Business is booming for women’s football in Australia. Over the past decade, the Matildas have gone from niche sideshow to not only one of the country’s most beloved sporting brands, but the sport’s chief economic driver in this country.
Yet the competition that helped create the likes of Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter has been withering on the vine. Broader mainstream interest in the Matildas may have surged, but it has not been reflected in increased support for the W-League.
If anything, it’s gone in the opposite direction – since 2017, the year Australia’s women beat the United States for the first and only time, average W-League crowds have dropped by 25 per cent. The recent exodus of Kerr, Foord, Carpenter and their international teammates to professional contracts in Europe has not helped, leaving the domestic competition searching for an identity.
Which is part of the reason why it’s not called the W-League anymore: it’s now the A-League Women. As of Friday, it’ll have combined social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram with the A-League Men – and as of this season, there’s a combined club championship trophy up for grabs. If the point wasn’t clear enough, it’s about to be rammed home – almost half of the 70 matches that make up the new season, which begins on Friday, will be double-headers with the blokes.
“Forget the gender. We need football fans to support the domestic game,” said Danny Townsend, managing director of the Australian Professional Leagues. “Adjacency is critical.”
It’s a nice enough idea, but it hasn’t exactly been warmly embraced by the small but fiercely loyal (and almost entirely female) fan base that has followed the W-League over the last 13 years. They fear such initiatives are more performative than genuine, and that some of what made the league special to them could soon be lost.
The lunge towards double-headers has been particularly divisive. Double-header crowds are roughly three times what standalone fixtures have been able to attract. But while broadcasters love them, many supporters hate early kick-offs in large, mostly empty stadiums, and prefer the intimacy of suburban grounds. Players are split: the PFA’s W-League poll for 2019-20 shows they prefer the quality of pitches at major stadia, but the atmosphere at smaller venues.
Townsend, who is still juggling his other job as Sydney FC’s CEO, has heard the critics but is adamant things need to be done differently to get different results. It’s why he’s getting rid of the club’s women’s-specific membership option, which has been taken up fewer than 200 times. “It sends the wrong message. You should be supporting your club,” he said. (The team’s crowds are roughly 10 times that number.)