Why You Should Watch the AFLW This Season
The Matildas’ historic run in the 2023 World Cup has made many international fans interested in Australian women’s sports, particularly their domestic soccer league A-League Women. One league you may not know about is the AFLW, the women’s Australian rules football league.
Australian rules football, also known as Aussie rules or simply “footy,” is the most popular sport in Australia. It’s best explained to newcomers as a cross between rugby and soccer, although its rules are quite distinct from both. Since this article is about the women’s game, the following rules are the women’s edition, which are slightly different than the men’s.
For women’s footy, there are 16 players on the field in a 5-6-5 formation: five defenders, six midfielders, and five forwards. Five players comprise the bench. Substitutions are called interchanges, and teams have up to 60 interchanges per game. The game is played on a massive, oval-shaped field that’s much larger than an American football field or a soccer pitch.
There are four quarters of 15 minutes each, although extra time is typically added to quarters since the clock keeps running like in soccer games. There are six-minute breaks in between quarters and a 14-minute halftime.
The goal of the game is as follows: kick the ball through the opponent’s goalposts and get more total points than them by the final siren. There are three ways to get the ball down the field:
Run with the ball, but you have to bounce it every 15 yards with your hands
Using your fist to hit it ahead - called handball (not to be confused with soccer’s handball—this is totally legal)
There are three sets of goalposts, as seen in this screencap from the AFLW 2022 Grand Final:
Kicking the ball through the center set of goalposts is called a goal and is worth six points. Kicking the ball through either set of side goalposts or hitting any goalpost is called a “behind” and is worth one point.
Tackling is allowed, much like rugby. Tackles must be between the shoulders and knees. Unlike rugby or soccer, however, there is no offside rule. Players can catch the ball from any part of the field. Per the AFLW definition, if a player catches a ball from a “kick of 15 or more meters that hasn’t touched the ground or another player,” that is called a “mark.” If a team gets a mark, they can either keep going or stop play and get an unimpeded kick on goal.
Scores are reported as such: Goals.Behinds (Total Score). For example, the final scoreline would be 3.1 (19) if a team scored 19 total points by scoring three goals and one behind.
What Is the AFLW?
As the name suggests, the Women’s Australian Football League (known as the AFLW), is the national league for women’s Aussie rules. It is the most prevalent women’s footy league in the world, although the game is played in other countries such as Ireland and the United States as well. The AFLW was established in 2017 with eight teams, all-female counterparts to existing men’s teams. This upcoming season is the eighth season (there were two seasons in 2022.) The teams are as follows:
Carlton (also known as the Blues)
Gold Coast Suns
Greater Western Sydney Giants
North Melbourne Kangaroos
Port Adelaide Power
St Kilda Saints
West Coast Eagles
There is a playoff tournament to determine who wins the league every season. The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs, which are in a knockout format. The last two teams remaining play in the Grand Final (championship game) for the Premiership (championship.) The reigning Premiers are the Melbourne Demons; the win was their first Premiership. Adelaide have the most amount of Premierships with three wins.
AFLW players are primarily from Australia, but players have come from New Zealand, Ireland, the United States, and Canada too. Americans should note that the first (and only) American to ever play in the AFLW, Danielle Marshall, plays for Essendon.
Players to Watch
As with any league, there are legends, rising stars, and underrated favorites in the AFLW. Here are three players to watch:
Hayley Miller, Fremantle Dockers
If Fremantle captain Hayley Miller looked half as good as she did in their preseason matches, she will be a menace to anyone who dares to stop her. She kicked half of Fremantle’s goals in the match and provided much-needed stability in the midfield. This season, Miller will look to return to her season six form, when she kicked 10 goals in 12 games and received All-Australian honors. Her leadership and presence will be key to the Dockers’ success as they look to rebound from their nightmarish injury problems last season.
Bonus: Miller has a delightful podcast with teammate Emma O’Driscoll during the season. It’s an interesting look into the day-to-day lives of AFLW players, and the two hosts’ banter is more than worth your time.
Kate Hore, Melbourne Demons
Kate Hore is best described as a machine. The new Melbourne captain won a Premiership with the club last season, kicking 16 goals in 10 games. She also was voted Best and Fairest by her teammates and named to her second All-Australian team. Her defensive abilities are also stellar. Hore makes deft and athletic tackles just as easily as she scores. With former Melbourne captain (and AFLW legend) Daisy Pearce retiring at the end of last season, Hore has big shoes to fill. That being said, she’s more than ready for it.
Bonus: Both Hore and her partner Corey Maynard played basketball growing up before becoming football players at the Melbourne Demons.
Emily Bates, Hawthorn Hawks
Emily Bates was acquired by Hawthorn in the offseason after playing seven seasons with Brisbane. A leader from the midfield, Bates’ quiet persistence has blossomed into an MVP-caliber player - literally. She is the second player to ever win all three major awards (Best and Fairest, Coaches’ Association Player of the Year, and Players’ Association MVP), doing so last season. Bates is coming to Hawthorn with her work cut out for her. Fans and teammates alike are looking to her to turn the club around after a rough inaugural season. If anyone could do it, it’s Emily Bates.
Bonus: Bates appears to be a fan of Australian Survivor.
Why You Should Watch
You, dear reader, clicked on this article to be convinced to start watching (or at least following) the AFLW. Now that you’re familiar with the league and the sport itself, let’s get to the fun part: what makes it great?
Aussie rules football is incredibly exciting to watch. Much like soccer, hockey, or basketball, the action is almost non-stop. Insane kicks, dramatic tackles, and impossible catches are guaranteed every match. Also, players are allowed to use each other as springboards to catch high balls, which is as thrilling and acrobatic as it seems. Here are some highlights from one of the 2021-22 playoff games so you can see how dynamic the game is for yourself:
There’s something extremely sincere about the AFLW. It’s a semi-professional league, with steps being taken to professionalize in the next few seasons. Because of this, many players hold multiple jobs in addition to football. They’re truly there out of passion and love of the game.
In addition, Australian rules football is a family affair. Many former AFL players are now cheering on their daughters in the AFLW. The most heartwarming example of this is former Port Adelaide captain Greg Phillips finding out his daughter Erin Phillips will be the first ever captain for Port’s women’s team. Please enjoy the wholesome content:
My personal favorite part about Aussie rules culture is the team theme songs. Every team has a song that is written exclusively for them that’s played after a win. Many times the players sing it after a win too! It’s impossible not to smile when listening to these songs. Some of my favorites (warning: these will get stuck in your head):
Upon exploring all the theme songs, Americans will notice many team theme songs use American traditional melodies. There are no clear reasons why multiple teams use these melodies, other than it being a charming quirk of a very Australian league. As an American, however, it is a delight to hear something familiar in such a different context.
Furthermore, watching the AFLW is getting a window into true Australian culture. Australia is a sporting nation at its core. As seen with their wonderfully intense support of the Matildas, the Australian people are eager to cheer on women’s sports athletes as intently as men’s sports. As the AFLW develops, the fan base will only grow.
Much like many other women’s sports around the world at the moment, the AFLW could be on the precipice of something great. Now that all 18 men’s teams have AFLW counterparts, many fans will experience the league for the first time. The games are quite accessible at $10 a ticket for adults and free for anyone under 18 years old, which should be a draw for those new fans to keep coming back.
For non-Aussie viewers, the best way to access live games is to get an international membership with a team, which gives you access to Watch AFL, the international AFL/AFLW streaming service. Even if you can’t stay up late or wake up early to watch the games, the highlights on each team’s social media channels are a great way to stay up to date on all things AFLW. The opening game of the season is on Friday, September 1 at 5:20 AM EST between the Melbourne Demons and Collingwood Magpies.
Australian rules football (and by extension the AFLW) is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. If your body is still on Australia time after the World Cup, check out the AFLW and enjoy the wild world of Aussie rules.