As Australian football continues to reckon with its changing position in the international pecking-order, the A-League Women’s competition — the highest-profile platform for the country’s emerging talent — has taken a much-needed leap to try to halt the slide.
On Wednesday, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) announced a two-year women’s football strategy that will see Australia’s top-flight women’s league brought into line with the global benchmark, progressively extending the ALW season and adding more clubs as they build towards a fully-professional, full-time women’s competition.
The upcoming 2022-23 ALW season is set to kick off on November 18, with 20 rounds contested by 11 teams — after the introduction of Western United — over the course of six months, culminating in a grand final on the last weekend of April.
COVID-19 protocols permitting, 18 of those rounds will be played over weekends, while two will be scheduled mid-week to coincide with school holidays.
The league will also pause for international windows for the first time, allowing ALW clubs to release national team players and, subsequently, to work with Football Australia (FA) to coordinate content and engagement strategies across both domestic and international levels of the game.
While the 20-round season is not quite the full home-and-away calendar that many fans and players had been asking for, the APL have confirmed that the following season will be extended to the full, 22 rounds (132 total matches), bringing the league into line with many top-flight women’s competitions elsewhere in the world.
In addition, the 2023-24 season will also see the re-introduction of the Central Coast Mariners, who have been granted a provisional ALW licence — subject to approval by FA — as well as an expanded finals series, from four to seven games.
This is seen as the optimal configuration that not only provides more match minutes — up to the current global standard of 1,980 by 2023-24 — but also ongoing employment for players and staff, with player contracts lengthened by 23 per cent while the minimum salary will increase by 50 per cent over two years, as well as open the league to new markets and untapped commercial opportunities.
This particular balance of extension and expansion was agreed upon after consultation with various stakeholder groups including FA, club chief executives, member federations and the 2023 Women’s World Cup organising committee.
Importantly, this structure was also approved by the players themselves through their union, Professional Footballers Australia, with many of the APL’s principles aligning with those contained in the players’ five-year collective bargaining agreement that began in 2021, including increased contract security and longevity, improved workplace standards, enhanced competitiveness and a stronger relationship between players and clubs.
“We believe it is that currently, but it needs investment in order to keep it at the level it is [at]. The other sports in Australia are investing in women’s [leagues], which is fantastic, but we need to keep pace and stay ahead of those.
“And it’s not just at the elite level that we need to invest. It’s also at the grassroots and academy systems across APL clubs that need attention, and a lot of the clubs are leaning into that space at the moment.
“To be able to leverage the amazing participation base we’ve got that’s growing for females, and invest ahead of that, is important. Our board and our partners were all in agreement that now is the time.
“With the Women’s World Cup looming, it is going to be enormous for the sport in Australia. I still think everyone is underestimating the impact it’s going to have on sport, let alone women’s football.
While fans were not part of the consultation process, the APL has emphasised that another major pillar of their strategy is stronger engagement with women’s football-specific fans, which their research has found skews more towards women aged between 25 and 44, men aged between 35 and 44, and families with children aged below 18.
Taking inspiration from overseas clubs, such as Barcelona and Angel City FC, as well as the impact of the 2019 Women’s World Cup on French women’s football, the APL said they are relying heavily on this consumer-driven data — gathered through sources such as social media, ticketing, memberships, and their digital hub KeepUp — in order to tailor their fan-engagement initiatives.
In that respect, the APL have already identified several areas of growth and redesign for the ALW.
- bespoke match-day and digital content experiences via an improved KeepUp platform
- more ‘active’ brands and sponsors that engage specifically with women’s sport fans
- greater marketing to increase awareness and visibility of the league
- “sugar-hit” initiatives such as ALW All Stars matches against travelling teams and high-profile marquees
- more accessible match broadcasts and content offerings to appeal to as many new supporters as possible
- better synergies with the Matildas to cross-promote and leverage the wider reach of the national teams as well as the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
The addition of other competitions that fans can engage with — such as women’s versions of the A-League Youth and Australia Cup — are also on the long-term agenda.
While this bespoke approach to women’s football appears at odds with last year’s equality-driven A-Leagues rebranding — which replaced the old “W-League” name with “A-League Women” but received mixed responses by fans and players — Townsend said the organisation now has a clearer understanding of the unique culture, history, consumption habits and social offerings of women’s football that they hope to better cater to in future.
“This is one that we’ve thought a lot about. When you look at how you grow engagement, you’ve got your rusted-on fans [who] are there across both men’s and women’s football, but then you’ve got another pocket of fans that are uniquely engaged in the women’s game. And we’ve got to grow both of those,” Townsend said.
“So the strategies we’ve got around ‘conversion’ of more traditional A-Leagues fans into supporting both their men’s and women’s competitions is about delivering them a product that they want to watch — the Club Championship was a key pillar [in terms of] conversion.
“But the one that I think requires a lot more work and thinking is how we really engage with the female football fan.
“As a father of two … I can assure you that females engage differently in things to me. We’ve got to think about how we [service] the ALW in a way that’s going to engage the wealth of young Australian [women] that play the game on weekends and enjoy it with their friends, how do we get them connected to the ALW?
“That’s certainly a key focus of ours going into this season.”
Additionally, despite the messy and tense “unbundling” from FA at the end of 2019, Townsend said that the APL were enthusiastic about working with football’s various governing bodies in order to align their resources and ambitions, which are ultimately geared towards producing Matildas and Socceroos players.
“The football pyramid is the responsibility of everyone involved, whether that’s the member federations, grassroots associations or all the way through to national teams,” he said.
“How we operate in individual environments is important for business, but how we work together to contribute to the ultimate goal — which is generating great, talented athletes that represent our country — is something that is right at the top of the list for us.
“The investment we make, at the moment, in our male academy systems isn’t going to pay [us] back, but we do it because it’s our responsibility in the football pyramid to drive elite pathways for young footballers. We need to do that for the women as well.
“Looking after the elite, A-League Women level is important but, equally, contributing to the development pathway is something we take seriously and will work in unison with the FA and member [federations] to get that structure right.”