Not too long ago, the A-League Women had been one of the best women’s leagues in the world. Not only did almost the entire Matildas squad play here, but it also attracted some of the world’s best talent.
Arsenal star Kim Little dominated for Melbourne City. Sophia Huerta took her first steps to stardom for Sydney FC, and Kristen Hamilton earned a call up to the USWNT while at Western Sydney Wanderers.
However, at just nine teams and 12 regular season games in the 2019/20 season, and after rapidly increased investment in Europe, Australia’s domestic competition quickly fell behind the rest of the world.
Players could not be expected to reach their potential, and the league could not realise its commercial capability with only a few months’ worth of matches. Today, APL commissioner Greg O’Rourke presented the first steps to a better future.
“I’m proud to announce, that over the next two years, the Liberty A-league will become a 12-team competition, extending to full home and away,” he told the media at AAMI Park.
“It will be a schedule of 22 rounds and total match minutes in the regular season, which now reach global benchmarks.”
For years, supporters have been calling out for a full home and away season. It is now on the horizon, if all goes to plan the 2023/24 season will see the addition of a 12th team, the Central Coast Mariners and a full 22 rounds.
“By adding more teams and creating more rounds, APL is delivering more opportunities for women to play and to coach at the highest level in Australia. Creating more pathways to the professional game, creating more role models for the next generation,” continued O’Rourke.
“The Liberty A-league is set to deliver additional games and unprecedented opportunities for Matilda hopefuls to secure a once in a lifetime dream of representing the Matildas in a World Cup on home soil.
“A strong professional league on home soil serves the entire women’s football pyramid. At just 12 months out from the Women’s world Cup. We want to ensure that every girl, every woman in Australia has the opportunity to grow and to build a lasting relationship with this game.”
The decision was made in consultation with the PFA and will see the players receive a 50% pay rise over the two seasons.
“APL is delivering on its long-standing plans to extend and expand the Liberty A-League to capitalise on a once in a generation opportunity to secure a lasting legacy of the FIFA women’s World Cup, both here and in New Zealand,” said O’Rourke in summation.
“Over the next two seasons of the liberty a-league, there will be more teams, more rounds, more opportunities, more match minutes, more chances for future matildas to shine, and women and girls to be able to access this professional game as players and coaches like never before.
“It is a wonderful time for football in Australia.”
“We’re pretty ambitious”
Long term, this is an important step. For the competition to be taken seriously by players, broadcaster, sponsors, and fans it has to grow. The sport is facing increased competition from AFLW for potential players and viewers. While the full home and away season is still another season away. It was important for the football to get there before other codes, given its head start.
In the immediate future, following the introduction of Western United for 2022/23, there will be an increase from 14 to 20 games.
The season will end with a Grand Final on the final weekend of April. The 2023 World Cup is set to kick off on less than two months later. There is no such thing as perfect timing in football, but theoretically, it gives a window for players to impress and push for selection, while having enough time to rest and overcome any injuries.
From the perspective of fans, this is much of what they are asking for. It demonstrates commitment to women’s football from APL and particularly the new clubs. However with fixturing still to be determined, some questions remain.
ABC reported that 18 of the 20 rounds are to be played on weekends, which is good. There is a likelihood that this will mean double headers, which is less popular among many devoted A-League Women supporters.
It is an issue that must consider stadium availability and, giving the players the best possible facilities, while factoring in the costs and atmosphere that A-League Women fans are more enticed by.
Western United’s Women’s Football Integration Manager Amanda Stella says that the new club is taking a proactive approach.
“We’re pretty ambitious,” she told the media
“We hope to take as many games as we can out to the west.
“We think that’s where our core community, our family is going to come from, that are going to come to our game’s week in week out.
“We’re hoping, instead of trying to bring the fans to us, we’re going to go out to the fans that are going to back us.”
Some good problems to have
Today’s news is nothing but positive, but it is a first step on a larger journey.
Australia now lags behind many other football nations, but it is not too late to catch up and the announcement of league extension is a show of intent.
Although this is an important, and very necessary step, it is not without risk.
Currently, Australia’s best women’s footballers either go overseas in the very long off-season or return to the NPL state leagues.
How the new calendar will affect the lower level of the sport is still unknown. The ideal solution is for A-League clubs to be aligned with NPLW sides, so that players can move between them if they wish to continue playing, particularly emerging young players and ones who did not get much game time in the A-League Season.
This is in some ways, a good problem to have. Elite players being too busy to play at state level is what we should be aiming for long term.
The new league format will also pause for international breaks. This will be welcome news for coaches and fans. Obviously having multiple players called up to the national team is desired recognition for the player and club, but as Melbourne Victory discovered last season, it can leave a side without its best players, sometimes when they need them most.
The other issue is how it will effect players who move between Australia and the U.S or Scandinavian leagues. Chelsie Dawber and Alex Chidiac have moved to the US league. Currently, there is a possibility of them playing in both in a calendar year, and this will no longer be possible.
This means more choice and career options for players. A full season may make recruitment more challenging for A-League coaches, but in the long term, it will strengthen the league and player pool locally. More game time will naturally lead to higher quality football.
A full season means that the women’s game is edging closer to full time professionalism. It is something that is far from universal in the women’s game but becoming more common. The clubs that do make the investment see very fast results. It is the reason that Barcelona’s women’s side can sell out the Nou Camp in consecutive fixtures.
Melbourne Victory defender Kayla Morrison says that the 50% wage increase will go a long way to improving player welfare on and off the pitch.
“Not only because it is more money,” she said
“One, we feel like we have earned it, and two, hopefully it gives some of those girls who do have other jobs, the ability to take hours off, go part time and focus more on soccer.
“That is the way we’re also going to grow. That’s the way more fans are going to come because our soccer is going to be getting better.
“We’re going to elevate. We’re going to be playing better and entertaining better.”
There is no finish line for women’s football. The price of success is to be constantly improving, innovating, and investing.
Today’s announcement is the first major step to taking Australian women’s football where it deserves to be.
The players have called for it, the national team manager has asked for it, and the fans have demanded it. The full home and away season is coming soon.