BIRCH: Enough clear air, it's time to align our season with the boys

THE 2023 season will be a significant milestone in the journey of women’s footy, so let’s make some milestone changes to grow the game as a whole.

The addition of four teams – Essendon, Port Adelaide, Hawthorn and Sydney – will add enormous excitement to the AFLW competition. It’s incredible to think that little over five years ago the league started with eight teams and 240 players, and next year it will be home to 18 teams and 540 players.

For the first time the competition will be complete, giving us the strongest foundation we’ve had so far to develop and build our game.

With competition and club equality achieved, it will provide us with a unique opportunity to think about how we can now grow our game’s ‘product’.

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Financial investment will continue to play a huge role in how fast we can grow AFLW, so it’s crucial that we keep trying to find more efficient ways to make our game more financially sustainable.

The first thing we must do is change the start date of the AFLW season.

For many of us, having footy on our TV screens almost all year round for the past five years has been a dream, but can we maintain this in the long term? This scheduling hasn’t just stretched the players – it has loaded up the governing body and its clubs.

Since AFLW kicked off in 2017, the industry really hasn’t had an off-season to recharge; nor a preseason to strengthen and revitalise itself. It has been one season into another.

Western Bulldogs players huddle up during round seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Being given ‘clear air’ away from the men’s game has been terrific to gain the momentum we needed with our fans, but an 18-team AFLW should be the tipping point where we play our seasons together.

Aligning the two leagues and the overall AFL product is a vision I believe is sustainable, and it would maximise both the women’s league and the entire game.

It would be considerably more cost-effective given resources wouldn’t be stretched as far, with the AFL, clubs and broadcasters working more collaboratively on the promotion of our game.

We would showcase our AFL product over a six to eight-month period, and this shorter, sharper, punchier timeframe would give our game less chance of being diluted by other sports. This has affected the AFLW significantly this year given we have had to compete with cricket’s Ashes and Big Bash League, the tennis and the Winter Olympics.

St Kilda's Alana Woodward acknowledges some fans ahead of a training session on February 17, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

At the same time, there have been very few AFLW advertisements on free-to-air television and most of our season has been screened on a secondary free-to-air channel. And during the Seven Network’s coverage of the cricket and the Winter Olympics there has been no cross-promotion of AFLW.

One venue, two games of football. I like the sound of that. Double-header fixtures would save a substantial amount of money in broadcast and ground infrastructure, and it would have even greater flow-on effects in other ways too.

It would dramatically increase fan bases, with supporters having the opportunity to attend either or both matches on the same day.

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It would encourage fans to follow their club as a collective, rather than having the perception of supporting two separate teams. Personally, I believe this is the most significant part of the vision.

Both leagues need cross-promotion and integration, and this would be an authentic, natural way to make it happen. This assimilation would occur effortlessly at club level, and it would also lead to a crossover of commentators, media and journalists.

Geelong's Georgie Rankin celebrates with fans during round five, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Double-headers would also make it more viable to share technology, such as introducing the score review system into the women’s game, along with other tools and resources to dig deeper into the analysis of AFLW games.

A later start to the AFLW season would also allow games to be played in much cooler conditions and at the best stadiums. Yes, AFLW is about community, but playing in hot, windy conditions on suburban or semi-rural grounds doesn’t foster the best game of footy or the most crowd-friendly environment.

A greater focus on player welfare would also improve the on-field product. As I highlighted recently, the AFL’s stance on this key issue will be revealed later this year when it negotiates with AFLW players over our next collective bargaining agreement.

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Once again this season, our players have been stretched to the brink, playing in sweltering conditions, multiple games a week, dealing with regular pandemic-related rescheduling, putting jobs on hold and, for Fremantle and West Coast, living away from home.

If player welfare is prioritised – and this includes increasing contract hours and receiving wages that more accurately reflect the work put in – we will very quickly see growth in skill and athleticism, a possible reduction in injuries and, as a result, an improved brand of football.

So, yes, the foundation to grow the game is almost complete, but it’s time we embraced men’s and women’s footy as one product, from the industry leaders right through to our fans.

Starting next year, let’s create the biggest season fans have ever seen. It would be yet another game-changer in the evolving culture of our great game.

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