Rise of AFLW leaving some critics behind

As it turns out, in Australia the same peculiar folk who claim AFLW doesn’t deserve equal coverage actually care about it quite a bit.
Rise of AFLW leaving some critics behind

FINALIST: Orla O'Dwyer of the Lions. Pic: Jono Searle/AFL Photos/Getty Images

A common refrain in conversations about the coverage of women’s sport is that it often struggles with the same problem the likes of the League of Ireland or boxing encounter; you can’t make people care.

As it turns out, in Australia the same peculiar folk who claim AFLW doesn’t deserve equal coverage actually care about it quite a bit.

They care so much that they dedicate entire columns to it. They write about the standard of the women's league, criticising the attention and funding it receives. What’s more, they argue that you shouldn’t extract anything from it either. They care so much that they don’t want anyone else to care.

"If you leave an AFLW match thinking you've seen a great game you're kidding yourself, because even high school boys are better to watch," media personality Steve Price passionately declared last month.

In doing so he was disseminating a dig routinely vocalised by a particular cohort online. The mentions of AFLW reporters are often full of the drivel that would have you wishing Elon does actually drive his site into the ground.

This season is the seventh AFLW campaign. For the first time, all eighteen clubs competed with four expansion sides included. At the start of the year, the league came to a crossroads. Gradual growth was all well and good, but improvements were hamstrung by the fashion of part-time contracts with a huge cohort of players working two jobs.

In simple terms, they were trying to evolve from a primitive age to a modern era. As Price proved some, evidently, have been left behind.

For teams to develop and improve to a professional standard they needed to be, well, professional. At the start of 2022 they took an important step in that direction.

“The big thing was the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement), a 94 per cent increase in wage. It was so frustrating for the girls who were working part-time and didn’t have certainty,” says Tipperary star Orla O’Dwyer. She will line out in the Grand Final on Sunday against Melbourne.

“For me it is about getting to that real professional element. We all know sport and being an athlete is a short-lived career. To be able to live that out for as long as you can is huge and what everyone dreams of doing.” 

Armagh’s Blaithin Mackin is at the end of her first season Down Under and eager for a perfect ending with a Premiership medal.

Due to visa issues and the start date uncertainty, she made the move late and missed much of the Demons’ pre-season. This weekend will be her tenth game. The week-by-week improvements she has made is the exact same path newer clubs are currently following.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “The competition as a whole is so fresh and new. Even for us coming over, you are not really that far behind. Like in the grand scheme of things or if roles were reversed. The sport is in its youth.

“Expansion sides, it will take a few years for players to develop but they are not that far behind. It is only getting better.” 

The data proves that. As demonstrated by The Age researchers, there has been annual rises in ball control and improvement of fundamental skills, resulting in distinct game styles and more free-flowing matches. The gap between the top and bottom is considerable but understandable.

A team like Brisbane has been in the competition since the start and coached by Craig Starcevich since season one. Hawthorn, Sydney Swans, Essendon and Port Adelaide only joined in August.

For Mackin, the learning is constant.

“The first and second game, I’ll admit myself if I watch it back now, I’ll wonder why I was standing there or running that way. I wasn’t confident at all, so I didn’t look to get on the ball.

“Mick (Stinear) has put a lot of work in to get my skills up to scratch. It is mad how much it helps. You do small skills work at home but never to the same extent or consistency. It is crazy how much your game can grow; you start thinking if only I could do this at home!

“We probably do it with our fitness whereas here skills were the biggest thing for me. That really builds your confidence.” 

From an Irish perspective, the early days granted freedom to balance oval and round ball ambitions on either end of the globe but that window is rapidly closing.

Pre-season started early leaving Irish players trying to balance Gaelic football with AFLW commitments facing a tough decision. A date for the 2023 campaign has yet to be announced, although Mackin confirms that Melbourne are willing to facilitate both if possible.

“The club has been good enough to grant me the freedom as long as I don’t miss any games. Even if it goes the way it did this season, if we got to an All-Ireland final, I wouldn’t have missed any games. Hopefully that doesn’t change. I’m lucky with Melbourne, they understand the love I have for football.”

With a final looming, all else fades into the background right now. For O’Dwyer, her decision to turn down a lucrative offer in favour of staying with the Queensland side earlier this year has been vindicated.

The short-term and long-term future? Onwards. Upwards.

“With expansion there was talk about a lot of our players here, but we are just so close as a group. To get to a grand final this year just shows it is all about that teamwork and trust for each other.

“It is great to be in this position and hopefully we get a win on Sunday.”

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