The West Australian Football League (WAFL) is an Australian rules football league based in Perth, Western Australia. The league currently consists of ten teams, which play each other in a 20-round season usually lasting from March to September, with the top five teams playing off in a finals series, culminating in a Grand Final. The league also runs reserves, colts (under-19) and women's competitions.

The WAFL was founded in 1885 as the West Australian Football Association (WAFA), and has undergone a variety of name changes since then, re-adopting its current name in 2001. For most of its existence, the league was considered one of the traditional "big three" Australian rules football leagues, along with the Victorian Football League (VFL) and South Australian National Football League (SANFL). However, since the introduction of two Western Australia-based clubs into the VFL (later renamed the Australian Football League) – the West Coast Eagles in 1987 and the Fremantle Football Club in 1995 – the popularity and standard of the league has decreased to the point where it is considered a feeder competition to the AFL.

Although payments are made to players, it is generally considered to be a semi-professional competition. A salary cap of A$200,000 per club is in place. The league is currently affiliated with the two Western Australia-based AFL clubs. Players who are not selected to play with their respective AFL clubs instead play for allocated clubs in the WAFL. The competition is governed by the West Australian Football Commission, and based at Subiaco Oval.

History

Pre–1900: Formation and early years

Organised football in the Perth/Fremantle region of Western Australia dates back to 1881. Back then though rugby union was the dominant football code, with only one senior club, "Unions", playing Australian Rules.

In 1883 a second club, "Swans", emerged, but Australian Rules' growth remained much subdued compared to that of Victoria and South Australia.

However, in those days many young men of Perth's wealthier families were educated in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.

On returning home from there they naturally wished to play the sport they'd grown up with and no doubt exerted some influence on their less affluent peers as to such. Coincidentally, the press at the time reported there was a growing dissatisfaction with rugby as a spectacle.

During the 1880s, the discoveries of gold, firstly in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Murchison regions, led to a dramatic increase in WA's population, including many players and supporters of Australian Rules from the eastern colonies.

In 1885 one of the leading rugby clubs, Fremantle, decided to change to Australian Rules. It was quickly joined by three other clubs – "Rovers", "Victorians", and a team of schoolboys from Perth High. The schoolboy side lasted just two matches, but the three other sides went on to contest what in retrospect was viewed as the first-ever official Western Australian Football Association (WAFA) premiership, won by Rovers. And virtually overnight Australian Rules football became the dominant code for the spectator as well.

However progress of Australian rules in Western Australia still lagged behind the big football cities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Geelong and is evidenced by the unstable nature of the clubs that participated in the early years.

In 1886 a new club Fremantle-based club Unions joined.

In 1887 Fremantle left the WAFA and the West Australian Football Club joined but they would only play two seasons before they disappeared.

In 1890 Unions would rename themselves Fremantle as those involved in the game saw the need to identify themselves with the region they were located in.

1891 saw two new clubs arrive, Centrals and East Perth, but they would be gone after one and two seasons respectively.

1898 saw the entry of East Fremantle to the league.

1899 would be the last season Fremantle would take part. Despite Unions/Fremantle being the most dominant club in the WAFA up to this point winning the competition 10 times in its 13 years of existence, problems with debt saw the club disappear and some people involved with the old entity formed South Fremantle Football Club in its place. Despite the fact that many involved with Fremantle moved onto South Fremantle the new club is not seen as a continuation of the old and did not lay claim to its proud records to that date.

1899 was also the last time Rovers would take part. The move to regionalisation which saw Unions take on the old Fremantle's name and colours made it difficult for this club that didn't represent a particular area to attract players. They folded and were immediately replaced by Perth Football Club who were promoted from the Perth First Rate Association.

Early 1900s

Major gold discoveries at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in 1892, coupled with a major international economic depression, caused immigration from the eastern colonies to accelerate not only to the Goldfields but also onto Perth. These migrants came from a climate where Australian Rules football was more popular and included a large number of footballers including some celebrated players.

The Goldfields competition (later known as the Goldfields Football League) was hence comparable in status and standard to the Perth competition for many years. (This was shown by the fact that it had a separate seat on the Australian National Football Council until 1919.)

The higher standard of play that followed helped to increase the game's popularity and increased the professionalism of the WAFA which in turn saw a more stable look come to the league which to this point saw teams frequently coming and going, not to mention problems with frequent crowd violence.

By 1901, the WAFA had grown to have six teams. Up to this point, five sides at most had been in the competition, and this number had invariably changed from year to year, as clubs came and went. And by 1906 there were eight teams: West Perth, East Perth, East Fremantle, South Fremantle, North Fremantle, Subiaco, Perth and Midland Junction.

Recent arrivals East Fremantle became the dominant force in the league winning 11 premierships from 1900 to 1918.

On 27 March 1907, the WAFA was renamed the West Australian Football League (WAFL).

The West Australian State Premiership was awarded to the winner of a contest played between the GNFL premiers and the WAFL premiers. The contest was played intermittently between 1903 and 1924 and the winning team accorded the title Champions of Western Australia.

Unlike many other sporting competitions, the WAFL didn't go into recess during World War I, although two teams – North Fremantle and Midland Junction – were "casualties" of the war, competing for the last time in 1915 and 1917 respectively.

Between the wars

1919 saw East Perth win their first premiership, and they would go on to win 5 in a row – a national record until Port Adelaide managed 6 many years later.

In 1921, the WAFL followed the idea of the SANFL's Magarey Medal and introduced the Sandover Medal, for the fairest and best player over a season, as voted by the field umpires. The medal has been awarded annually ever since.

Claremont/Cottesloe entered the league in 1926, bringing the number of teams back to seven. They would rename the club to simply Claremont a few years later.

On Wednesday 12 October 1927, the WAFL was renamed the Western Australian National Football League (WANFL) – the "national" concept in the name being adopted by the SANFL, TANFL and other leagues when the Australian Football Council became the Australian National Football Council earlier in the year.

Swan Districts entered the league in 1934. The eight competing sides at this point still remain today and are often referred to as the "traditional eight clubs" as opposed to Peel who would join much later on.

Because of World War II, the league only ran an "under age" competition between 1942 and 1944. However, the three premierships won during this time are given equal status to any other, in official records (East Perth however don't give their 1944 premiership win equal status). All clubs competed, with the exception of Swan Districts who could not form a team in 1942, although they were back in 1943. The Sandover Medal was also presented each year.

Post-war

Western Australian football was particularly strong during the years immediately following World War II. The state side enjoyed unparalleled success, downing Victoria in each of the first three post war meetings as well as enjoying the better of their encounters with South Australia.

South Fremantle were without dispute one of the strongest teams in Australia during much of the period 1947 to 1954, not only winning 6 premierships but also defeating many touring sides from Victoria and South Australia.

From 1956 to 1961 it would be East Perth's turn to dominate the WAFL with them featuring in all 6 Grand Finals of this period and coming out with 3 victories. Their team featured Graham Farmer who would leave at the end of the '61 season and carve out a reputation in the VFL as one of the game's greatest ever players.

The 1960s saw crowds get bigger and bigger, as WAFL football captured the hearts and minds of the WA public like never before, and in the 1970s and early 1980s it was easily the biggest show in town.

However, during this period more and more star WAFL players were looking to head to the Victorian Football League (VFL), enticed by the bigger money and the fact that it was more and more gaining a reputation as the "big" league.

This is perhaps best evidenced in that Victoria (i.e. the VFL representative team) had by far the best record in interstate games for a long time. But in 1977, when the first proper State of Origin match was played, it saw Western Australia inflict its biggest defeat on a Victorian team.

East Perth's 1961 loss to Swan Districts would see that side's first-ever premiership. Captain/coached by Haydn Bunton, Jr., they became the team of the early 1960s when they followed it up in 1962 and 1963 to make it three in a row.

The dominating sides of the late 1960s and early 1970s were the three Perth teams. Perth won 3 in a row from 1966 to 1968, and West Perth won in 1969 and 1971 captain/coached by Graham Farmer who had returned from over east. All 5 of these grand final wins came at the expense of East Perth who earned the bridesmaid tag in this era. However East Perth finally won through in the 1972 grand final.

After 1972 the competition was more evenly matched with every team winning a grand final over the next 10 years.

At this time crowds were as big as they ever were. The 1979 grand final was played before a record crowd of 52,781 and saw East Fremantle defeat archrivals South Fremantle.

1980s

In 1980, the WANFL dropped the "N" and the "ern" and reverted to being called the WAFL.

At the end of the 1980 season East Perth put in an application to join the VFL. The offer was withdrawn.

Crowds had been buoyed by State of Origin football that saw Western Australia's best players return home briefly, but this effect was short lived. Interest in the WAFL began a slow decline, as it became increasingly obvious that even larger numbers of the WAFL's best players were going to head east.

By 1983 the management of the WAFL itself acknowledged that economic crisis loomed. They approached the state government for financial aid, and were rewarded with a grant of $1.9 million. In response, the government wanted a full-scale investigation into the likely future financial demands of football.

This led to the formation of the West Australian Football Commission who functioned independently of the WAFL.

In 1986 the decision had been made that the WAFL needed to become involved in helping the VFL, where several clubs were also struggling financially, to become national.

Against a backdrop in which several WAFL clubs were looking to enter the VFL or in which a struggling Victorian club may be relocated to Perth, the WAFL decided to hastily form a new club to enter the VFL such that they could retain control of a West Australian presence in the situation.

Meanwhile, in the league Swan Districts won another hat-trick of premierships from 1982 to 1984. East Fremantle, the WAFL's most successful club, won the centenary premiership in 1985 and in 1986 Subiaco had the honour to be the last club to win the premiership prior to Western Australia's participation in the national league.

Effect of VFL expansion and the AFL

The West Coast Eagles were formed and competed in the VFL for the first time in 1987 (the VFL was renamed the AFL in 1990).

With many of Western Australia's best players now competing in a team that represented Western Australia on a national scale, it was suddenly apparent that the WAFL was not the prime focus of the football public as crowds and media attention centred on the 'national' league.

In 1990 the league was renamed the Western Australian State Football League, but it had reverted to WAFL by 1991.

Another locally based AFL team, the Fremantle Football Club were formed in 1994, and this cemented the position of WAFL as a second-class competition. (Indeed, the 1991 introduction of the Adelaide Crows to the VFL/AFL meant that the SANFL was experiencing a similar decline to the WAFL.)

WAFL clubs have struggled ever since with their sudden demise from being technically equal to any VFL club, to feeder club status. However, they have enjoyed some benefits, such as the funds flowing from the WA-based AFL teams and the influx of talented players from other states, attempting to make a name for themselves.

In 1997, Peel Thunder – somewhat controversially – became the ninth WAFL club. Throughout their brief history, they have struggled to compete with the traditional eight clubs, which are generally opposed to their presence. This is partly because having an odd number of teams forces one team to have a bye each week.

Also in 1997, the WAFL was renamed Westar Rules, in an attempt to revamp the league's image. The name again reverted to WAFL in 2001 although retained the logo.

Recent years have seen the WAFL stabilise itself as a league a step down from the AFL. Having the best football players all playing in the AFL has lessened the standard of play; however this has recovered somewhat, with retired or delisted AFL players returning and young players coming through. It is becoming fairly common, however, for young players to be drafted as 17- or 18-year-olds directly to the AFL and not play in the WAFL football for more than a few games.

Attendances have recovered slightly and in 2004, the league posted a total attendance of 202,797. The total attendance, including AFL games was a record 1,030,000.

In 2019 the West Coast Eagles entered the Wafl so the teams are now 10.

Future

While the WAFL has not been as keen as the SANFL to include teams from other states, there have been proposals to include teams from regions unwanted by the AFL, and to serve as a second-tier national league.

The most pushed for expansion team was to be from Darwin, Northern Territory, formed as a representative club of the Northern Territory Football League, however the NT team opted to join the Queensland Australian Football League for the 2009 season, and moved to the newly created North East Australian Football League in 2011 after the top divisions of the Queensland AFL and AFL Canberra merged. In 2019 the WAFL partnered with the West Australian Women's Football League to create a new women's state league, the WAFL Women's. The league is run adjacent to the WAFL premiership.