IF THE AFL had stuck to its initial plans, the inaugural nationwide women's season would have been in the chaotic year that was 2020.
But the success of exhibition matches between 2013 and 2015 helped fast track the birth of the NAB AFLW competition by at least three years.
Instead of a competition attempting to get off the ground during a pandemic, the NAB AFLW entered 2021 firmly established.
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Approaching the latter part of its fifth season, AFLW has exceeded the wildest expectations of executives and is helping lead the sport out of its most disrupted 12 months since World War II.
Western Bulldogs 2016 premiership coach Luke Beveridge believes women's football has "breathed life into the code".
"This is what the girls have done to our game. They've really helped the game get off the ground again," he told Melbourne radio station SEN last week.
AFLW boss Nicole Livingstone says you only have to attend any of the seven games a week to see how far the League has come.
A lot of those conversations about AFLW and standard of AFLW have disappeared because people are just getting lost in watching their teams
"What pleases me is when I'm going to the footy is I'm not only seeing young girls being inspired by AFLW players, but I'm seeing as many young boys," Livingstone said.
"It's that tipping point that people are just seeing footy; people are not necessarily seeing the gender.
"A lot of those conversations about AFLW and standard of AFLW have disappeared because people are just getting lost in watching their teams.
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"I never underestimate the value of having the men's side of the business make commentary around AFLW, particularly positive, because it does add a sense of legitimacy to what we're doing."
Uneducated armchair critics attempted to argue strong crowds during the first four seasons were widely due to matches being free to attend.
But with spectators now being charged for tickets, any trolled comments that 'no one would pay to watch it' have dissipated.
"Ticketing has not been a barrier to our attendance," Livingstone said.
"A lot of our venues do have COVID capping, in Victoria in particular, so we haven't been able to be at full capacity but we've still seen people flocking to watch games.
"Gameplay point of view is we're seeing players have more confidence in what they're doing.
"They're running for longer, they're having multiple bounces along the wing. Scoring is up.
"Every year that our players get another pre-season and season of games away they get experience in learning how to manage themselves and play the game.
"We have players coming to AFLW that had never really had a formalised training program before."
Adelaide superstar Erin Phillips, Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce, Fremantle ace Kiara Bowers and Western Bulldogs skipper Ellie Blackburn are still going strong as marquee players from season one, but the younger generation is already stepping up.
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