At Marvel Stadium to launch the 2022 fixture, Nicole Livingstone was flanked by two of the most recognisable faces of AFLW: Melbourne’s Daisy Pearce and the Western Bulldogs’ Ellie Blackburn.
The casual observer would have been forgiven for assuming that the two pioneering clubs of women’s football had been given the honour of opening the upcoming season.
Instead, as was revealed by AFL media on Wednesday that season 2022 will be kicked off by St Kilda and Richmond — two teams who did not make finals in 2021.
Perhaps more bizarrely, the season opener will be held at Frankston Oval — a far cry from the now-traditional venue of Princes Park in Carlton.
Frankston Oval has a capacity of approximately 8000, with just 1000 seats, and is approximately an hour and a half on public transport from Melbourne’s city centre.
When quizzed about the unusual choice, the head of women’s football said a key consideration had been the inability of either Princes Park or Moorabbin Oval to host night games, with both undergoing renovations with the support of federal and state governments.
“Obviously we have IKON [Princes] Park that’s going through a redevelopment where the lights were not available for a Friday night match,” said Livingstone.
“Frankston Oval has fantastic lights, some of the best lights going around. So to be able to play a night match in Frankston in Bayside on a beautifully renovated deck, I think the players will actually like playing there.
Missing from Livingstone’s answer, however, was an acknowledgement that Whitten Oval — while also undergoing renovations — is capable of hosting night matches. Indeed, the Bulldogs and Demons will square off in Footscray just one night after, at a ground that has traditionally drawn large crowds to AFLW games.
But in a sign that the AFL is moving away from appealing to its more ‘rusted-on’ AFLW supporters, Livingstone added that the suburban opener was being pitched at families on holidays in the region.
“[Frankston Oval] a beautiful venue and it’s just a stone’s throw away from the Mornington Peninsula.
“[The upcoming AFLW season] is in school holidays, so we feel really confident that it’s going to attract a lot of people.”
Timing of season another compromise — and break from — AFLW tradition
The awkward timing of the upcoming AFLW season — immediately after the Christmas/New Year period — is another reason why the AFL was limited in its search for a venue for the opener.
The upcoming season was originally slated to begin in December 2021, but was shifted to January 2022 due to ongoing uncertainty around state border closures.
As a result — and after years of insistence that the competition be given “clean-air” — it now sits squarely in a jam-packed sporting calendar featuring the Australian Open, men’s and women’s Ashes series, A-League W and M, and the WNBL/NBL, among others.
This is another clear break in tradition from the AFL hierarchy, which had previously expressed a lack of confidence that AFLW would hold its own if forced to compete against other summer sports.
“It is a very busy sporting calendar in that January period,” said Livingstone.
“So either watch us or turn up to games. We want to see you, the players want to see you, moving forward.”
Western Australian sides fans will be able to see the Dockers and Eagles in action for the first three rounds of the season in what Livingstone said was a decision reached in negotiation with the players and WA government.
Subsequently, both teams will head to Victoria for a string of matches, before the AFL is confident they will be able to return without onerous quarantine requirements.
As was the case when GWS players were required to stay in a “bubble” last season, Livingstone added the AFL had committed to providing players with an undisclosed form of compensation to recognise the impact on their lives outside of football.
‘Vision’ for AFLW on the way with fresh CBA negotiations looming
Looking ahead to the future of the competition — which in its following season will introduce all 18 clubs — Livingstone said that some time around December had been ear-marked as an ideal time to start the season.
“Potentially if the season grows longer, we could go a little earlier [than December]. That’s a definitely a very good window that we’ve seen other sports try and stake a claim into as well.”
The length of the season — which next year will run for 10 weeks followed by three weeks of finals — has long been a point of contention for the AFLW playing cohort.
Bulldogs’ captain Ellie Blackburn, while expressing excitement about 18 teams joining the competition for the following season, reinforced the players’ desire to see a full-length season.
“We know it’s in the pipeline, and that’s the long-term goal of the competition; we understand the growth side of things and we’ve got to work our way to that. But yes, from a players’ perspective, we’re pretty keen to play everyone once.”
The season’s length and starting time will be just some of the many issues to be ironed out moving forward, especially in the context of the looming CBA negotiations.
The current deal has one year left to run, with the previous round of negotiations playing out acrimoniously in the media.
The AFL has signalled that it will shortly release a “vision” for AFLW, with fans and those involved in the game eagerly awaiting news on its plans for professionalisation.
Asked about whether there were plans for AFLW players to become “full-time”, Livingstone gave a hint as to the AFL’s thinking:
“We’ve got to negotiate that obviously, between the AFL and AFLPA, but what I will say is that my language is different to full-time. My language is year-round.
“So at the moment we have players with a contract for six months of the year. And I know the players would like to be year-round to be able to be the best footballers they can be.
“That doesn’t mean, you know, training 10 or 12 times a week at a football club. But I’m sure the players would like to be year-round to be able to get stronger in the off-season and have conditioning done.
“So that’s certainly something that’s up for discussion in the next CBA.”