How each club is placed in the 2023 AFLW expansion plan

Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will all have an AFLW team by 2023. Images: Essendon FC; Hawthorn FC; Port Adelaide FC; Sydney Swans

The AFL Commission has announced plans for the expansion of the AFL Women’s competition, which will see all 18 AFL clubs have a corresponding AFLW team by 2023.

The four clubs who are currently without an AFLW side – Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and the Sydney Swans – have been given until July 9, 2021 to ‘provide a submission on their readiness to enter the national competition,’ according to a media release from the AFL on Thursday.

This submission will require the clubs to provide details of their team build strategy, as well as corporate support and facilities, with the clubs to be granted entry into the competition as early as 2022, the seventh season of the AFL Women’s competition. 

“The AFL remains focused on converting the growth of the game at a junior level,” the media release also outlined, “providing players with the best opportunity and pathways to enhance their skills and be ready to make an impact… once an 18-team competition eventuates.”

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan highlighted the growth of women’s footy in Australia, with over 600,000 female participants across the country and over 67,000 women, both seniors and juniors, playing the game each week. 

With an increase of 100 per cent on 2015’s participation numbers, McLachlan attributed much of the growth of women’s footy to the AFLW competition itself. 

“The NAB AFLW Competition has built a new audience base for the code with some 4.5 million AFLW fans, 155,908 attendees, 6.1 million viewers and an incredible 20 per cent of supporters who are new or first new time AFL attendees,” he said. 

McLachlan also expressed his confidence that the addition of the remaining four teams would bolster the support and interest in the league. 

“Clubs and their supporters want to be part of the AFLW,” he said.

“We want another two million supporters to get behind their AFLW teams.”

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Each of the four clubs has responded to the AFL’s call, so here’s what they had to say, and the key factors that support their entry into the AFL Women’s competition.

Essendon

Bombers CEO Xavier Campbell pointed to the club’s VFLW program and facilities as indicators of its readiness to enter the AFLW competition. 

The $21m development, which was announced late in 2020, gives a heavy focus to the club’s women’s program, and will be among the ‘best-practice facilities in AFLW’, according to Jess Newman, the club’s general manager of strategic operations and community.

“In the women’s facility we’ll have a dedicated AFLW change room, showers, medical facilities which include a doctor’s office, strapping benches and physio spaces, and an AFLW auditorium,” Newman said earlier this year. 

The Bombers’ VFLW side sits fifth on the ladder after ten rounds, with six wins and four losses, and a game ahead of sixth place. Campbell also suggested that the club’s talent pathways have the Bombers well-placed to enter the competition as soon as Season Seven in 2022.

“We have established relationships with the Calder Cannons’ and Bendigo Pioneers’ NAB League under-19s female football programs, with pathways now developed through to our own VFLW program,” he said.

“Strong foundations have been laid… Incorporating the AFL and soon-to-be AFLW, VFL and VFLW programs, as well as our wheelchair football team, we are ready to finally become a true, and complete, club.

“With these timelines now communicated by the AFL and AFL Commission, we are confident we will have the AFL Commission’s support to enter the AFL Women’s competition by Season Seven.”

Hawthorn

In response to the AFL’s announcement, Acting CEO Ashley Klein said that a Hawthorn AFLW team is ‘the missing piece of the puzzle’.

The club’s media release also outlined that Hawthorn was the first club to secure a VFLW license in 2017, while in 2018 it was the first club to recognise the need to pay its female players.

The Hawks won the VFLW premiership in 2018, with seven players taken in the AFLW draft ahead of the following season. 

Similarly to Essendon, Hawthorn has likewise received approval and funding for its own community infrastructure, the Kennedy Community Centre, which will feature ‘gender-equal’ facilities for community use, an indoor stadium and training facilities for all of Hawthorn’s teams.

Hawthorn has also invested in the development of women’s coaching pathways, implementing an all-female coaching panel for its 2021 VFLW side, headed by inaugural AFLW premiership coach Bec Goddard. 

It is clear from Hawthorn’s media release that securing an AFLW license is firmly within the club’s priorities.

“The club is well prepared and well positioned to hit the ground running once we secure this important piece of Hawthorn’s future,” Klein said.

“Hawthorn has the clear support of our members and fans for an AFLW team. We will seize the opportunity to emphatically push our case for a licence for Season Seven through the submission process.”

Port Adelaide

The female participation figures in South Australia indicate that there is certainly a market for further exposure of women’s footy in the state, according to SANFL General Manager Football Matt Duldig.

The total tally of current registered female club players in 2021 is 7,773, 61 per cent higher than the same time in 2020 and 51 per cent higher than 2019’s figure, while 4,807 junior female players are currently registered in SA, a 68 per cent increase on 2020 and a 23 per cent increase on 2019.

Port Adelaide CEO Matthew Richardson highlighted these participation figures, which represent the greatest growth in female participation across the country. 

“With significant increased participation rates here in South Australia, we believe the growing talent base will enable us to enter a very competitive AFLW team as soon as possible,” he said. 

“Port Adelaide’s entry into the AFLW competition will also enable an AFLW game to be played every weekend in Adelaide ensuring continual promotion and growth of the game in this surging market.”

The club also has a development plan in place to support its women’s football program – announced earlier this year – a redevelopment program for the Alberton Oval precinct which will see Port Adelaide aim to enter the AFLW competition by Season Eight in 2023.

Richardson said that Thursday’s announcement provided the club with clarity for its plan to enter the AFLW competition, expressing his confidence in the club’s infrastructure plans, and looking ahead to the club’s submission for an AFLW license. 

“We have a clear vision and plans to provide elite training and playing facilities at Alberton Oval to provide our team with the best opportunity to be successful,” he said.

“As a club we are well-prepared to enter the AFLW competition in Season Seven and welcome this opportunity to provide a formal submission to the AFL.”

Sydney Swans

Sydney’s Academy program provides the perfect pathway opportunity for the Swans to enter the AFLW competition, according to CEO Tom Harley

The pathway would provide the opportunity for females to compete and stay in the academy system from junior level all the way to the AFL Women’s competition, as Harley indicated.

“There are currently 299 girls engaged in our QBE Sydney Swans Academy program, from Under 12s through to the Under 19s who have completed successfully in the NAB League in 2021,” he said.

“We took a decision three years ago to commit to a girls academy to provide a pathway for this very moment.”

However, Sydney still faces a challenge to provide adequate facilities for its Women’s team – a factor which has prevented the club from previously applying for an AFLW license – though Harley indicated that the club has plans in place to combat this situation. 

“Our current facilities are simply not of sufficient size or standard to ensure we could commit to and develop a fully professional women’s team,” he said.

“We have been working through a process… where we hope to secure new facilities that will enable us to not only provide this capability, but to indeed provide what we hope will be one of the best facilities for an AFLW team.”

AFL General Manager of Women’s Football Nicole Livingstone indicated that pathways like the Swans Academy are what facilitate the growth and development of elite level women’s footballers. 

“We have created a clear pathway for girls and women from Auskick to the elite competition,” she said.

“We are committed to continuing to work with the players, the AFLPA and the clubs over the coming years to ensure AFLW is… a sport that provides more women the opportunity to choose to make it the career of choice.”

The AFL commission is expected to make a decision in August regarding the clubs’ AFLW license submissions, following the submission deadline on July 9.

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