With the 2023 Women’s World Cup on the horizon and on home soil, Marissa Lordanic explores the challenges facing the W-League on the road to professionalisation.
The Round 10 ins and outs for Sydney FC read as follows:
Ins: 7. Ellie BRUSH (return from injury)
Outs: 2. Teresa POLIAS (work commitments)
A few weeks earlier, Polias became the first player to make 150 W-League appearances. In round 10, she was unable to take time off from her job as a school teacher to travel to Perth and play the Thursday night match.
While the pandemic played a role, the main point is that the Sydney FC captain perfectly encapsulated the W-League playing experience in a few short weeks. And she isn’t the exception. She’s the rule.
Perth Glory’s Natasha Rigby is a women’s prison officer. Ash Wilson, the Newcastle Jets coach, is also a teacher. Polias’ Sydney team mate Natalie Tobin works in occupational therapy. These are the women who make up the W-League.
The W-League is one of the longest running women’s sports leagues in Australia and one of the longest running women’s football leagues in the world. Since its inception in 2008, it has come on in leaps and bounds. It has been a leader in the women’s sport space and has been the competition that has helped nurture some of Australia’s very best footballers.
Despite all its growth, there are some aspects of the W-League that have stayed painfully stagnant. Compared with its global competitors, it has one of the shortest season lengths. This is something that has been highlighted as detrimental to Australian football by Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) and Football Australia (FA).
For so long, the catch cry of fans has been to make the season a full home and away schedule. There has been no increase to the 14 possible matches a team can play since the 2012-13 season. But that’s only half of the equation really. While players are still working full-time outside of football, organising their lives at the mercy of flexible and forgiving employers, a longer season solves one issue but adds to and creates others.
“They’re both inextricably linked.” PFA co-chief Kate Gill said of the season length and professionalisation. “Equally if one moves forward, the other has to as well, because you’re asking more of the players. So the standards and the remuneration need to sit alongside that.”
“I think at the moment, they sit nicely for a uniform 23 week season. But if we were to move forward, there would have to be consideration given, there would be an expectation that the standards and the remuneration moves alongside that.”
So how do we professionalise the W-League? Like so many problems in women’s sport, professionalising the W-League isn’t just professionalising the W-League.
“First and foremost, we need a balanced competition. We need to make sure that the teams are playing each other twice, we probably need to look to bring in a new team, because we’ve sat at nine for quite some time now, to be able to balance it that way as well.” Gill explained.
The integrity of the competition plus more match minutes to bring the W-League in line with its global competitors is vital. But there is also a healthy dose of realism.
“I think the players would want to see an agreed vision. As long as they can see that there’s a blueprint moving forward for all of this to occur. They accept that it can’t just happen overnight, because there are obviously economics that are attached to that and the feasibility for that as well,” Gill said.
The true economic value of the W-League is unknown, but local and global examples show that there is a market for women’s sports. The bevy of investors who are now pouring money into the NWSL franchises in the US and the recently announced FA WSL broadcast deal provide global examples. The deal Netball Australia has done with Fox Sports offers an example much closer to home.
Pre-pandemic and pre-unbundling from the governing body, the association representing the professional clubs in Australia (APFCA) put out a document describing its blueprint for Australian football. The 38-page report goes into great depth for the A-League but less detail for the W-League. The proposals for the women specifically include expansion as a priority, with the aim of having a W-League team at every A-League club. The report also mentions “a range of potential measures to enhance the competition” but doesn’t elaborate on them.
Now that the leagues are independent from the governing body there is excitement and trepidation about what will happen to the W-League. After the spanner in the works created by the pandemic, the top tiers of football are watching with bated breath to see what becomes of the new broadcast rights deal.
TV money underpins most sporting leagues around the globe. It’s that money which can increase wages and cover the costs of a longer season. But more money is only one aspect of creating that proper, professional league. Professionalisation also requires zooming out to look at where the W-League exists within the football ecosystem.
For starters, the playing group is not homogenous. For some players, all they want is to be full-time professional footballers. For others, having two careers is a part of who they are and an important link to life after football too.
“I don’t think that we should necessarily take a like for like approach with what we do with the men’s game, and just kind of put that framework straight into the women’s. Because I think that dual career and that sense of identity—not being just wrapped up in football, and they actually consider themselves to be people—I think that’s really important. And that should be a strong ethos of how we kind of protect that moving forward,” Gill explained.
Another major consideration is that the majority of W-League players also ply their trade in the state based NPLW competitions around the country. An extension of the W-League season has a flow on effect to those competitions which must be considered.
So professionalising the W-League requires money, obviously. But it also requires outside of the box thinking. It desperately needs long term, serious, committed investment from the clubs and an ability to see beyond short term pain.
It also requires increases in other aspects of women’s football. The total participation for women and girls needs to rise—something which is a key objective of Football Australia’s. But that also requires the physical facilities to accommodate this increase in players and safe, inclusive environments at every club in Australia.
None of these aspirations are particularly new. In fact, many of them are long held and long overdue. But Australian football must prioritise the W-League now. So that it and all of women’s football in this country can benefit from the World Cup on home soil in 2023. Waiting until after the tournament puts the whole women’s game behind the curve.