If there’s one thing Saturday’s AFLW grand final between the Adelaide Crows and the Brisbane Lions showed us it’s that no one can question the passion and commitment these elite athletes bring to the game. Or the entertainment value. More than 15,000 people attended what turned out to be a thriller, equaling the average crowd at Metricon for men’s AFL matches. It also delivered a ratings bonanza for Foxtel and Channel 7, who, incredibly, were given the broadcast rights for free.
The game itself was not atypical of grand finals. The skills were a little shaky as players were affected by nerves, but the intensity on the ground was riveting. Olympian Erin Phillips was clearly best on ground with 28 possessions and two goals, dominating for much of the game, while the stars Brisbane have come to rely on were well held. Adelaide’s inaccuracy in front of goal allowed Brisbane to stage an impressive comeback in the last quarter but the Crows held on to win by one straight kick.
However, this inaugural AFLW season is about much more than what happens on the oval, as compelling as that has been. Women’s footy is about reconnection and inclusion. It’s about everyone feeling welcome and recognised – not just women, but people of all backgrounds. This has been evident in the proud representation of LGBTIQ families amongst the playing cohort as well as those who have come to footy from the least likely places.
We have seen pictures of Erin Phillips’ and her wife’s twins in the premiership cup. We’ve cheered while Sarah Perkins has booted goals and danced in celebration, defying the naysayers and critics who told her she wasn’t fit enough. We were awed by Sabrina Frederick-Traub’s marking prowess, despite the Brisbane star having lived the first seven years of her life on the other side of the world.
Or Kirby Bentley, who, after her aunt Andrea was murdered by her estranged husband, joined her sisters’ footy club, having been forced to confront in the most brutal way the importance of family. Or ADF medic Heather Anderson whose bright pink helmet was designed to allow her sight-impaired mum to follow her daughter’s streaks of brilliance for the Crows.
Or the running goals by Kate McCarthy, whose pacemaker didn’t curb her determination to play elite footy. Or Bec Goddard’s delightful and candid displays of emotion, shrugging off the usual game-face of one week at a time to share with the players and the crowds just what a joy her experience has been.
There was also the parade of crutches and moonboots that poignantly illustrated how much was at stake, with some players barely having a chance to pull on their boots before their brief, spectacular season was over – forced to wait yet another year for this thing they thought would never happen. All of it, the highs and the lows, seemed more intense, more significant and harder earned than any sporting event perhaps since Cathy Freeman’s Olympic 400 metre gold medal win at the Sydney 2000 Games.
Of course, the season wasn’t perfect. There were issues with scheduling, the quality and availability of grounds – much of it traceable to the seemingly low expectations the AFL had for crowd levels and audience engagement. Hopefully the league are working on next year’s fixture to ensure the same doesn’t happen in 2018. Perhaps they could start the season later in summer, the latter half overlapping with the first rounds of the men’s game.
An extra final – a semi or preliminary – would provide high level experience and an opportunity for a larger number of players, enriching the talent pool for future seasons. It would also increase the reach of the game and allow more states the opportunity to watch a final up close. The venue for the grand final also needs to be established early to avoid the ground drama that dominated the lead-up to Saturday’s match.
The AFLW season was a lot of different things to a lot of people, but the one consistent take-home is that it was a resounding and, for the AFL it seems, surprising success. Record-breaking crowds at the games were eclipsed by soaring TV ratings, turning the heads of networks and sponsors alike.
It seems that finally the world is paying attention to the argument so many women have been making for generations: that women’s footy is important not just for cultural and political reasons – though the impact of these are yet to unfold fully – but because there’s a deep and abiding hunger for it, and the crowd will not be silenced. Women’s footy is here to stay.