AFLW’s success is just the beginning
By: Taryn McQueen
With the second AFLW season now underway, Populous Associate and amateur women’s AFL player Taryn McQueen takes a look back at where it all began. January 2017 saw the introduction of a brand new competition in the Australian sporting market. The AFLW kicked off with its inaugural season and was met with unrivalled success. Teams from all corners of the country made up the 8 club competition giving national exposure to women’s Australian Rules football. With close to 200,000 fans attending games across the country, spectator numbers were well above expectations solidifying the anticipation and excitement for this new competition. State leagues also felt the impact of the AFLW with rapid growth – some clubs increasing by 300%.
The season ran ahead of the men’s competition which saw the fixture fill a historically quiet time in the Australian sporting calendar. Being the opening year, the competition was brief. The home and away season ran for 7 weeks with the top two teams progressing directly into the Grand Final. Due to the success of the Brisbane Lions, the Grand Final was played in their home state. An excited 15,610 spectators attended the first ever AFLW Grand Final at Metricon Stadium. An impressive number considering Queensland is known for its strong allegiance with Rugby League.
The Grand Final however would not be the only big crowd to gather for an AFLW game. The first ever AFLW match held in Carlton, Melbourne saw over 25,000 spectators turn out to watch their new sporting heroes. Thousands more arrived, hopeful to watch the game, eventually forcing a lock-out at the heritage ground. Average attendance per match was close to 7,000 which can only be seen as a success to AFLW organisers. The fact that people are genuinely excited to watch women’s football helps strengthen the AFL’s position that Australian Rules football is for everyone. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Nielsen SportsLink Australia found that Australian men are more likely to attend a women’s sporting match (10%) than women (6%).
The AFL has long strived for its competition to be an event for the whole family to enjoy. With the construction of recent grounds like Metricon where the focus is on a holistic fan experience above and beyond the match on the field, it’s easy to see the AFL’s commitment to this philosophy. The AFLW did not stray from this approach. Crowds were filled with Mum’s and Dad’s bringing their kids down to the grounds to watch their new favourite sports stars play for the first time. Kids were excited to watch the games and get as close to the players as they could. Parents were just as excited to be watching the games and seeing a potential path for their footy mad daughters. However, it’s safe to say that the players themselves were the most excited as their dreams had now become a reality. Finally, their games were being appreciated by a national audience.
Craig Starcevich, coach of the Brisbane Lions AFLW team mentioned that there were a number of occasions where the coaches would get back to the locker rooms long before the players and they would have to wait for them to finish greeting their fans. Craig summed this up by saying “it’s not such a bad thing for players and fans to be so engaged.”
A unique element of the AFLW was the fact that it had brought football back to the community, or more so, the traditional “homes” of these teams. Victorian teams like the Western Bulldogs and Carlton have only used their suburban grounds for training since the AFL made the decision to consolidate all Melbourne based club home games at the MCG and Etihad Stadium. The emergence of the AFLW, returned national football to these grounds, reigniting a connection with the local communities that fans had been missing for a number of years. However, a number of challenges were created as some of these grounds were not equipped for televised games and more importantly the facilities were not intended for use by women only teams. From a fan engagement perspective, there was no better place to engage in the action.
With the success of the inaugural AFLW season, it can only be assumed that participation in the sport will grow both from a player and spectator point of view. The AFLW has announced its first stage of expansion with 6 new teams to be added to the competition by 2020.
The first AFLW Combine (player’s draft) was also held recently. The AFL combine has long been a testing ground for the most promising male players. With the inclusion of the AFLW Combine, it proves the legitimacy of the competition but more importantly the commitment that the AFL has for this new league.
With the growing enthusiasm and professionalism of the AFLW it is expected that the facilities, both existing and proposed need to adjust to accommodate female athletes. Whether it is providing dedicated women’s change rooms/training facilities or more flexible infrastructure for all professional athletes. As market leaders, we need to ensure that we are ahead of the curve in understanding the needs of these players, clubs and league administrators. With this in mind, Populous has recently formed WISE to explore the meaning and design impacts of the pivotal changes in women’s sport happening in Australia.