The AFLW Is A Shambles But It Doesn't Have To Be
Three years of vulnerability, pain, desperation, endurance and exhilaration.
Three years of juggling work, motherhood, study, endless hours on the footy field and days spent in the gym.
Three years of dodging the misogynistic comments or tackling them head on -- thank you Tayla Harris.
Three years of devoted fans parking up at suburban footy grounds to watch the nation's elite female footballers compete at the highest level.
Three years of dedicating their lives to provide a platform, an end goal, something to strive for, for thousands of young wannabe footballers.
And for what?
An eight-week season.
My social footy fixture runs for longer than that and I can confidently assure you I do not spend nearly as much time honing my skills.
The AFLW's governance is a train wreck. An embarrassment. A kick in the guts to not only its players but to its staff and, most importantly, its fans.
I'm not saying the competition hasn't built a strong brand during the past few seasons, but attendance figures dropping by 25 percent last year suggests we've got a lot of work to do to stem a continual downturn as initial interest fades.
We're told to be patient, but having patience is hard when one of the biggest concerns is the sheer lack of vision that leaves players and fans in the dark.
In its fourth year I thought the League would be -- I hate to say it -- leaps and bounds beyond where it is today.
I must be naive and overly-ambitious in assuming by now (or within the next three years) we'd be running the AFLW fixture alongside the men's, playing the women's games as a curtain raiser in order to generate hype and perhaps gain the respect and interest of those who wouldn't have bothered to watch a game otherwise.
But we're not.
If it feels like we're still a long way from having the women march out on the MCG ahead of a prime time clash that's expected to draw 90,000, you'd be right and it's a damn shame.
This year the League welcomes the injection of West Coast, Richmond, Gold Coast and St Kilda, taking the competition to 14 teams.
This is good news, right? Well, yeah... until you do the basic math and realise this means each team won't even play each other once during the regular season.
How this is considered fair is beyond me.
Last year sports writer and commentator Sam Lane came out swinging, suggesting that the AFLW roadmap lacked a number of critical details.
These 'critical details' refer to the inclusion of the new teams, the length of the fixture and whether the lack-lustre conference system was here to stay.
In October, Lane's prayers were (sort of) answered with the AFLW Collective Bargaining Agreement -- which was a huge sh*t storm.
The "sticking point" of the agreement circulated around the number of games to be played in the regular season.
Players demanded a 13-game fixture so every team would be able to play everyone else once. It's a reasonable ask.
But after a lot of back and forth players eventually agreed to a compromised deal which ended an lengthy standoff while cementing the league's future for the next three years.
There will be eight games plus three finals this season, nine games plus three finals in 2021 and 10 games plus three finals in 2022.
Some 98 percent of players voted in favour of the agreement, compared to the 70 percent who voted in favour of the previous deal, which initially failed to pass because it needed 75 percent support for approval.
To those on the outside, earning about $29,000 for an eight-week stint in footy boots might sound like a respectable deal.
Spoiler: It's not.
Only the top two players of each team will earn that much for the season. The rest will only take home about half that.
Compare this to the AFL, where the average player earns between $300,000 and $370,000.
That means -- yes, more math here -- you could probably buy an entire AFLW team for the cost of a single male player.
This is because they only play eight weeks compared to 23 for the men, right? Wrong.
A rookie listed player, who might not even play a game, will be given a minimum wage of $71,500.
Yes, it's going to take a while for broadcasters to pay for the rights to air women's football and for sponsors to cough up the equivalent in cash.
And having the women's fixture run alongside the men's would be considered sporting cannibalism and a huge sacrifice to the top Leagues in each state -- the VFL and SANFL in particular.
But it would be short-term pain for long-term gain.
Because maybe, just maybe, doing so would help grow numbers in the sport by gaining the attention of more young women.
In turn, more specialised academies could be born to nurture new talent and the game will no doubt burst with budding stars destined to be the next Erin Phillips, Daisy Pearce or Monique Conti.
If those names mean nothing to you, I promise you, if you want to learn about vulnerability, pain, desperation and endurance -- turn up to an AFLW game this season, you will not be disappointed.
Or (if you're game enough) pull on the boots for your local club like I did.
It will teach you a lot, particularly about how there is something profoundly unappealing and uncomfortable about footy shorts.
Maybe because they're designed for men.
Featured image via Getty and Michael Wilson/AFL.