Round 1 at Ikon Park: An Event to be Replicated

I’m not going to compare Round 1 of the AFLW at Ikon Park to the regular Richmond vs Carlton opener of the men’s season. Not just because of the tired and redundant men’s/women’s football discourse, but because the context is completely different. Generally, most fans of men’s football already support a team playing that weekend, hence a lack of investment. Also, there’s the financial factor.

 

The AFLW season opener attracts fans of all clubs, not just Carlton and Collingwood, as well as curious observers. Make no mistake, I’d say that Round 1 at Ikon Park has become the place to be, and quite the place to be seen in some circles.

 

There’s already talk of supporters needing to arrive early to avoid the scenes of last year’s lockout, complete with a flustered Gil apologising to left out fans (FYI, the gates will be open at 5.45pm on Friday). The ground will host an ‘Outer Party’ with a big screen on the northern lawn in the event of reaching capacity, and food trucks and a performance by local talent Alex Lahey at halftime.

 

In the lead-up to these games, a surprising assortment of people I know clicked ‘going’ to this event on Facebook. And a lot of them did.

 

We’re talking feminists and hipsters who otherwise sneer at ‘sportsball’, fans of other sports, and footy fans who had never touched the women’s game. Plenty of Facebook check-ins and photos. Fantastic, I might add. I don’t aim to deride new or casual fans, or have a stringent code of behaviour for those who want to call themselves supporters. All activities have their casual observers and it’s often how fandom finds its spark. And even if it doesn’t, these spectators boost attendances, expanding viewership and talk and interest.

 

I love that this game is set to become a yearly event. However, how can we convert these first-timers to regular viewers? A fair amount of the people I knew who went to the opener did not return for the rest of the season… but are going again this Friday. I don’t think it was the quality of football that turned them off. Rather, this has become part of the social calendar.

 

A week later in Round 2, there were under 7,000 people at the same venue for Collingwood vs Melbourne, the lowest crowd of the round. While Adelaide continued to draw large crowds of around 10,000, by the last round Canberra’s Manuka Oval had the highest attendance with nearly 6,500 spectators. This may have been partly a result of ongoing frustrating scheduling and stadium issues.

 

None of these figures are to be scoffed at for a brand spanking new league. Some women’s sports in Australia would (sadly) kill for these numbers. Nevertheless, it’s a substantial dip. And we want the sport to thrive and develop, not confine it to underwhelming parameters, right?

 

Perhaps there needs to be more matches during the season that are marketed as ‘events’ or slowly fused as rivalries. This will come with time and a rich development of history that I’m thrilled to watch unfold. Still, it needs to start now by reproducing what works in this spectacle and investing fans in the competition, whether just in the gameplay or the overall match day experience. That grassroots experience with matches being played at suburban grounds, where players are more accessible and fond football memories are held.

 

I’m not suggesting that we turn the AFLW into the Big Bash, requiring music between goals and pyrotechnics to sustain interest. But people need to want to return after that first thrill. Part of a solution could involve the AFL better promoting the narratives of individual players, like we saw with Moana Hope’s story during the 2016 exhibition matches, to encourage an ongoing commitment and interest. This is beneficial even if spectators don’t have a team. Girl power and relatable stories of struggle and triumph? My feminist friends would like to see that.

 

I don’t know what the answer is, but clearly people like what they see. I’m sure Friday night will be one to remember, just like last year. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning.

 

 

 

 

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The heart of a jock in the body of a clumsy nerd - here to talk women's footy, past and present, gender issues and union stuff.

Comments

  1. Dave Brown says:

    The opening game is definitely an event – it is also at a good time in a centralish location at a stadium in decent nick. Same can’t be said for many of the other matches. They’re talking up 15,000 at the Parade on Saturday evening, although I’m not sure where they’ll fit everyone.

    It’s not entirely clear the AFL has a real plan to try to ‘retain’ the new fans AFLW attracts (my 6 year old daughter now asserts “I only like watching footy when women are playing”). Perhaps there are elements of that that are a good thing – the community movement feel may be a key attraction for some punters. Can’t wait until Friday night

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