From the moment we learned that three cornerstone clubs of Victorian women’s football in Diamond Creek, St Kilda and the Eastern Devils were officially ‘withdrawing’ from the VFL Women’s competition, it was obvious that only a fraction of the story was being told.
AFL Victoria, the governing body of the VFLW, would have you believe that the three clubs opted to not field teams in Victoria’s top tier of women’s football, and let that be that.
But three prominent teams all exiting at the same time with little to no explanation does not add up, particularly so long after the season’s end.
Since AFL Vic’s press release last Friday, we have been collecting information by speaking to multiple sources from around the VFLW.
At first it was to simply understand the situation, but with each account we heard from those who experienced the events first-hand, it became evident that the true nature of the events needed to come to light.
A common theme amongst those we talked to was a reluctance to be identified for fear of future ramifications, either individually or for their clubs, and understandably so. It is with respect for their privacy that we will not reveal their identities, and keep the source of club-related information as secure as possible.
We also have their permission to share details of what happened in the lead-up to their dismissals.
Background: For those not fully aware of the changes in Victorian state women’s football, let’s get up to speed. AFL Victoria took over from the volunteer-operated VWFL in late 2013, and the VFL Women’s competition officially took over as the state’s premier women’s division in 2016. The teams in the lower divisions of the VWFL were dispersed mostly amongst the Northern Football League, Victorian Amateur Football Association, and the South Eastern Women’s Football League when AFL Victoria officially disbanded the VWFL at the end of 2016. Of the 10 clubs selected to compete in the 2016 VFLW season, just three remain, and only one continues independently. 13 teams will compete in the VFLW in 2018: Darebin, Melbourne University (aligned with North Melbourne), Western Bulldogs (taking over from the VU Western Spurs), Geelong and Box Hill (Hawthorn), and new clubs in Casey (Melbourne), Southern Saints (St Kilda), Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond, Williamstown and NT Thunder.
The truth behind the ‘withdrawals’
Heading into season 2017, it was largely accepted by stand-alone VFLW clubs – Darebin, Diamond Creek, St Kilda, Eastern Devils, Seaford and Cranbourne – that they would not continue on in the competition without AFL alignments after the 2018 season.
It is commonly known that the competition is headed towards full alignment with AFL clubs which field/will field AFLW teams, and though not all were happy with the direction, it was appreciated that AFL Victoria was allowing time for stand-alone clubs to either establish or build on relationships with AFL clubs.
At some stage during 2017, AFL Victoria’s plan changed, presumably when more Victorian AFL clubs committed to VFLW teams for 2018 than was first expected.
In the period spanning the 2017 VFLW finals and two weeks after the Grand Final, Seaford and Cranbourne both withdrew. However, all of Darebin, Diamond Creek, St Kilda and the Eastern Devils were informed that AFL Victoria was happy for them to continue on in 2018, so long as they found home grounds that were ‘up to VFL standard’ – reasonable enough.
It is our understanding that the venue issue played a major part in the Eastern Devils’ eventual forced resignation, with no VFL standard grounds being local to Mulgrave. AFL Victoria was well aware of that fact.
It’s also believed that one club asked AFL Victoria to clarify what they meant by ‘VFL standard ground’, which is a fair question when you consider for a number of years that away teams playing against the Essendon Bombers VFL team at Windy Hill had to change in the small Essendon Cricket Club bar.
In recent weeks, AFL Victoria turned about-face. Following the inclusion of seven new teams and confirmation of four existing AFL-aligned clubs returning for 2018, plus Darebin and the NT Thunder to make it a total of 13, the league’s governing body viewed the remaining clubs as nuisances that would only serve to dilute the state’s talent pool, despite them being main contributors to it.
We were informed of some of the tactics that AFL Victoria used to coax the remaining clubs into ‘withdrawing’. Two sources recalled that AFL Victoria claimed the majority of their squads were already committed to other clubs – a wildly untrue statement – and suggestions that their brands would be tarnished if they competed and lost were used as threats.
We reached out to some AFLW listed players from those clubs, and though they do not represent every player, all confirmed that they had been asked informally to side with their AFLW’s club’s VFLW team, but there had been no commitment.
And to quell any confusion any AFLW listed players may have about their state league expectations, no, AFLW listed players are not required nor contractually obligated to play VFLW football.
It’s also worth noting that this season Box Hill had only one AFLW player on its list and finished a respectable 8th of 10 teams, including pushing the likes of the Creekers, Devils, Mugars and Falcons in some very close matches.
Further, if looking at VFL men’s, stand-alone clubs (with no AFL alignments) have won 3 of the last 6 premierships.
After the meetings with AFL Victoria, the clubs were given unreasonably short periods of time – just 48 hours in one confirmed case – to make their ‘decisions’ regarding playing on in 2018, and were ultimately put in a position where they could not continue.
Considering these forced changes are supposedly happening in order for Victorian women’s footy to become more professional, using underhanded tactics and blatantly manipulating the clubs that got the game to where it is today is not a good start.
$30,000 VFLW licence fee
Clubs competing in the VFLW in 2018 must pay a fee of approximately $30,000 to AFL Victoria, a staggering number that can only be explained as a hurdle designed to knock out the community clubs without the financial means to continue.
$30,000 is inexplicable. The same fee was only approximately $14,000 for season 2017, $10,000 for 2016, and a tiny $3,000 for 2015, which was the last season under the VWFL banner. That is a $27,000 increase over three years just to put a team on the park.
The feeling amongst teams is that the fee is a hurdle designed to knock over community clubs without a struggle. It worked for Seaford and Cranbourne, as both clubs informed AFL Victoria they will not field VFLW teams back in September, but the other four clubs with no direct ties to AFLW clubs in Darebin, Diamond Creek, St Kilda and the Eastern Devils all intended to pay the fee.
So where is that money going? Clubs have been informed that the increased fees will give VFLW teams access to match statistics and footage, both of which most clubs already record independently. Nevertheless, those additions do not explain the absurd fee, and AFL Victoria has some explaining to do regarding the combined $390,000 it will rake in from the 13 competing teams.
Denial of transition process and historical acknowledgement
As mentioned, stand-alone VFLW clubs were aware that they would likely be exiting ahead of the 2019 season if they were to not align with an AFLW side, as Melbourne Uni and the VU Western Spurs have done North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs respectively.
When AFL Victoria told the clubs they should consider withdrawing, one club in particular fought tooth and nail to work with an AFLW-aligned club for 2018, knowing they would otherwise be forced to bow out in 2019.
It must be understood that at the time of these meetings with clubs, the new AFLW-aligned VFLW teams had absolutely nothing; not even so much as a plan to construct their teams, let alone coaching staff. In fact, some still have nothing.
It was this club’s hopes to work with one of the new teams in 2018, with the intention to complete a full alignment or takeover for the 2019 season. Doing so would allow one of the new VFLW teams to be immediately competitive and not have to build from scratch, and give the soon-to-depart club the opportunity to prepare for 2019 and beyond.
As part of this proposal, the club’s only request was for its takeover AFLW club to feature some historical acknowledgement about them, either as initials on the back of their guernseys or a display in their club rooms.
A major concern since the VWFL’s transition into the VFLW has been the erasing of Victorian women’s football history. As it stands, the VFLW’s awards and premiership trophy are unnamed, soulless hunks of medal, as AFL Victoria chose to remove the existing titles from the VWFL days.
Both proposals were denied, which is inexplicable given the active relationships that Melbourne Uni/North Melbourne and VU Western Spurs/Western Bulldogs share.
The club in question – and presumably the other two that were also kicked out last Friday – now must completely restructure its lower division teams, leading to both on-field competitiveness and financial headaches for those clubs going forward.
And sadly, we have further proof that AFL Victoria has zero intentions to recognise Victorian women’s football’s history.