“The W-League has missed the boat.” That is the sentiment floating around Australian women’s football circles as one of the game’s most challenging years stumbles to a close.
Broadcast revenue is down, pre-Covid attendances had flat-lined, the NWSL has decided to strike out on its own, and the Matildas – who were central to the blueprint for the W-League’s future – have all but disappeared, lured to Europe by better wages, longer seasons and more competitive match minutes.
So where does this leave the W-League? How does it fit into the rapidly-evolving women’s club landscape? What more, if anything, can it offer? The answer could lie, somewhat counter-intuitively, off the field.
Contrary to public perception, the W-League is one of the most progressive women’s leagues when it comes to structural support for its athletes. It cannot compete with the massive wages, world-class facilities or brand prestige of Europe’s biggest clubs, but the W-League holds its own in other ways such as minimum salaries, increased medical and travel standards, income protection, health insurance, professional contracts and a maternity policy.
In fact, when it comes to player empowerment and representation, Australia’s player’s union – Professional Footballers Australia – is one of the strongest and most effective in world football. They supported the Matildas in 2015 when they went on strike to protest contract insecurity and resource inequality; negotiated the W-League’s first collective bargaining agreement in 2017 as well as its renewal in 2019; and helped close the pay gap between the Matildas and the Socceroos last year.
This sort of off-field support is markedly different from the nations and leagues the W-League is competing against. Spain’s top women’s league, for example, was paused in November last year after players went on strike to push for their first ever CBA, while the NWSL – whose union was not legally recognised until late 2018 – does not have a league CBA at all.
On the international level, the US women’s national team continues to fight US Soccer after their equal pay lawsuit was denied, though they have this week reached an agreement for equal work conditions. Australia, meanwhile, is one of just six other nations – England, Brazil, Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand – already with a form of equal pay for its national team players.
It is here, then, that the W-League can be world leaders. While it may never compete with the on-field standards of rival leagues, Australia could stay globally competitive in another way: by offering the best off-field support and conditions for women athletes, including potentially becoming the first football league in the world to offer equal pay.
The idea is not without precedent, albeit in different forms and codes. In 2017, for example, Lewes FC – a semi-professional, community-owned club in England – became the first in the world to split their resources equally between their men’s and women’s senior teams. That same year, Cricket Australia announced the same base rate of pay across its elite players; an investment that is now paying dividends in the form of sold-out stadiums and high viewing figures for the domestic seasons.
In fact, Australian football already has the structural elements in place to make equal pay a reality. In 2019, a clause was added to the leagues’ CBA renewal which saw the introduction of a “same base pay for same base work” principle, where A-League and W-League players would earn the same minimum hourly rate as each other. However, the short length of the W-League season means that women players earn less than half of their A-League colleagues because they play less than half the number of games.
But if the long-term plans of Australia’s newly-independent professional clubs – namely a 16-team, 30-round W-League – are realised, this “same hourly rate” principle (if it is carried into future CBAs) would ultimately result in equal pay.
Instead of allowing it to be the consequence of other mechanisms, though, clubs could be ambitious by placing equal pay at the forefront of their new vision for the game. Indeed, in the lead-up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup – a bid which was based on gender equality principles – declaring equal pay as a guiding light for the W-League folds into the wider story that football is starting to tell about itself, where women are playing an increasingly important role both on and off the pitch.
Equal pay for the W-League does not just make ethical or narrative sense, either; it also makes business sense. Major corporations and governments are hitching their wagons to the women’s sport train, pouring more money and resources than ever into the fledgling industry. For example, Football Australia this week announced today the addition of Priceline Pharmacy to its growing women’s football sponsorship group, which also now includes multi-billion-dollar companies like Cadbury and Pantene.
At the other end of the financial scale, research suggests that consumers are increasingly attracted to sports clubs and leagues that engage in “corporate social responsibility,” or acting as vehicles for positive social change rather than, or alongside, simple profit-making exercises. Tapping into these national and international consumer trends could bring back the two key things that the game has struggled to retain in recent years – money and fans – while also potentially luring some of the world’s top players back to Australia in the process.
So, while W-League may have watched the initial boat sail over the horizon, there is a much larger one headed its way. If Australia’s professional clubs still believe the league can be one of the world’s best, this may be the one it cannot afford to miss.