COMMENT: Ever since it became apparent that women’s football could be the sleeping giant of the sport, the AFL has done everything possible to help ensure the launch of AFLW will be a success, culminating with the brilliant ‘I’d Like to See that’ ad launched a fortnight out from the first game,
There is no doubt that the rapid evolution of women’s game took even the AFL by surprise. In a cool, rational world, the AFL would have had 2018, not 2017, slated as the date for a new national competition to begin.
But a wave of momentum has grown over the past 18 months, which left the AFL no choice but to push on with the league 12 months ahead of what their business case had initially told them. That wave was built on the appetite of the community for elite level footy, regardless of the gender of those who were playing.
It was also built on the appetite for the corporate sector for a product which had a different demographic appeal. Advertisers could reach new audiences with an elite women’s competition and in the end, it was that which compelled the AFL to act sooner than it might have otherwise.
AFL Women’s also fitted the stated agenda of the nation’s biggest sporting league over the past decade…expansion. The growth of the AFL from 16 to 18 teams was a huge step, and one which not only grew the game’s reach, but also the value of its major asset, its broadcast deal.
One of the key criticisms of the AFL in the Demetriou-McLachlan era is that while it spoke of innovation, many of its changes simply mirrored what had occurred in American sports, chiefly the NFL and NBA.
While copying the world’s best actually makes a lot of commercial sense, there were plenty who felt that the defining aspect of the sports of Australian rules football, that it was unique, was being eroded by the corporate culture of the AFL.
Certainly, there are plenty who believe the 24-hour seven-day cycle of the AFL has impacted the sport significantly at grass roots level and diminished the way in which individual communities engage with the sport.
But the execution of the launch strategy for the AFL Women’s League, something which wasn’t borrowed from US professional sports, has seen the AFL dispel that notion of elitism or exclusivity.
Because they have sourced their talent from the grass roots of the sport (and a few other sports as well) from the moment of genesis, the message of AFLW has been about inclusiveness. The only speed hump was the pay issue, which was resolved for the time being, late last year.
The ‘I’d Like to See That’ ad works because it offers us a strong connection between the notion that this is elite sport, but is played by sisters, partners, wives, daughters, nieces, aunties and even mums.
It also works because it is aspirational, utilising sporting heroes who have redefined the place of women in sport in Australia, such as Michelle Payne and Cathy Freeman. The relationship created in our mind is that Payne and Freeman created history, now it’s the turn of our women’s footballers.
So well done to the AFL and its advertising cohorts for nailing the brief and executing the PR campaign to perfection.
The challenge now is to produce a competition which lives up to that elite status.
There are still plenty of doubters out there. When the score from a practice match between Brisbane and GWS came through on Saturday afternoon, and it revealed that only five goals were scored, and all of them in the final quarter, the reaction of social media was typically cynical.
Many, including several journalists, went very early with the ‘I told you it would be crap’ line, based on one pre-season game.
That reaction is not only unfair, but not actually accurate. Those who attended the game, including our own Anthony Wingard, said it was a good spectacle and a good contest.
There is a surplus of negativity about the AFL Women’s concept among traditional male football fans. I’ve had some conversations with people I consider to be perfectly reasonable human beings, who have spoken in terrible stereotypes about why AFLW won’t work.
Those stereotypes have ranged from observations that women lack the physical toughness and skillset of the men, to unsubtle and unsettling remarks about the sexuality of those who play women’s sport.
The challenging aspect for a lot of these blokes is that for the first time, an AFL initiative is not aimed at engaging with them.
It will be these people who will be most critical about whether AFLW meets their own expectations of ‘elite’ Australian Rules Football when it kicks off on Friday week.
But the metrics upon which the AFL judges the success of the new league will be much softer, and judged over a much longer period. It will be as much about ensuring the AFLW is thriving and developing in 2027 as it is about the quality of the game in 2017.