AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan’s announcement that the AFLW will not expand until 2019 shows the Commission’s commitment to the long-term success of the competition.
Though it was the expected route, resisting the temptation to immediately expand to either a 10 or 12 team competition would have been difficult, particularly with pressure mounting from prospective clubs and fans alike.
“The AFL Commission accepted a recommendation that we need to consolidate the strong work that was achieved in year one of the NAB AFL Women’s Competition, with the addition of new teams to come into the competition to be set for 2019,” McLachlan said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We need to further invest in both building our audience for the NAB AFL Women’s Competition and ensuring the talent pool can expand to be ready for the addition of new teams in 2019.”
Unlike McLachlan’s ambitious efforts to bring the AFLW start forward by three years, the decision to wait for expansion affords the AFL a valuable commodity, one that has been in short supply: time.
The immediate looming challenge is equipping the expansion clubs with the tools to compete on an even playing field.
That would be nigh on impossible if expansion were to happen for the 2018 season.
With the extra time comes the opportunity to place the expansion clubs on an even keel with the established teams, which will have two years of top tier experience under their belts by 2019.
According to McLachlan’s statement, plans to find the answer to the equalisation question are being discussed.
“Announcing the expansion teams later this year for the 2019 season will allow the competition to finalise its list-build rules for the new clubs before this year’s draft,” McLachlan stated.
“It would also provide the time to focus strongly on talent identification and player development whilst enabling us to have discussions with both the AFLPA and our sponsors and broadcast partners before the 2019 season.”
The AFL could adopt a similar process used for the introductions of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney in the men’s AFL, with the new clubs to compete in the top tier competition in their respective states in 2018 before moving up to AFLW for 2019.
The Suns competed in the Victorian Football League in 2010 one year before it entered the AFL, while the Giants appeared in the North East Australian Football League in 2011 before their AFL introduction.
That approach would provide the clubs with an opportunity to gel a playing group before adding new draftees and marquee signings prior to the 2019 AFL season.
However, convincing the first year of draftees to effectively miss a season of AFLW may be a difficult task, particularly if players are not financially compensated as they would be playing for an active AFLW team.
Whether two years worth of top draftees and some experienced players is enough to bring the new teams on par with the established sides is another question.
In the cases of Gold Coast and GWS, history shows the struggles both clubs had in their early years.
Though there is clearly less of a talent gap to close when applying the same scenario to the AFLW, the AFL must be certain that it is enough to bring teams on par if this is the route it chooses.
It must be remembered that the expansion teams will not be newly-founded clubs like Gold Coast and GWS – these will be established clubs with passionate fan bases expecting to see competitiveness from the outset.
No doubt it will be a step the AFL addresses with care.