It is round 4 of the W-League and I’m traveling across Melbourne to Epping Stadium to see Melbourne Victory play Adelaide United. This is my first W-League game of the season, after having watched both the semi-final and final in Perth last season. The game is to be played in Epping, some 20km north of AAMI Park. Nonetheless, the game is watched by a few hundred spectators who have come to enjoy some football on a hot Sunday afternoon. The game has no clear favourite: Victory have been unlucky, losing three games by a goal, while the Lady Reds have a win and a draw from two matches. Although the Lady Reds haven’t won in Victoria, they’ve improved under their new coach, Jamie Harnwell, formerly of Perth Glory.
Women’s football in Australia has recently received increasing attention and coverage – particularly after the success of the Matildas at the 2015 World Cup in Canada. In the round of 16, the Matildas defeated Brazil and thus became the first Australian senior national team to win a knockout match at a World Cup. This success backed up their Asian Cup victory in 2010. Constant improvement is needed to continue to compete against strong teams of Japan, China and the US. The Football Federation Australia (FFA) is now set to bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.These achievements however, did not seem likely only a decade ago when the Women’s National Soccer League folded and there was no sign of a new league on the way.
The FFA established the Westfield W-League in 2008 as a means to foster women’s football in Australia. Although the competition has only been running for several seasons it has already expanded from eight teams to nine with the inclusion of Melbourne City this season. Both Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix do not yet have women’s teams. Crowd figures continue to rise with an average of just under 1,000 spectators for each game. Over two thousand fans attended the first Melbourne derby earlier this year. Prominent players, such as Kyah Simon, Lisa de Vanna and Christina Julian, have commented that the standard of play is improving.
Fox Sports along with the ABC have also ensured that the 2015-2016 season returns to television screens with the networks broadcasting the match of the round live. The women’s game will be broadcast as part of a double-header with the Sunday afternoon A-League match. The ABC broadcasting deal is particularly welcome as the ABC were set to axe coverage of the W-League last year citing budget cuts. Rather than being seen as having a potentially broad audience, women’s sport is too often regarded as a strain on resources. The double headers with the A-League are also a great initiative as it attracts bigger crowds and a larger audience for women’s football across the country. This is crucial to the future of the W-League as further exposure will be important to the growth of women’s football in Australia. The W-League has also increased the quota of international players from three to four for each side allowing experienced international players to compliment the local talent that the W-League produces.
Nonetheless, many challenges remain. After months of negotiations a pay dispute between the FFA and the Matildas has finally been resolved with changes announced to the ‘whole of game’ Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). This means that the top Matildas will now receive $41,000, with a second tier set at $30,000 per annum. $21,000 was the average salary for Matildas’ players before the new agreement was announced. However, this was not before the dispute saw the cancellation of the Matildas tour of the United States in September. The debate was largely based on the gross disparity between the wages of female footballers and their male counterparts. For instance, the ABC reported while each Matilda received $500 in match payments in the lead up to their knockout game with Brazil, the Socceroos received $7500 for doing the same thing. If the Matildas need inspiration in fighting for greater pay they could do well to look at the success of the Hockeyroos (Australian female hockey team) who have now achieved equal pay with the men’s team, the Kookaburras.
Furthermore, the FFA requires that Australian players must play in the W-League to be eligible for the Matildas. This means that they are forced to forgo contracts overseas if they want to represent Australia. Michelle Heyman, a striker, recently received an offer from a South Korea club stating she “would be earning 30 times more money than what I would be earning now.” However, Heyman rejected the offer as she has chosen to pursue the goal of playing for her country. If the FFA allowed Australia’s best players to play overseas and still be eligible for national team selection it would make it easier for players to live off their football careers. The issue would then be whether these Matildas would also play in the W-League. The brief season, however, means that it is not entirely unrealistic for players to play both overseas as well as the domestic competition.
Asian Players in the W-League
In 2006, Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) moving from ‘Oceania’ to ‘Asia’. Since then, the FFA has tried to promote Australia’s integration into Asia with the holding of the Asian Cup earlier this year seeing Australia announce itself to the region. However, greater engagement with Asia can still be achieved. In women’s football five of the top twenty nations in the world are from the AFC (Japan, Korea DPR, Australia, China PR and Korea Republic). While in the men’s rankings there is not even one AFC country in the top 40 (Iran is the best at 43).
The standard of women’s football in the Asian region is very competitive on the international stage. No Asian team being more successful than the Japanese women’s team who were the first and only Asian nation to win the Women’s World Cup in 2011 and also made the final earlier this year in Canada. Despite these successes the W-League since it was established has only had five Asian players (two from Japan, two from Chinese Taipei and one from Singapore) compete in the league.
More Asian players in the W-League would improve the quality of football as well as provide further evidence of Australia’s football engagement with other Asian countries. More fans too, would watch, if the standard of football improved. The publicity generated by attracting a name such as Japanese legend and one of the all time greats of women’s football Homare Sawa to the W-League would provide further stimulus for the development of the game in this country. Not only would it lift the standard of football for the competition, but it would also attract more fans and advertising to the W-League. At the very least the W-League should consider guest appearances such as what has successfully been trialed in the A-League.
Another barrier to success is to secure further sponsorship for the W-League. The major sponsor Westfield is also owned by recently retired FFA Chairman Frank Lowy. It is imperative if the W-League is to continue to be successful it does not rely solely on the FFA. Although community support such as the support of Sydney FC’s supporters from The Cove is invaluable, corporate sponsorship is vital to ensuring the long-term viability of the competition.
The W-League has made a promising start and the recent successes of the Matilda’s demonstrate the rise of women’s football in this country. But, there is still much to be done if the game is to achieve long-term success and grow across Australia. The payment of players, the ongoing support of media and sponsors and more overseas talent – particularly from Asia – are all vital steps in improving women’s football in Australia. If all this can be achieved there is no reason why the Matildas’ could not be world champions one day.
It was to be the Lady Reds’ who came out victorious with an emphatic 4-0 win and showing the competition they will be a strong challenger for the title this season. Rossie Sutton starred with a hat-trick while left back Alexander Gummer was also brilliant providing great service throughout the match. The game, however, was a scrappy affair with the young Victory side (the entire backline was under-20) overawed against their bigger and stronger opponents from Adelaide. Victory also has not been be helped by many of their star players joining their cross-town rivals the newly formed Melbourne City. Although the game failed to live up to expectations the performance of Sutton and Gummer highlighted the talent that exists in the W-League and a glimpse of what the future might hold. Will fans travel 20km from the center of Melbourne to watch a game that is compromised in terms of quality? This is is part of dilemma facing women’s football in Australia. The W-League is not currently making a profit for the FFA, but its potential is also not being fully exploited.