period we'll have to set up for, but that's to be confirmed."
Priority picks were also discussed at Wednesday's Commission meeting but are yet to be publicly confirmed.
AFLW season timelines
Season five – January-April, 2021
Season six – December 2021-March 2022
Season seven – Late 2022 start
Season eight – Late 2023 start