It's time the AFL walks the walk and seriously invests in the AFLW

THERE'S BEEN NO shortage of flowers thrown at the feet of AFL power brokers since the inception of its AFLW competition in 2017. The league has embraced the commendation and overwhelming public perception that it has been somewhat of a trailblazer for women's sport in this country. And while in many ways it has been exactly that, the AFL suddenly finds itself at a fascinating crossroads, facing a dilemma that will determine the long-term success of its women's league.

Over the past six weeks we've witnessed women's sport in Australia scale a mountain of popularity and revel in such fanfare that even the most ardent of followers would have never dreamed was possible. The unprecedented success of the Matildas at the FIFA Women's World Cup -- one on home soil, no less -- has reimagined what's possible for women in the sporting realm. It's debunked a tired, all-too-common perception that women's sport will forever live on its own island, inferior to its male equivalents. And, for the first time, forced questions on how it can be improved to be answered, as opposed to ignored.

The Matildas' fairytale run to the final four prompted a declaration from Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that the national team's achievements had "changed sport in Australia forever." He doubled down just hours after the tournament's final, announcing a AU$200 million injection into women's sport -- funds that will be spent on upgrading facilities and providing equipment at the grassroots level. It's not hyperbole to suggest the last six weeks has done more for women's sport than the previous six years. It's an undeniable fact.

Meanwhile, the AFLW remains a part-time project, in every sense of the word. Season eight begins Friday and will again feature a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 10-game campaign - 42% of what the men have just completed. Games are at least 20% shorter, too, even taking into account the recent bump to 15-minute quarters. The average AFLW salary remains on the wrong side of AU$50,000, forcing the overwhelming majority of the league's athletes to seek secondary employment as a means of supplementing their football income. But the greatest sticking point is that a collective bargaining agreement with any long-term security or certainty is yet to be signed.

The trickle-down effect means club contact hours for AFLW players are a fraction of the men's. In an average week, for an average club, the women's team may only be on the training track for five hours. External employment responsibilities and fewer hours at the club also mean forgoing treatment and physiotherapy sessions. It's not uncommon for players to fund such activities themselves, in their own time. The worst part is there's still an underlying expectation of fulltime production from these part-time employees.

And it's not just the players dealing with the drawbacks of a part-time regime. Many coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, and team administrators are also employed on this basis. Those that aren't often end up juggling both the men's and women's programs - no prizes for guessing which of the two receives priority.

The overwhelming success of not just the Matildas but the Women's World Cup in general should serve as a much-needed reality check for the AFL that the chasm between the AFLW and women's football in Australia has never been greater. Something must give.

The AFL has been deliberating a real-life chicken or the egg paradox for several years now. There is a line of thought the league cannot justify a fulltime, professional AFLW competition until the quality of the on-field product improves to a point where it can stand on its own two feet and generate a steady, profitable revenue stream. But how can such a scenario possibly occur if it continues to be nothing more than a part-time job for its athletes?

The AFL must act now, or its women's program will be left behind. The classic, and frankly, overused business mantra of spending money to make money is as applicable as ever. If the AFL wants its women's league to flourish, it must seriously invest in it and cough up in the next collective bargaining agreement. Contrary to the belief of some, AFLW players aren't crying out for salaries that match or are even remotely close to those of the men, just enough for them to not require a second source of income. Enough so they can make football the number one priority.

"Contrary to the belief of some, AFLW players aren't crying out for salaries that match or are even remotely close to those of the men, just enough for them to not require a second source of income."

Nobody's claiming the return on investment will be immediate. It likely won't be. But it's the price which the AFL must pay if it wants to reap the rewards down the road. It's the exact same philosophy the league peddled to us a decade and change ago when it unveiled both expansion clubs Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

The problem facing the AFL is it no longer has the luxury of time on its side and the ability to kick the answer to this important question down the road. In addition to the success of the Matildas and the Women's World Cup, other football codes have already begun closing the gap. The NRLW has also taken giant strides over the past 18 months with its expanded competition, commitment to women's State of Origin and all-around improved television offering.

In late 2021, the AFL launched a bold set of long-term commitments it hoped would progress Aussie Rules for women and girls around the country, in what was aptly titled its Women's Football Vision for 2030. Among the targets was to ensure equal participation and representation across all levels of community football. There is concern any headway made in this area could be undone, with the league now at serious risk of losing potential talent and future stars to these rival codes. The question both AFL CEO designate Andrew Dillon and General Manager of women's football Nicole Livingstone must address is why would any young girl pursue Aussie Rules over another football code, or any other sport, for that matter?

By no means is anyone arguing the glamour of the A-Leagues Women competition is on par with what we've witnessed this past month with the Matildas, but we now have proof of concept of what's possible for those at the pinnacle of the sport. Take Sam Kerr, for example. Now a national sports icon who not only represents her country at a global event, but is signed to one of the most recognised sporting clubs on the planet. Sponsors are queuing up out the door for her signature and both boys and girls around Australia wear her jersey proudly. It's a far cry from anything the AFLW can currently offer.

"Women in sport is not an overnight success," Dillon said earlier this month at the AFLW's season launch. "Our job going forward is to ensure we continue to give our AFLW players all the tools to be the best athletes they can possibly be - the best support services, the best structures, the best facilities and the best pathways. We are committed to the growth of the women's game at every level to ensure that girls have the support to achieve their dreams."

A common frustration amongst AFLW players is the support from the league often falls short of what's promised and signaled to the masses. Whether fair or otherwise, there's a feeling the AFL doesn't genuinely believe in what it's selling. It's time the league swallows its pride and follows through with these grandiose claims and promises in the next collective bargaining agreement if it wants to continue holding that coveted, albeit unofficial title, of being a trailblazer for women's sport in this country.