AFLW will also be brought forward on the calendar next season in order to avoid a scheduling overlap with the AFL.
The sixth AFLW season will begin in December this year, with 10 rounds and three weeks of finals, culminating in a mid-March grand final in 2022.
The AFL on Thursday said it has called for submissions from the four clubs who do not currently have AFLW teams – Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney – to join the women’s competition.
The clubs have been asked to detail their readiness, list-building strategy, corporate support and facilities for women’s football.
The submissions are due on 9 July with the AFL Commission set to make decisions on those bids in August.
All four clubs could join the competition as soon as season seven – slated to begin late next year – and will be approved for season eight at the latest.
“AFLW has significant momentum and we want to keep that momentum and bring the power and the supporter base behind all 18 clubs before the end of 2024,” AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said.
“The standard of play has continued to lift as we have expanded the competition and we are seeing more free-flowing and attacking football as more talent comes through the pathways.”
Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney welcomed the decision to expand AFLW, but Hawks president Jeff Kennett had been chasing a spot for his club in the 2021-22 season.
An irate Kennett on Thursday said the four clubs are being discriminated against by the AFL by being made to wait for AFLW entry and threatened possible legal action.
The Hawks were not interested in joining AFLW when it began more than five years ago and have since had expansion submissions rejected.
“The AFL was established by the club presidents to oversee the code and act equally on behalf of all those clubs [but] four of us have been denied the opportunity to play in AFLW,” Kennett said on SEN radio.
“Four of us are still denied the opportunity in what is the fastest growing aspect in AFL football at the moment.”
McLachlan and AFL general manager of women’s football Nicole Livingstone dismissed concerns over the talent pool being further stretched, with AFLW to expand from 420 players to 540 within two years.
“You’ve got a lot of girls coming through that have now played right through from Auskick to AFLW and there’s a lot of girls coming through the system,” Livingstone said.
“We’ve invested heavily in the talent pathways and those now look very equal to the boys’ pathways.
“We’re very proud of that piece of work that we’ve done to accelerate those girls coming through the system.”
The league is yet to finalise rules around AFLW player contracting in the lead-up to the expansion phase.
AFL fixtures had to be moved in order to create a clear window for the 2021 AFLW grand final on 17 April. But that will no longer be an issue, with the AFLW grand final to be held before the traditional start of the AFL season in March.