Football expert Angela Christian-Wilkes returns to Siren to discuss the offseason changes to A League Women’s, and why it may be the best season yet.
In my unbiased opinion, the A-League Women (ALW) (informally known as The Dub) is always good, yet this year the usual excitement and anticipation has been boosted by broader changes to the league. There’s new management, a new club, new conditions for players, and a new broadcast deal. All of these elements will ideally renew the competition while hopefully retaining its endearing—dare I say chaotic?—essence.
The A-League Women and A-League Men will be now managed by the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) entity, with the gradual management handover from Football Australia now complete. As part of this refresh, the APL renamed the leagues: the W-League is now A-League Women, A-League is now the A-League Men. Theoretically, the inclusion of the W is balanced against the inclusion of a M, with men’s football no longer neutralised as football full stop. Gender marking both men’s and women’s leagues have been openly invited from fans of women’s sport, with football being the first to do so.
There were some initial doubts. A front-running concern was that A-League Men would simply default to the A-League, while A-League Women would be left to carry the weight of an othering “W”. These doubts weren’t unfounded. Side eyes were thrown when the A-League Men announced their naming sponsor Isuzu Ute, changing their socials to reflect this while quietly dropping the “Men”. Later, eyes rolled when the phrases “A-League” and “A-League Women” were spotted on the APL’s new digital platform, Keepup. A good faith reading could put this all down to teething issues. Yet given the attention and goodwill the rebrand garnered, one assumes that extra care would be taken to avoid these problems.
While frustrating, this is just one piece of the puzzle. I’m more interested in how the APL will reflect their commitment to equity on the pitch and on screens. It will be the successful implementation of material change, not just symbolic, that will quieten doubts. One such commitment is the addition of three new expansion teams by 2022. Positively, Wellington Phoenix will join this season as the league’s 10th team. Their inclusion is timely given the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place in New Zealand and Australia in just under two years.
A new broadcast partner for the A-Leagues means women’s football will be viewed through a fresh lens. Viacom CBS, who own Channel 10 and Paramount+, have secured rights to the A-Leagues, as well as a range of other football offerings, including Matildas’ friendly matches. While getting a camera pointed at the pitch for all games in the ALW was once progress, now we can—and should—expect more from the competition’s broadcasting. Quality expertise on commentary, smart fixturing, clear footage, savvy angles and in-game replays, and minimal appearances from men with tubas mid-game, these are the boxes Viacom CBS will ideally tick on a consistent basis.
A number of ALW games will be broadcast free-to-air via Channel 10, while all games will be available on Viacom’s new streaming platform Paramount+. The free-to-air component is particularly exciting. Stakeholders globally are now taking note of women’s sports increasing return on interest, with more broadcasters picking up streaming rights for competitions. However, as Siren Sport has articulated before, hiding women’s sport behind a paywall can do more harm than good. The recent success of Matildas games on the network highlights the importance of making women’s football accessible.
A balance must then be struck between visibility and investment, and a popular free-to-air channel paired with an OTT streaming service sounds optimistic. Channel 10’s reach will also help build these audiences and, by putting on a good show, hopefully entice fringe fans and the recently converted to sign up for more. There is also the commercial impetus for the network to promote their own product. The media network has full control in doing so compared to the ABC and SBS, who did important work in bringing the then-W-League to free-to-air but were often dependent on external stakeholders.
Furthermore, a single deal encompassing an array of women’s football may help connect interest more holistically. While our national team has received plenty of love of late, translating interest for the Tillies into eyes on the ALW has proved difficult in the past. The upcoming Matildas games against the US, on 27th and 30th November, will be aired on Channel 10. The matches are well timed to create some hype for the ALW season, especially given the current complexion of the Matildas squad. As I wrote last year, the departure of big names saw ALW recentering young and local talent. Since then, Matildas’ coach Tony Gustavsson has shown that he’s bringing in the kids. And where do those kids start out? The A-League Women.
Kyra Cooney-Cross comes to mind. In the dying moments of the 2020-2021 Grand Final, the 19-year-old kicked that goal to secure Melbourne Victory the win over Sydney FC. She has gone on to be a returning name and get regular minutes in the Matildas set-up under Gustavsson. Remy Siemsen and Charli Rule at Sydney FC and Courtney Nevin at Victory are other young guns on the fringes. Developing Matildas are glowing advertisements for the upcoming season, as well beacons shining light on future talent that may emerge here.
Developing quality footballers goes hand in hand with providing players with sustainable and secure working conditions. The Professional Footballers Association announced a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year, including a raised salary cap, enhanced performance standards across training, travel, and accommodation, and more funding for player development. PFA’s continued work is vital, ensuring that change is the pathway to certainty.
The unknown of big changes can provoke uneasiness and scepticism. Yet the unknown also invites imaginings of bigger and better futures; the possibilities of what we haven’t seen yet sustaining players, fans, administrator’s ongoing involvement. It is this element, intersecting with changes to workplace conditions, broadcasting and the competition’s overall structure, that may just mean this A-League Women’s season could be the best yet.