Why this AFLW target is mission impossible

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Key points

  • The final round of the AFLW home-and-away season is this weekend.
  • Under the AFLW’s collective bargaining agreement, a 12th round would be added to the 2024 season if the average crowd for home-and-away games in 2023 was 3500.
  • Although the league is encouraged by this year’s crowd numbers, it will fall short of this target.

The AFLW will fall short of the crowd figure needed to trigger an extra round of games next season, with more than 104,000 people required to attend the final round to hit the mark – a figure that will be impossible to reach.

The number of regular-season games was already due to rise from 10 to 11 next year, but a clause in the collective bargaining agreement signed in September this year stipulates that an average crowd attendance of 3500 would result in an additional round being added.

Collingwood’s Eliza James marks in the round nine AFLW match against Sydney, one of the best-attended games of the season thus far.Credit: Getty

The AFL said it was not disappointed with this season’s attendances.

According to the league’s figures, 210,357 people have attended AFLW games this season, an average of 2597 across the 81 games played and similar to the average crowds of the previous two seasons. The league would need almost half that many (104,643) to attend the final nine games of the home and away season to trigger the extra round in 2024.

That is an impossible task, given an average of 11,627 would need to attend each game, and the combined capacity of the venues being used in round 10 is 103,500.

The trigger was agreed to in July, in order for the league to release the AFLW fixture though CBA negotiations were at a standstill.

Round one was the best of the AFLW season for attendance, with an average audience of 4781 per match, up from 4503 in round one of season seven and 2876 in season six. Throughout the season, however, crowds dropped off to an average attendance of 2597.

The AFL decided against using big stadiums this season, even though the largest three home-and-away attendances last season were at Marvel Stadium (12,092 for Essendon and Hawthorn’s inaugural clash), Adelaide Oval (20,652 for the Showdown) and Optus Stadium (6552 for the WA derby) – results that skewed the season’s crowd averages.

The AFL said without those matches, average attendance year-on-year was up about 20 per cent. The league emphasised its “commitment to future expansion” as set out in the CBA.

“We have been really clear in our desire for the AFLW competition to grow in a sustainable way, and the competition’s eighth season is showcasing another step in this growth – great footy, the best in the AFLW’s short history, great community engagement and crowds have increased, highlighted by events at homeland venues like Henson Park and Windy Hill,” AFL spokesperson Jay Allen said.

“Henson Park is one of the best grounds to watch and experience AFLW, crowds more than doubling for Swans matches this season is testament to that, [and] Pride round and our finals series is shaping up to be a great celebration and conclusion to our eighth AFLW season.”

But the AFL Players Association’s AFLW boss Julia Chiera said the union was disappointed this year’s crowd numbers would not trigger an extra round next season.

“The AFLPA has spoken to player leaders about the AFLW metrics that were agreed as part of the CBA, and the likelihood of achieving these targets, as the season progressed,” said Chiera.

“While we’re disappointed the season won’t progress to 12 matches in 2024, pleasingly, the home-and-away season will extend to 11 matches per club for season nine, which was secured through negotiations during the year.”

The AFLPA said the enterprise agreement ensured there would be annual growth forums between it and the league to consider the growth strategy for the women’s competition.

While reaching the crowd target is now out of the question, there has been sustained growth for some clubs and home grounds. However, others have struggled to get consistent attendance.

Sydney home games at Henson Park had the biggest year-on-year jump, going from on average of 2098 in 2022 to 4944 in 2023. Their home Pride game in round nine against Collingwood was attended by 5722 fans, a club record at the venue and the league’s third-biggest crowd of the season.

The highest crowd so far was 8722 for the Showdown between Adelaide and Port Adelaide in round one, followed by the season opener between Melbourne and Collingwood at Ikon Park (8412).

Essendon host Carlton in round nine.Credit: AFL Photos

Essendon’s Windy Hill hit its club targets, attracting an average attendance of 3164 per game, although that number was reduced by a smaller crowd for the Sunday 5pm game in wet conditions against West Coast in round eight.

Ryan Larkin, chief consumer and marketing officer at Essendon, said the club leveraged off the nostalgia of the traditional heartland and then aimed to bring new life into it with the AFLW side.

“We’re seeing a lot of people returning to Windy Hill who have been there during the ’80s and early ’90s and then are bringing their children and grandchildren to continue that tradition of watching elite level football [there],” Larkin said.

“And remember, last year we didn’t have a home either, so it’s great to be able to say this is our home of our AFLW team. Last year, Port Melbourne/Marvel Stadium was amazing, but we were shifted around grounds, whereas our members now have that familiarity around Windy Hill being the home of the Essendon AFLW team.”

Sydney fan Polly Burridge, 27, said the Swans had done a good job of making Henson Park appealing for both hardcore and casual fans, and providing offerings such as tents from local breweries.

“There is so much free space for kids and families to run around without them having to just focus on the game, as well as jumping castles and other activities,” Burridge said.

“But it doesn’t just feel like a place for families. Groups of young adults can bring picnics, and just hang out with very reasonably priced entertainment.

“I’ve managed to convince a lot of non-footy fans to go just under the guise of the price and the vibe.”

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