The clubs of the AFL have once again shown that their commitment to growing women’s sport is not a priority. Richmond have became the third club to cut back their women’s program, electing not to field a team in the VFLW competition in 2021.
The decision comes after North Melbourne and Geelong cut key personnel in their women’s teams. On the 4th of June, the Roos sacked senior coach Scott Gowans, despite finishing top of Conference B and looking due for a Grand Final appearance before the finals series was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an ironic twist of fate, Richmond are keen on Gowans for the senior coaching role of their AFLW team after sacking their own coach, Tom Hunter.
On the 6th of August, Geelong’s head of women’s football Simone Bellears was let go in what was referred to by the club as a ‘heartbreaking’ decision in their official statement. Bellears was one of 15 staff, including assistant coach and VFLW senior coach Natalie Wood, to be made redundant by the Cats.
Richmond were ranked third in the league for overall revenue ($79 million) in 2019, and fifth for operating profit ($4 million). Geelong were ranked fifth ($67 million) for the former and sixth ($3.9 million) for the latter.
Other expansion clubs West Coast, Gold Coast, and St. Kilda have made no changes to their women’s departments so far. While the Suns have recently had to let 15 staff members (including assistant coaches) go, the women’s program remains a priority for the side with the second lowest revenue and lowest membership in the league.
Essendon and Hawthorn, who both entered VFLW sides into the competition in 2018 and 2017 respectively, have recommitted to the programs come 2021.
Both sides have fielded strong programs, with Hawks players Rosie Dillon, Tamara Luke, Jordan Membrey, Talia Radan and Chantella Perera all being taken in the 2019 National Draft. Essendon players Hayley Bullas and Maddy Collier both landed on West Coast’s inaugural list for 2020.
The question then remains, why the Tigers, who specifically turned down AFL financial support during the season pause, have dropped their VFLW side. Collingwood and Hawthorn have done the same, with similar revenue pools to pull from. The Western Bulldogs, with $2 million less profit in 2019, have gone it alone and kept their entire women’s program running.
What is the Tigers excuse?
If it is a purely financial decision, then why are poorer, yet just as independent clubs, managing to keep all their equivalent staff on board?
What this signals to the supporters, the players, and the rest of the league is that Richmond care more about increasing their already massive profit margins instead of continuing to invest in women’s footy.
This is a decision which should not be taken lightly.
Since the AFLW came into existence in 2017, the competition has had to fight tooth and nail to earn the respect, viewership and love that the AFL has enjoyed almost unconditionally.
Richmond, North Melbourne and Geelong genuinely risk affecting public opinion of the AFLW by signalling to their supporter bases that the women’s game comes second.
While it’s been reassuring to see the online reaction towards these decisions, the anxiety remains in the back of many minds as to whether more clubs will leave their women’s programs in the dust.
The future of standalone clubs like the Darebin Falcons and Williamstown Seagulls is even more concerning, though the Gulls at least now have a partnership with Adelaide.
It needs to be made clear to every AFL club and supporter that women’s footy can’t be set back after everyone involved has fought so hard to get it where it is today.