Improvements for the 2018 AFLW season

Two weeks on from Adelaide’s Grand Final win in the inaugural AFLW season, there has been plenty of time to reflect on how successful the landmark competition was.

Though focus shifts to state leagues for the next six months, one eye remains on the 2018 AFLW season which will be a great indication for how strong the competition will be in the long term.

2017 was a great success, but there are plenty of improvements that need to be made in order for the game to fulfil its full potential, and appeal to as many people as possible in order to build a strong fan base.

Changes are imminent. Team lists have already been extended from 25 to 30 for 2018, and there is plenty of discussion about how the league can further improve the product.

This is our take on a handful of the topics at hand.

Quarter length/time on
From a football fan’s point of view, 15-minute quarters with time on only for major injuries and goals made games feel carnival-like, and unfortunately broke up the flow of the game. Just as teams were working their way into a quarter, it ended abruptly. May more importantly, teams obviously took advantage of the no time on for stoppages late in games, creating a less attractive product in close contests that should be about attacking and defending in order to win, not playing the clock. Quarters simply need to be the same as the men: 20 minutes with time on for all stoppages. Most competitions around the country already play with 20-minute quarters, with elite comps often playing a flat 25. There is no reason to start the competition with a lowered bar for physical demand – if you expect less from the players, it’s a whole lot harder to ask them to produce more as the years roll on.

Is it cliché to complain about the standard of umpiring in an AFL competition? Regardless, it was not good in 2017. The inconsistent rulings were only the beginning of a long list of issues, with a failure to look out for the players’ safety the clearest problem of all. The whistle was often put away in dangerous tackling situations where the umpires have a duty of care to the player, a sign of inexperience from those in charge of officiating the contests. With the umpires aged in their low 20s, you simply can’t have quality officiating from development umpires. Of course these officials need to get their experience somewhere, but the AFLW isn’t a live trial. A quality competition deserves quality officiating, and a big change is required for 2018.

Congestion rule/16-a-side
The hot AFL rule topic in the past few years has been congestion, and reducing it to create free flowing football at every level. The AFL recently brought in the ‘no third man up’ rule at stoppages which has had mixed results, and the rule, along with the TAC Cup’s density philosophy, is being considered for the AFLW. The later rule means that when the ball enters the opposition’s forward half, at least five players must remain in the opposite half delineated by an imaginary line through the centre of the field, and two of those five must remain in the defensive 50m arc. The major negative is that the rule is often difficult to police and promotes umpires diverting their attention from the play. On top of the 16-a-side format brought into the AFLW, it seems an unnecessary step, as less players on the field already means there is more space. No need to tinker further.

The commentary throughout the AFLW was largely below standard. Channel Seven must be commended for their excellent calls – particularly Jason Bennett who has committed the past few years to learning the players and understanding their abilities – and their engagement with the viewers at home, who largely were not familiar with the players they were watching. The problem is that Seven only had one, at times two, games per weekend, leaving three games to Fox Footy who showed much less care in the commentary box. Apart from a few exceptions, the call teams struggled with player names, accurate analysis and failed to keep to focus on the footy. Particularly when players were involved in the broadcasts, the focus would often shift to jovial conversation that had nothing to do with the game, or plugs for the guest commentator’s mates. As a fan watching the sport and wanting to get into the competition, the Fox Footy commentary teams did a good job of waving fans away. Big improvements are needed for 2018, and hopefully there will be more care taken when Foxtel actually pays for the AFLW broadcast rights.

Extended finals series
From all accounts, it seems as though the AFLW finals will be extended to include at least Preliminary Finals Though the current system of the top two teams meeting in the Grand Final technically allows the best sides to make it, the back half of the short season felt anticlimactic with only one final played. At least two weeks of finals footy – possibly three if Semi-Finals are also to be included – will help the competition get more attention from major new outlets and not fizzle out so quickly. It would likely mean starting the season earlier to avoid an overlap with the AFL men, and a longer season can only be a good thing.

50m penalty
With the average woman’s maximum kicking distance not being as long as the average men’s, the 50m penalty seemed to be a harsh punishment in the AFLW. The penalty is essentially as good as two direct kicks in the women’s game, and often times those small mistakes – often time as minor as overstepping the mark – created significant momentum shifts. Most state leagues already pay a 25m penalty rather than 50, and that is something we should see be included in the national competition. While we’re on the topic of shorter kicking length, let’s also start counting inside 30s as a stat as well as inside 50s for the AFLW, as it’s a more accurate acknowledgement of genuine scoring opportunities.

League expansion for 2018
Though there are murmurs of a possible league expansion for the 2018 season, it’s likely the AFL will hold off until 2019. A number of clubs – specifically Hawthorn, North Melbourne, Geelong – have made great strides to set themselves up as clubs that could support a women’s team. It’s likely that the next lot of licences, predicted to be going to two Victorian clubs, will be given to two of those three – just not for 2018. Next year will be used as consolidation, with some of the changes discussed in this article implemented, leaving space for the ripples to calm before throwing another rock in the AFLW pool.

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