“If you don’t like AFLW, don’t watch it!”
No, this is not a new advertising slogan devised by Gillon from Marketing.
It is the statement being made by players, officials and passionate advocates of an emerging league as it enters its fourth season.
Don’t bother telling us most AFLW players would struggle to get a game in your son’s local under-14s team.
Don’t waste your breath whining about the low scoring when you rave how about how your AFL men’s team has perfected the dark defensive arts of zoning and frontal pressure.
Don’t tell us the AFLW is being “shoved down your throat” when the media coverage is still minimal in comparison with the AFL.
Don’t lecture us about how the AFLW’s free admission means it is “not paying its way” when there are thousands of young girls lining up to pay registration fees at local clubs who will become lifelong consumers of the game.
Don’t waste your time watching it then sharing your half-baked ill-informed opinions on social media if your fragile male ego is threatened by the sight of women playing Aussie rules.
These were the kind of sentiments that gained considerable momentum last season after the foul trolling of Tayla Harris, the Carlton star who had the temerity to be the subject of a photograph that demonstrated her incredible athleticism and, in turn, became symbolic of the empowering nature of the AFLW and women’s sport in general.
The response to this message from those reserving their right to hate on the AFLW with impunity was that the competition was placing itself beyond reasonable criticism; that it was cocooning itself in a protective bubble with the help of subservient media acolytes.
But this view conveniently ignores the sheer weight of the abuse to which the AFLW and its players have been subjected since they dared set boot on sacred male footballing soil.
In response, some members of the media who regularly cover AFLW pointed out that legitimate criticism of the game by informed observers was expected and even appreciated.
But, sadly, even mild negativity immediately provided aid and comfort to those serial trolls and misogynists who would seize on any criticism of the AFLW to justify their own often twisted points of view.
And sure enough, rather than responding to the substance of the column, the reader comments, some of them dripping with bile, included just about every predictable prejudice against the league, including the very right of women to play the game.
The “don’t watch us if you hate us” response is therefore inevitable, although not without some risk given the message will be manipulated by the trolls, and even some media critics, who claim this message is “divisive” and even “man-hating”.
But in its four years the AFLW has produced sufficient success stories to balance the “love us or leave us” message with more positive stories — from the enormous crowd of 53,034 that attended last season’s grand final to the emergence of stars and role models such as Adelaide’s Erin Phillips to, most encouragingly, the impact it has had on young girls who will be part of the next generation of participants and fans.
One of the best sports photos taken last year was of Geelong’s Georgie Rankin, great-great granddaughter of George Rankin who played in the Cats inaugural season of 1897, celebrating a close victory in front of a group of exultant young girls.
It was the AFLW’s raison d’etre in one heart-warming frame.
If the players are united in their rebuff of the trolls, there was some division over the off-season when a faction challenged the AFL’s collective bargaining agreement against the advice of their own AFL Players Association.
While a three-year deal was inevitably agreed, such militancy was the first significant sign at least some players have advanced from the “we’re just grateful to have a competition” stage to “we deserve much more”.
With that attitude comes some responsibility to provide a “product” that justifies greater demands — although only if the bar is set by the reasonable standards of informed observers, not the astronomic expectations of those who make spurious and self-serving comparisons with the 150-year-old male game.
Competitively, the main feature is the addition of four new teams — Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast — meaning the AFLW has grown from eight teams to 14 in its four years.
Given the debate about whether the player pool already been spread too thin, such rapid expansion will place yet more focus on the quality of games.
But in the long term, the real test of the new teams is whether they add to the crowds and TV eyeballs trained on AFLW.
In the case of power clubs Richmond and West Coast particularly, you would imagine a significant boost to overall figures as fans previously disenfranchised by their club’s non-inclusion get involved.
Regardless, any perception the standard of the competition has been diluted will put yet another arrow in the quiver of those mostly male couch experts searching for new ways to justify their predictable social media attacks.
The message to them from AFLW players and their most fervent supporters is loud and clear: Pick up the remote control, change the channel and leave us alone.