The AFL risks stunting the AFLW competition’s growth in the most critical phase with the addition of the Priority Signing Period this off-season.
This measure will not equalise the league but cannibalise the growth of the pre-existing teams undoing the growth of the league in general.
Another AFLW off-season has brought about more player movement with the Priority Signing Period (PSP) implemented this season by the AFL to assist the season seven expansion clubs.
Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will all get access to contracted players through this period.
The expansion in season seven was a rough one, with the four sides tallying seven wins (and one draw) between them.
However, it could be argued that the signings that the clubs had last year, along with the organic growth of their list as well as player movement of a regular off-season could have evened the competition instead.
Sydney added forward Brooke Lochland and defender Maddy Collier, Port Adelaide added prized recruits from the Gold Coast, Collingwood and Adelaide in Erin Phillips, Justine Mules, Angela Foley, Kate Surman, Ebony O’Dea and Jacqui Yorston.
Hawthorn picked up Kaitlyn Ashmore, Akec Makur Chuot and Tilly Lucas-Rodd, while Essendon took the lion share with high-profile recruits Bonnie Toogood and Madison Prespakis adding to their bounty alongside Daria Bannister, Georgia Gee and Danielle Marshall.
With player movement this great last off-season, it posed a great opportunity for the AFL to give the AFLW time to grow and to see if the teams would gel better given they would have a longer off-season than the one between seasons six and seven.
We have already seen one of the most reliable defenders in Janelle Cuthbertson, former leading goal kicker Ashleigh Woodland and live wire midfielder/forward Chloe Molloy all defect with no compensation to Fremantle, Adelaide, or Collingwood. In addition to this, Brisbane premiership pair Greta Bodey and season six league best and fairest Emily Bates have also left.
An important move that occurred on Monday was Lucy McEvoy moving from Carlton to Sydney. This demonstrates that the gap won’t close between the top and bottom sides but the middle to lower tier non-expansion clubs might find themselves left out in the cold.
With Melbourne being untouched currently, this poses them as the odd-on favourite for another AFLW flag. It is important to note that clubs will receive compensation, however, it will be in the form of compensation picks for the season nine draft, not this upcoming draft.
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Instead of the PSP, the efforts of the league should be focused on developing the league and paying players better living wages so that the players are not highly motivated by better money at an expansion side.
All players are part-time athletes balancing other jobs outside of playing, this has seen players having to move to specific zones/states depending on their job opportunities.
Coming into the competition in the 2023 AFLW Draft, overage prospects will be the only ones eligible for this upcoming season.
This along with the addition of a national zone (meaning a player can nominate to be taken by any club), will go some way to equalising and helping the competition to stabilise.
Another to get a more balanced competition is to let the newer clubs organically grow, all expansion sides have had young top-tier talent that will be ready to take their club up the ladder when combined with more experienced players that are role-players.
Port Adelaide has seen stars such as Abbey Dowrick and Hannah Ewings, Sydney has Montana Ham and Cynthia Hamilton, Hawthorn have Jasmine Fleming and Charlotte Baskaran and Essendon has produced Paige Scott and Amber Clarke.
Combined with new talent topped up over the next few years like the teams before them, they will see the fruits of their labour in wins and eventually success but it will be sweeter this way.
With so much movement over the last two years, supporters will have trouble associating with a particular club, especially when their favourite stars or developing talents will move for better money to another club without much compensation.
This happened last season with stars like Phillips and Prespakis although this was in the name of expansion, there is no need to incentivise more players to move in this way.
The problem with having star players leaving established clubs is that it also upsets the supporter base and in particular, the young fans that are the lifeblood of the competition.
Due to the nature of what the AFLW has become, players like Molloy are fan favourites at Collingwood and may discourage young fans from attending if their favourite player has walked to another club (or more than one).
Putting superstar players into different environments doesn’t guarantee success, it doesn’t guarantee chemistry and it takes away from the teams that were able to produce this talent themselves.
If anything, the teams that should be concerned are those middle-tier sides like St. Kilda, Gold Coast, West Coast, the Western Bulldogs and Greater Western Sydney because they will not have the same concessions but finished around the same mark as Essendon.
If all the concessions are handed to the four expansion sides, how will the middle-dwelling tiers cope considering they are also losing talent to expansion clubs. St Kilda, Gold Coast and the Western Bulldogs have been those hit hard in past expansions with the Saints seemingly likely to have talent leaving again.
All in all, the PSP measures enacted by the AFL to help equalise the AFLW competition will stunt the growth of the league.
The development of the grassroots programs, the overage draft in 2023 and the addition of a national zone for the draft will all assist the league to grow more evenly and organically in more a measured way.
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