Emerging Sports Writer Lauren McIntosh speaks with football trailblazer Helen Tyrikos about opportunities the sport has leading up to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Growing up Helen Tyrikos lived in a household where the round ball was religion. Now the Head of Women’s Football of the National Premier League (NPL) club, Heidelberg United, her introduction to sports administration began in 1999.
“I got the bug and I enjoyed being involved. To me, it wasn’t so much about women’s football at that point, but about improving facilities for kids to play sport.”
In becoming the first female General Manager for Heidelberg United, Helen also became the first female manager of any NPL club Australia wide. An opportunity where she realised her responsibility in developing the women’s game.
“I was very frequently one of the only females in the room, and I saw that it was my responsibility to support other women in this space.”
Helen’s mission for social justice for the women’s game has seen her identify and target systematic culture and administrative policy. During her time at Football Victoria, she contributed to changing the memorandum on State League One finals, with the result of both the men’s and women’s finals now played at the same venue. Prior protocol saw the women’s finals slip through the cracks, played at sub par venues, inadvertently treating them as second class. Using the power of her own voice, Helen continues to lobby for change in the predominantly male boardrooms she still finds herself in.
“The first thing I came back to (with Heidelberg United) was, they had made a decision about the uniform and our girls got stuck with white shorts. I asked, ‘how many women were in the room when this decision was made?’ And they’re like, ‘oh no, but we’ve got daughters!’. Yeah and have you had a period?! I shock them a lot.”
It is these types of ‘shocking’ discussions that need to become more frequent in order to drive the women’s game forward. It’s no longer just about accessing facilities. It is about the infrastructure around the women’s game, on and off the field.
For Helen, it’s her whole hearted belief that grassroots sports plays a huge role in this. “As clubs, we have a responsibility to be prepared to offer a good football experience to these young girls that want to pursue their dream”.
This means shifting the discussion to the deeper level of the environment, the language and engagement. If we don’t, Helen says, “we all know women will pick up and leave when we do not feel valued”.
The challenge of a Covid-19 suspended season at local level exacerbated this. “Clubs who didn’t engage with their female members during covid, struggled to get their players back.” Even with Helen’s strong female program—which taught players game analysis and coached coaches on gender appropriate language—Heidelberg United lost players they never imagined they would have if it were a normal year.
Unfortunately, in the current landscape for women, you will always lose a few. Women aren’t paid like the men. NPL women are paid markedly less than the men. State League One Women pay to play. Women play because we love the game. As a result, Helen notes that clubs have to be more “flexible with women, and any women’s product, because women do all these things in life”, and ‘all those things’ need nuanced recognition.
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup presents Australia and New Zealand with an immense opportunity to change the current landscape for women in football.
1.12 billion people globally tuned in to watch the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Comparatively the 2015 AFC Asian Cup—hosted in Australia—saw a record high of 1 million Australians watching the semi-final match between Australia and United Arab Emirates. Even with 1/1000th of an audience, the AFC Asian Cup influenced growth for Australian women’s football, something Helen saw in her club, reflecting on the “massive increase in participation” that she experienced. Imagine what this upcoming Women’s World Cup can do if its power is harnessed right.
Helen knows just how powerful hosting a Women’s World Cup expands the horizon of potential and possibilities for women in football.
“Personally, [it is] so important. It’s huge because it shows other sports how big the world game is.You know, being able to touch it and have it right there and it can’t be ignored.”
The promise of this is so exciting, yet football in our own backyard is already exciting, so it begs the question: Are we ignoring the potential and possibilities for our W-League?
Isobel Cootes wrote about the new $200 million W-League/A-League broadcast deal with ViacomCBS who own Network 10. In a moment of celebration for such a landmark deal, Cootes also highlighted how the women’s game will mostly feature on Network 10’s secondary channel, ‘Bold’. This is despite the data showing growing interest. Cootes called attention to the Roy Morgan data that shows that last July, “the W-League’s television viewership had increased by 43% on the year prior, and was growing as other soccer competitions experienced viewership decline in Australia.”
Helen puts it simply, “our media need to do better. I hate the term, but you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Helen has acted on this with her own media channels at Heidelberg United, delivering on more visibility for female athletes and tailoring their media strategy to speak directly to the women’s audience. Curating fun and relatable content that shares women’s stories because one, it provides Heidelberg a better engagement, and two, it allows a deeper connection with their fans. As a fan herself, Helen sits on football social media and knows that fans connecting to players is reliant on the club doing “a good job of telling me [as a fan] what her story is.”
In discussing how the FIFA Women’s World Cup could showcase the Australian culture, lifestyle and community, Helen realised and agreed that the Women’s World Cup could fast track our W-League development. “Players will come here and have a really good experience because we are an awesome country. And when there is a potential W-League contract, it might influence their decision to come and play in Australia. [It has the potential to] make our product awesome.”
Yet we will only be able to attract these players and keep our developing talent if we take the steps now to make the most of this opportunity. Football Australia launched their legacy strategy that aims to: ‘to deliver immediate and long-term community benefits and economic impact from Australia hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023’. Legacy ‘23 looks at many areas to improve and capitalise on women’s football in Australia.
Important on the to-do list for Helen is the need to have a “proper home and away season for the W-League. We need to give our girls the opportunity to stay in Australia and make a good income and play in their home country. Otherwise we’re just going to be the biggest exporter of talent.”
And having a few more Helen’s around driving change at the local level would also be helpful. As she says, “when one boat rises, all boats rise, right?”. And with the 2023 Women’s World Cup speeding towards our shores, now is the time for the tides to rise.