Women’s Football Deserves Commitment To Time Frames And Tangible Aims

by Kieran Yap (28/2/22)

We are all on the same team, but women’s football fans need to know what the game plan is.

The priority this season as it was last, is to keep the league running against unprecedented challenges. For this the APL and Football Australia deserve commendation.

However, with good reason, the fans are getting restless. Australia’s A-League Women’s community wants a plan for the future, and so far, they have only seen the implementation of things they explicitly do not want.

In the simplest terms, A-League Women’s fans want:

  • As few double headers as possible
  • A full home and away season
  • Full time pay for the players and coaches.
  • The same eagerness to invest in the league as they show when a 30 something men’s striker from Europe suggests that maybe he might consider thinking about playing in Australia.

The doubleheaders are contentious. From the perspective of a fan on matchday, five hours at a stadium is too long to expect men’s fans to show up for the women, and ALW supporters resent paying for tickets to men’s games they have no interest in, or in some cases actively avoid.

From a broadcast perspective, it makes sense for the same journalists and commentators to be in one location. The possibilities for better camera positioning and the ability to promote sponsors on the sidelines are far better.

From a footballing perspective, players always want and deserve access to the best facilities and pitches. The doubleheader provides this. Currently, there is no easy solution to this question.

In any case, this conundrum will not entice crowds. The men’s fans generally do show up, although not until well into the second half. In the worst cases, doubleheaders have been played with completely unaffiliated men’s teams playing afterward.

Speaking to The Ladies League Big Dub Podcast, Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend was not convinced that doubleheaders or early kick-off times were a crowd factor. He referred to what was basically a title decider between Melbourne City and Sydney FC.

“You could point to doubleheaders,” he responded,

“But you could point to AAMI Park on a Sunday afternoon between the two top teams in the competition. That argument’s not quite accurate when you point to that game Sunday afternoon.”

This game took place as the curtain-raiser between Western United and Western Sydney Wanderers.

The problems with doubleheaders aside, why would Western Sydney fans want to arrive early to watch Sydney FC play in the ALW? Western United have struggled to attract their own fans let alone any to support Melbourne City’s women.

These are two passionately opposing supporter sets. This game was never going to draw a crowd unless it was a separate women’s fixture, as a title decider should be.

The incoming league chief likely forgot this or never knew it. Either explanation is forgivable, mistakes happen.

But neither reason instils faith in the supporters that the league is being paid proper attention.

In any case, with crowds at men’s games struggling, is relying on them to save women’s football really the best idea?

Townsend also expressed frustration that the Matildas routinely break records with crowds but that does not transfer to the league.

“Where are all these Matildas fans?” he ponders.

“Why are they happy to put on a Matildas shirt one day yet won’t turn up and watch their local A-League women’s team play?

“There seems to be this real fair-weather commitment to Matildas as being this great brand and it is, but why aren’t those fans turning up to watch Sydney FC vs Melbourne City or others?”

Aside from the reasons already covered, one reason is blaringly obvious.

Ticketing links.

The A-League Women Twitter account is 99% great. They provide highlights, lineup, interviews and updates. They announce fixture changes and game times. However, to this date, they do not include links to buy tickets on their posts.

Above: A typical tweet from the A-League Women account advertising games. Source: @aleaguewomen

Fans are forced to tweet into the abyss or wander the deserts of Google aimlessly to find out which outlet supplies the tickets.

Sometimes the tickets are listed online and on club websites under the men’s fixtures only. There are also at least two ticketing outlets, (Ticketmaster and Ticketbooth) who might be handling the game.

The individual clubs social media do provide links, but if the aim is to gather new supporters, ones that may not have chosen a team yet, the central communication hubs need to post them too.

It is a constant mystery that even experienced football fans have struggled to decipher. That often referred to game between Sydney FC and Melbourne City had ticketing links that could not be found through any search engine. They were on the Western United website but could not be found searching “Melbourne City, Sydney FC or A-League Women tickets.”

Contrast this with The Matildas social media and marketing team. Every post from the account that refers to an upcoming game has a link to buy tickets, many mention the costs, or any potential offers and discounts.

They do this almost daily leading up to game day. If you are a football fan and they are playing in your town it is almost harder NOT to go to the game.

The effort is put in, it has been over years, they hustle, and they once even offered free entry for children named “Matilda.” They build crowds, not just expect them,  and they make it easy for fans to attend.   

For A-League games, there is only broadcast information. Which is fantastic and satisfies commercial partners but does nothing to get people to the ground.

Include a link for tickets.

Above: An example Tweet from the Matildas account with links to buy tickets. Source: @TheMatildas

Expand outside the bubble

Another reason that crowd figures are vastly different between national team games and league games is that they appeal to different demographics.

There exists a large and growing population in Australia that want to attend, promote and enjoy women’s sport. Some of these people do it to the exclusion of men’s sport for their own valid reasons (I have mine).

So far, the A-League marketing is focussed on combining men’s and women’s supporter bases. To grow the women’s game by appealing to fans of men’s football instead of fans of women’s sport.

This is more likely to work for broadcasting. The game is the game, and football is football. But the atmosphere at the ground is different, in some cases deliberately so.

As relative newcomers to the Australian sporting scene, women’s football supporter culture has been able to take what they like from existing football support and leave behind what they do not.

When the men’s active support does show up, they can change the vibe, often unintentionally. Because they are not familiar with how things usually are.

If you have ever been enjoying a night out and then a buck’s night or footy post-season group shows up, you will know the atmosphere changes. The attitude seems to be “lets show them how we do things” rather than any effort to integrate with the existing vibe.

Learning some of the women’s active support chants instead of using slightly altered men’s chants would go a long way to harmonizing support.

This is not the fault of the League, but even when they do show up, it is not quite enough.

Regarding women’s sports fans, those that might go to the netball, WBBL or ALFW to grow A-League crowds, the league seems unaware a market exists.

“It’s not something we’ve talked about,” said Townsend to Rose of the Ladies League.

“It’s an interesting one to consider.

“We’ve typically operated in a football environment when we think about how to recruit fans.”

As the crowds at other events (and Matildas games) has shown, this is something that really needs to be looked at. It is surprising that it has not been considered or at least researched already.

That’s football environment referred to consists of eight million fans of the game in Australia. This takes in a whole lot of different people. Some play, some watch European leagues, some just check out the World Cup.

It is a huge, but diverse demographic to target when compared to something that has established social media communities like ‘Women’s Sport.’

Surely you both the existing football community and the women’s sport community can be reached out to.

A family may have three children and one parent who play. They are registered participants and football fans. But after paying registration and game day costs for four people and spending hours at the ground on a Sunday morning, do they really have enough time to attend a match or two?

Women’s sport fans will make the time, they have already told you they will by devoting so much of it to setting up watch parties, podcasts, websites, and travelling groups of supporters for various sports.

Active support of A-League women’s teams was granted an audience with the league in the pre-season, but surveys of women’s football fans or women’s sports fans have not been attempted since the APL took control of the league.

Their marketing strategy is not guesswork, but without talking to those who do show up, how can they work out how to attract more?

For a crude analogy, if you want to decide to go to a restaurant, do you listen to people who love it or those who long ago decided never to try it?

Above: Links for tickets and inspirational quotes. The Matildas show how to build a crowd. Source: @TheMatildas

Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd

This is not to say that there is no potential within the football bubble.

Trading cards, Food trucks, and more women’s specific merchandise are all things that the AFLW has explored to build numbers in the stands. As a personal experience, I had watched AFLW on the TV but was also convinced to attend by the presence of a Pancake Parlour van at the ground.

Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, however, due to decades of often unfair bad press, few things deter casual fans like a soccer crowd. It is time to expand the bubble outside of football.

The main thing that supporters want is a full home and away season and for players and coaches to be paid a living wage for at least the duration of that season.

The league has yet to set a timeframe on this. It remains an ambition but not a target.

Meanwhile, the AFL player association has stated that 2025 is their goal for full-time pay for women’s players.

The APL has overseen the league for only months, nobody is expecting this to happen instantly, but fans do expect a timeframe to show some ambition and dedication to the players and the sport.

One concern from the league about an extended season is that it will overlap with the American NWSL. From what the fans are saying, they simply do not care about that, and nor should they.

In the absence of U.S imports last season, the league’s younger players stepped up. Experienced players like Dylan Holmes and Clare Wheeler became Matildas and Kyra Cooney-Cross became a star.

For the players that have ambitions to play in the US, clubs have shown themselves to be flexible, and the fans excited for them.

Lynn Williams was accommodated to potentially season-defining effect and Emily van Egmond was able to switch between the Newcastle Jets and the NWSL with mostly appreciation for what she did in her time here.

Player movement happens, the fans are OK with it. It is a compliment to the league and Australian football. In the end, a strong, flourishing competition exceeds the benefits of matching up with the US league.

Coordinating with the NPLs is a different matter, but not an insurmountable challenge.

Fans remain patient, but increasingly frustrated. Those entrusted with the game are not expected to change it overnight, especially when the priority is completing the season in a pandemic.

Fans largely understand that challenges exist, but they need to be able to trust these problems are being addressed

Women’s football fans and players deserve tangible, measurable aims for the game, they deserve a timeframe, and they deserve to be told what it is.

The episode of The Ladies League Big Dub Podcast mentioned within this article can be heard here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/the-massive-dub-pod/id1524033994?i=1000551834590&fbclid=IwAR2Y6ctlYdOr-XKXo1n7URV-UJV2mgGLeUXsFo74UFSSORcwcBrEHL4y2HM

Artwork: Graphics by PW.

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