The AFLW competition has hit its expansion wall.
After rapidly expanding from eight to 14 teams, the league is now in desperate need of a deep breath as the chasm between the inaugural eight and the new six grows wider.
North Melbourne aside, who took a very different path as an expansion team and used their deep roots in women’s footy to attract experienced players from around the competition, the newer teams have struggled greatly in 2021.
Looking at the ladder, the Kangaroos are the only expansion team in the top eight, while only GWS is in the bottom half of the original teams. It’s hard to write this off as a coincidence.
We’ve made exceptions for the Roos, but it is equally fair to put aside the Giants’ 2021 so far, given they have spent most of it away from home and without a fair chunk of staff.
After Round 3, the inaugural eight have percentages of: 502, 225, 272, 170, 156, 113, 112 and 47 respectively, while the expansion group sit at: 200, 65, 44, 36, 32 and 24.
Inaugural teams are also 14-1 in games versus the expansion sides so far this season. The latter averaging 19 points per game in those matches, North Melbourne aside.
The one in 14-1 was St Kilda’s defeat of the Western Bulldogs in Round 1.
Of the four teams that entered the competition in 2020, Richmond is yet to win a game from nine attempts, West Coast has one win, Gold Coast has fallen away massively this year going goalless for seven consecutive quarters across rounds two and three … and then there’s the Saints who have been competitive every week for two seasons now and are on the right track.
Good work, St Kilda.
All this leads to one conclusion. The league expanded too quickly and now needs to pump the brakes.
The decision in 2018 to add six teams across the following two years felt hasty at the time and has proven so.
Teams like Melbourne and Collingwood in recent years have needed top-up players to get through the season because list caps of 30 are not sustainable. Expanding the player pool from 240 to 420 hasn’t left much space for fixing this basic issue.
Hawthorn and Essendon are ticking all the right boxes and doing all the right things to deserve an AFLW license, but rewarding their efforts right now would be detrimental to a Victorian talent pool already stretched beyond its limits.
The same goes for Sydney, with GWS needing more time to plant the roots of women’s footy in New South Wales.
The Swans women’s academy is growing fast, but the time is not yet right for more than one AFLW-calibre side in the state – and both of those teams are aware of that.
Port Adelaide is the one team with a reasonable argument. Adelaide’s monopoly on South Australian AFLW talent has led them to two flags. You could argue the competition needs the Power to balance out that advantage.
Of course, Fremantle has only become stronger since the introduction of West Coast. There is no guarantee players will jump ship.
The tone of the league has also changed this year regarding expansion, with COVID-19 a factor in that.
Carlton coach Daniel Harford preached patience earlier in the year when asked about the topic.
"I would think it would be prudent to just sit back and watch for a bit, see what happens over the next 12-24 months, whatever the timeline might be,” Harford told AFL Media.
"I just think close to 10 months (mostly in Victoria) taken out of a five-year embryonic competition is a big chunk to lose. We need to be wary of pulling the trigger too early, despite the fact we all know the more opportunities there are, eventually the better the whole thing will be.”
St Kilda coach Peta Searle spoke similarly.
“It’s a difficult question given no footy was played this year. You’d like a bit more footy to be played before you can go deeper into the draft pool,” Searle told SEN’s The Boundary AFLW Podcast.
“You’ve got this year of consolidating, I think given we had a year without footy, let’s have another year of consolidation.”
Even AFLW CEO Nicole Livingstone, who has been the driving force of the rapid expansion, has spoken regularly about the need for a cooling off period so far in 2021.
Adding more teams at this point would elongate the competition’s tail-order and thin the talent pool further. The league can’t afford either right now.
St Kilda, Richmond, Geelong, Gold Coast and West Coast need time to establish themselves and catch up to the inaugural group before more teams are filed in underneath them.
AFLW continues to improve sharply as a product, Round 3’s Melbourne versus North Melbourne game the culmination of that growth so far, but the gap between the top and the bottom is a warning sign that the league needs a break from expansion.
Women in sport for MEGT Australia