The AFLW season opener: tradition or quality?

The AFLW has once again graced our lives. The Collingwood and Carlton captains led their teams out onto the Ikon Park field last Friday night in what seems to be becoming an inaugural tradition.

There’s an interesting question to ask ourselves though: is this tradition the best for the game?

Jess Hosking celebrates Carlton’s round one win with Blues supporters. Image: Michael Dodge/AFL Media

It’s a question that has wildly differing approaches and varying opinions with no right or wrong answer. Pros and cons exist on every side and a perfect solution is not clear.

We set out to know what the AFLW fans think about the competition’s yearly opening contest.

On my journey of knowledge and opinions, my first destination is of course, Twitter.

I put out a poll asking whether tradition or a Grand Final replay for quality would be better as the season opener.

The general consensus was that the Grand Final repeat would be the best solution, with 64% of the 360 votes being in its favour. However, many people thought of even more alternatives.


Tradition: Carlton vs Collingwood

It’s not hard to make a great case for the Carlton vs Collingwood match-up retaining its place as the first match of the season.

As it currently stands, this season opener seems to be a huge hit regardless of the quality of the match. The attendance for 2017 was 24,500 with, of course, that legendary lock out.

TV ratings stood at 770k nationally on free-to-air (FTA) and 123k on Foxtel.

This year, the Blues and Pies drew in an attendance of 19,852 and reached 270k on FTA and 54k on Foxtel.

There is no doubt these two clubs are ratings and membership cash cows, as Danielle Croci, host of The Footy Gospel podcast for the AFLW season says: “At the moment they [AFL] view Carlton vs Collingwood at Ikon Park as a tradition, building the mythology of the opening lockout, as seen by the AFL hoping for another lockout and crowds nervously turning up early.”

Cass Smith, West Brunswick Football Club player, likes the atmosphere Collingwood and Carlton present to their fans, with the clubs having pre-game activities and a half-time concert with lots of entertainment, plus a smorgasbord of food available.

“The atmosphere is amazing, it’s the tradition,” Smith said.

“It’s the thing you do. Your friends know it’s happening, it’s not like you have to guess the fixture. You know it’s happening and you can easily plan around it.”

Another aspect of this tradition is the heavy rivalry these two teams have built over years and years.

Polly Maeve, another West Brunswick Football Club player, thinks the rivalry can seep into the women’s competition as well.

“In the early days the men’s rivalries will flow into the women’s because of the fans,” Maeve said.

“They’ve hated each other forever and their fan bases will be hungry for that opening round win next year.

“I think it’s beginning to grow organically as well.”

A healthy combination of tradition, new beginnings, atmosphere and rivalry leaves Carlton vs Collingwood with a solid case.

However, some think that perhaps the original tradition holders should be Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.


Tradition: Melbourne vs Western Bulldogs

The casual fan might not know how much Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs have done for women’s football.

With the huge push and philanthropic background of then Western Bulldogs Vice-President, Susan Alberti, and Victorian football legend Debbie Lee’s heavy involvement with Melbourne, both clubs set up the AFLW’s success.

The hard work and determination of both these women, and the players selected to play in exhibition matches dating back to 2013, warranted them to be hosts teams for the televised All-Stars match in 2016, which averaged television ratings of 746,000 viewers and peaked at 1.05 million.

Additionally, it feels like an oversight on the part of the AFL for fixturing the match between the Demons and Bulldogs at the end of the season this year, as Luke Ferguson, a long-time fan of Victorian women’s football and AFLW, explained.

“It feels like Blues and Pies got priority over the two because they’re ‘big Vic’ clubs with the memberships… but its also a failure to recognise just how much Dogs and Dees contributed to women’s footy,” Ferguson said.

Many fans of the AFLW agree. Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs were the pioneers; they were here before the AFLW season was even a glint in Gillon McLachlan’s eye.

They’ve done the work, so why don’t they deserve the season opener? And why didn’t they get it in the first place?


Quality: Grand Final winners

The Grand Final is the biggest game of the season, so why not tie it in as the season opener as well?

This is the first match of the season, a chance to prove the naysayers wrong, to show the nation what these girls can do, and to prepare those tuning in for the competitive season ahead. Having the best possible teams, in conjunction with the excitement of a Grand Final repeat, is surely a recipe for success.

The AFLW is a brand new competition whereas the AFL bred from the Victorian Football League, thus the AFLW is in a unique situation where it can start anew. As Josh Pinn, founder of The Footy Gospel says: “It gives the competition a chance to game itself outside of the Victorian-centric bubble that the AFL lives in.”

Obviously, we can’t be sure the Grand Finalists will be Victorian, and that’s basically what the AFL wants.

This option won both polls, the second (as shown below) narrowly beating out a Melbourne vs Western Bulldogs season opener with 51% of the 110 votes, so it’s obviously something the people would love to see.

Like every option, it does have its downfall. Both attendance and television ratings for the round one match between Adelaide and Brisbane, who met in last year’s Grand Final, were lower than the traditional Blues-Pies opener.

Adelaide and Brisbane drew in 11,120 fans and 42k viewers on Foxtel (national FTA figures are unavailable). However, it’s granted that Norwood Oval has a lower capacity.

Having as many people attending and watching as possible is obviously the best case scenario, but given the events of this past week, hosting a quality match might be the best course of action, especially if it’s two higher profile teams meeting.

A Grand Final repeat would build anticipation and showcase the best skills the AFLW has to offer.


Everything else

Perhaps it’s too early to even set a tradition. Perhaps we should be letting things happen organically; perhaps we should just let the women play and see what happens.

Katie Wykes, a huge Collingwood AFLW fan, says she would rather see rivalries develop than take over men’s rivalries.

“They [the rivalries] were based on suburb locations and footy games played 100 years ago,” Wykes said.

“I’d love to see the AFLW create its own tradition based on the game itself, not fixturing.”

Wykes has a fantastic point, and its sentiment is shared with many others.

Tradition has a risk of restricting and dulling the game, as Morgan O’Toole, an advocate and fan of the AFLW, pointed out.

A little bit of tradition is fine if you’re celebrating something (indigenous round, multicultural round, pride game) but I don’t want it to be overdone,” O’Toole said.

“The season is short enough that it’ll get boring if it’s dictated by tradition.”

Maybe we should focus on celebrating traditions instead of rivalries that simply don’t exist in the AFLW yet.

Or not have tradition at all.

Jocelyn Seip, host of Like a Girl podcast pointed out that tradition can sometimes be exclusive of minority fans.

“We should be doing everything different [than the AFLM] because often tradition excludes women, and minorities,” Seip said.

“The AFL isn’t really a fun place for marginalised people to be historical, so doing things differently makes different kinds of people want to be fans.”

That one point may be all it comes down to in the end. The AFLW is a completely different competition, full of new ideas, new thought processes, and new game play.

It is a league that we can come together to follow, without the history of the AFL, marginalisation and rivalries, and start anew.

Do we need a tradition? Should we just focus on getting new fans or TV attendance ratings? Is it too hard to stop the hatred of Collingwood fans towards Carlton fans and vice versa?

They’re such hard questions to answer. All have merit, all have downfalls.

We might just have to wait and see what the AFLW has in store for us and let it dictate what should be.