Up until Under-13s or so, pretty much every local footy club would have one or two female players in it, who would often show up many of the other kids on the field - not saying they are the best on the ground, but competitive.
Then, the systems we’ve had in place for years throw them out of the sport - you wouldn’t have a girls league to enter, they won’t let you play against the boys in most cases - so you were lost to footy.
AFLW is playing an extremely important role - it is elevating the women’s game to be seen as a viable career path, proving there to be a future in it. That has already had a huge impact on the participation rates, and in turn, starting to make it so that there’s something to move on to once they get too old to play against the boys.
There are converts from other sports, because that’s where elite female athletes turned when footy threw them out.
It will take time for the effects of the AFLW to filter back in to the AFLW, but it wouldn’t have happened the other way around - you can’t just say “in 10 years Women’s football will be a professional sport” and expect young girls to be invested in that.
Junior Boys footballers might be better in some ways - but Men’s football has existed attracting talented male players into the sport and creating the infrastructure around it to grow their skills, and the professional nature of the sport gives the elite players reason to stick at it, rather than switch codes in their teens.
The women playing AFLW now haven’t all had that chance - and it is part of the reason for some of the skill gaps in things like marking and ball control. However, for other parts of the game, they are just going to always be different, but that’s fine - and makes a unique game, one that is far more focused on defence.
As for why it’s on TV and junior football isn’t - people are watching. The AFL can’t make you turn on your TV, or make the thousands turning up to games go there. When thousands are turning up to watch your kid play junior footy, then by all means put it on TV.