“We did it,” cried a jubilant Ebony Marinoff to Erin Phillips. “We’ve got three, baby, we’ve got three”.
After six seasons of the national AFL women’s competition, there have been five grand finals.
The Adelaide Crows have made four, and won three.
Such a record means this team will deservedly go down in history as the first juggernaut of the AFL women’s competition.
However, while all three premierships may be equally memorable, 2022 may, in hindsight, be seen as the greatest of all given it was achieved in the face of significant adversity for the playing cohort.
Players’ most-difficult season of AFLW
From an optics point of view, almost nothing seemed to go right in AFLW season six.
The season start — originally planned December 2021 — was delayed because of a Delta-variant outbreak of COVID-19.
When it finally got rolling in January 2022, Omicron wreaked havoc.
Players and clubs were struck down in unprecedented numbers, just as rules changed to allow positive cases out of isolation after seven days.
As a result, AFLW players were not eased back into competition, but thrown, full-bore into an exceptionally aerobically demanding game.
On ABC’s The W Podcast, Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn described her first game back from COVID a “horrible experience”.
Of her symptoms of breathlessness and fatigue, she said: “I just felt like my body gave out on me.”
Then — as a result of games being postponed and delayed, and in an effort to get the season finished — players were asked to front up to mid-week games, despite most having part or full-time jobs.
Fremantle and West Coast arguably made the greatest sacrifice, spending more than a month away from home to keep the season alive.
“To be quite honest, the players are squeezed to the absolute max at the moment,” Carlton captain Kerryn Harrington told SEN at the time.
Harrington went on to add that the playing cohort had already been at “tipping point”, with expectations ramping up every year.
“The challenge for the players, which is ongoing … is the balance between having a professional job outside of football and trying to reach the commitments and expectations the football world holds,” she said.
Even two-time best-and-fairest Phillips, normally reluctant to go public with any criticism of the league, blamed player fatigue for another glut of ACL injuries.
“I had many, many nights where [I was so exhausted]. I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” she said to the ABC’s Sam Lane and Sharni Norder.
By the end of the season, AFL Players’ Association chief executive Paul Marsh would further sound the alarm by saying players were so exhausted they were falling asleep on the freeway while driving home from games.
“A lot of the players now are as tired as I’ve seen any athletes,” he said.
Looming CBA negotiations mark a fork in the road for AFLW
The AFL is well aware of the challenges facing AFLW and, late in 2021, responded to long-standing calls for a vision for the competition’s future.
And the resultant Women’s Football Vision contained the “aspirational target” of making AFLW players the highest-paid sportswomen in a domestic competition in Australia by 2030.
It’s a laudable goal that, if realised, would solve many of the issues at hand by offering players the option to pursue football as a professional career if they choose.
However, while the goal has been widely praised, it has been roundly critiqued for lacking a strategy to achieve it.
The AFLPA says that AFLW players should be made professional earlier — by 2026 — but there is disagreement about how to get there.
Lions’ coach, Craig Starcevich, is adamant that AFL men’s players — who command an average wage of approximately $300,000, compared to the most common wage of $20,239 for women — need to be prepared to “give up a piece of the pie” to help fast-track this reality.
High-profile Carlton forward Darcy Vescio agrees.
“If you’ve had all the resources, all the money, all the opportunity, for all of the years: is that [money] really yours?” they asked the W podcast.
Marsh, however, has repeatedly pointed out that AFL men’s players get 28 per cent of overall revenue, and that an increase in AFLW wages could be paid for from the remaining 72 per cent.
One alternative is for the AFLPA to push for a greater than 28 per cent share of revenue for all players, which could then be used to boost AFLW wages.
August start a chance to reset — albeit with short-term pain
With the current collective bargaining agreement about to expire, these conversations are at the centrepiece of decisions that will define the future of the competition.
The fact AFLW is marketable, and resonates with the Australian sporting community, is there for all to see: From 53,034 spectators at the 2019 grand final, to record participation numbers — boosted almost exclusively by girls and women — since its inception.
Season six, however, did not reach the same heights in terms of crowd attendances nor TV viewership.
This is attributable not to a lack of interest in the AFLW, but to so many of the factors above, including the obvious in reluctance among spectators to attend crowded stadiums, which has also affected men’s games and other sports.
Where the AFL, AFLPA, clubs and players seem to be in agreement, however, is that this year’s start time — January 7 — robbed the AFLW of eyeballs and the stage it deserves.
It did the season no favours by throwing it up against a range of sport, including the Australian Open, men’s and women’s Ashes tests, and while many were still on holidays.
In this regard, the AFL’s preferred option of bringing season seven forward to August seems to be ripping the bandaid off, so to speak.
While, in the short term, it gives players and staff — and in particular the four new clubs — very little turnaround to prepare, in the long-run it offers much more ‘clean air’ in the sporting fixture.
It also, mercifully, shields the players from the harshest months of the Australian summer, and has the potential to offer a fresh start and dynamic for AFLW.
The brief lay-off may even mean that one of the game’s most-marketable faces, Daisy Pearce, signs on for another shot at glory, despite her Dees falling agonisingly short on Saturday.
From an on-field perspective, 17 clubs will also be hoping that the belated arrival of Port Adelaide offers the chance for other contenders to emerge.