In September 2018, the AFL introduced a conference system for AFLW, and in just over two weeks, it lands. Opinions vary, but without doubt, feelings will be strong.
The AFL’s decision to establish two conferences in the third of the AFLW’s formative years was a decision that, at first glance, surprised me with how not-disappointed I was with it.
I confess to being an avid follower of the whirlwind NBA – America’s showy, glitzy take on basketball pursued by this somewhat ashamed teenager under the cover of Twitter, podcasts and ESPN – which utilizes a two-conference system in an attempt to organise its exceedingly complex scheduling.
In this instance, conferences are used to ease the pains of excessive travel for the farthest flung of the NBA’s eye-boggling 30 teams while streamlining the end-of-season playoffs for maximum entertainment and, naturally, maximum income.
Conferences work, too, in the National Football League, the American Football competition including 32 teams yet just 17 regular season rounds. In the injury-laden NFL, a shortened season makes sense – athletes simply cannot keep fit for a season spanning, at minimum, 8 months,
It was indicated that the AFL, in a continuation of an enthusiastic Americanisation of Australian Rules Football (two day drafts, free agency and even Grand Finals at night) would eventually implement a conference system in at least one of its competitions and, sure enough, the 2019 AFLW season will see the debut of a conference system.
I am not surprised to see the AFLW chosen as the administrator’s proving ground of choice – the AFL has a new toy and, clearly, will do whatever it wants to with it despite overwhelming and continuous criticism.
Conferences would allow for the AFL’s recent Holy Grail – the mystical “equalisation” searched for by administrators. The door could even be opened for further American inspiration – perhaps by 2020, we may see an All-Star Weekend, complete with a showcase between sides from Conference A and B. We might just get a goalkicking contest.
But what seemed like a somewhat positive (yet rushed) initiative turned to a dumpster fire pretty quickly. With the AFL keen to expand the AFLW yet unprepared to adequately support it, the 2019 season was not accordingly adjusted with the arrival of North Melbourne and Geelong.
In the AFL men’s competition, a handful of teams playoff twice. In the AFLW, teams may wait two years to clash. The response – duly swift and duly venomous.
The AFL’s expansion of AFLW has been admirably fast-tracked in response to the vehement support offered following the successful 2017 and 2018 seasons. However, its handling of the league’s expansion displays an organization that is unfocused and unwilling to commit to its project – a project that will require much more administrative attention than the AFLX will.
In 2020, a competition with the unstable support of newly founded conferences will see four more clubs introduced – Richmond, West Coast, Gold Coast and St Kilda. The AFL have been reluctant to extend the home and away season beyond seven weeks – with 14 teams in the competition, a seven-week season will be untenable. A finals series lasting just two weeks is also pushing it.
It has become apparent that the introduced conferences are simply the latest of number of knee-jerk reactions on the AFL’s part. When play slowed in Round 1 of last year’s AFLW, a memo was swiftly sent out by the AFL, encouraging teams to abandon static, defensive styles and embrace a high-risk, high-reward gameplan in a move lambasted by fans. With the expansion of the AFLW, the AFL has concocted a dilemma of its own design. Simultaneously, it wishes to grow AFLW quickly enough to see TV and radio deals fall into place yet won’t commit to something as simple as concrete fixturing.
Conferences provide an easy way out for the AFL when it inevitably has to deal with a 14-team competition supposedly taking place in a touch over two months. I hope that an extended season is introduced for the sake of the AFLW’s growth, but recent administrative decisions have me anything but hopeful.