ESPN presents a three-part series taking a closer look at the options proposed by the PFA regarding the future of Australian women's football. Today, Part 2 assesses the W-League becoming a standalone women's league that is competitive globally.
The W-League -- and Australian women's football more widely -- has arrived at a critical juncture. With the 2023 Women's World Cup on the horizon, the next three years offers the game an opportunity to be ambitious and forward-thinking in its plans as women's football emerges into a new era of professionalism, interest and investment.
Part 2 of this series, which deconstructs the PFA's "Professional Women's Football: The Next Step" document, takes a look at the union's second proposal for the future of the W-League and the larger domestic pyramid it currently sits atop of.
Part 2: The best global women's league
The W-League is the third-longest-running women's football league in the world.
Started in 2008 under the operational management of state federations, the league slowly transitioned to the administrative hands of Football Federation Australia in collaboration with the private A-League clubs with whom they shared branding, stadiums, fans and resources.
By 2015, all A-League clubs were responsible for operating their women's teams (if they had one), with the exception of Canberra United, which is still run by Capital Football in the absence of an A-League side.
A crucial factor in the future direction of the W-League is the fact that Australia's top three professional leagues -- the A-League, the W-League and the Y-League -- are currently being "unbundled" from FFA; a process of untangling legal and financial ties in order for the leagues and clubs to stand on their own as private enterprises.
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According to FFA CEO James Johnson, this unbundling is a sign of a maturing footballing nation -- few other professional men's competitions around the world are still operated and funded by their national associations as heavily as Australia's top leagues have been.
This unbundling process offers Australia to become truly world-leading in the women's club football space by establishing a fully professional, standalone, financially independent women's league.
The PFA notes that the impending independence of the W-League "creates an opportunity to elevate the unique position that coupling the W-League and the A-League presents. This would create the only professional competition -- male or female -- where the clubs have direct ownership, requiring all professional clubs to have a professional women's set-up, administered in accordance with principles and with a clear strategic focus. Backed by robust commercial partners, the W-League has the potential to outshine any other professional female competition."
The landscape of women's club football is largely inconsistent when it comes to its administration and operational arrangements. In England, for example, the Women's Super League -- now home to the highest number of Matildas playing outside Australia -- is still largely run by the national association, the FA. Despite the fact that the women's teams share much of the outward signifiers of their respective men's teams in the Premier League or Championship -- including club names, kits, branding, fans and facilities -- the league is still financed and operated by the governing body.
While there have been discussions about bringing the FAWSL under the direct control of the Premier League -- in a similar move to what the W-League would do in following the A-League into independence -- recent reports have suggested women's teams would prefer an independent league model where decisions are made solely by and for women's football, rather than being the "little sister" to a larger and more lucrative men's competition.
This independent women's league model is being considered in the United States, where the NWSL is currently owned and operated by its participating clubs (some of which have strong ties to Major League Soccer clubs, others that are mostly separate), but managed and financed by U.S. Soccer -- though there have been recent suggestions that a more distinct separation from the federation might take place in future so that the NWSL stands entirely on its own, separated even from its male counterpart competition.
The NWSL, though, is the exception to the rule. The vast majority of top women's leagues around the world -- including Europe's "Big Five" in England, France, Italy, Spain and Germany -- are operated by their national governing bodies despite having strong identity and resource ties to men's clubs. This is also the case for the W-League's nearest geographical rival, Japan's fully professional women's league, the WE League, which will kick off its inaugural season next year.
Put another way, W-League independence could be a groundbreaking move in global women's club football in that the league would become the first to be run entirely independently from its governing body. This independence means the W-League could have far more freedom and opportunities to explore options that might have been closed off to them under the old management model including bringing content production in-house; negotiating with broadcast partners directly instead of through the intermediary of FFA; taking charge of their own marketing and communication strategies; removing artificial equalisation measures such as salary caps; and teaming up with investment-ready brands, sponsors and organisations that might not have suited the national association in the past.
Most of all, it would mean that majority of the profits generated by the leagues would feed directly back into the clubs responsible for creating it. A new football economy would likely develop as a result of such administrative moves, which could help stimulate other parts of the game and give the W-League increased interest and investment as it recovers from the aftershocks of COVID-19.
Europe's recent coup of several top Australian players is proof that money and fully professional environments can talk, and offering one of the only full-time women's leagues in the world -- and the first to be run independently of its governing body -- could tip the balance back in Australia's favour when it comes to retaining our best and brightest. As the PFA notes, the W-League has already staked its claim as a league in pursuit of better conditions for its athletes, having introduced a minimum wage, a progressive collective bargaining agreement, and a broadcast agreement that saw every game of the 2019-20 season shown on television or streamed live for the first time. Opening such a league up to the rest of the world could also attract top-quality internationals who desire full-time footballing careers -- one that takes place in a part of the world that offers additional lifestyle benefits off the field, too.
Making the W-League the best women's league in the world would require a fully professional competition structure. Its season would therefore be extended to, at the very least, a full home-and-away calendar, while a shift to winter -- where conditions are more appropriate and the season is better aligned with top women's leagues elsewhere, leading to the possibility of international club competitions -- becomes more likely.
It could also see the addition of extra domestic competitions such as a women's FFA Cup where state-based NPLW teams could play against W-League sides, possibly leading to a national second division and promotion and relegation in the future. However, such a move would mean the vast majority of the top NPLW players would be removed from their respective leagues around the country, likely creating a talent vacuum for several years as youth players step up to fill the void left by senior players. It would also mean the W-League is no longer aligned with the best women's leagues around the world, meaning top players would have to choose a permanent home instead of returning to Australia in their respective American/European offseasons.
The biggest asterisk to this option proposed by the PFA, however, is the financial fallout from COVID-19. League independence was begun and its detailed thrashed out when Australian clubs were operating in a relatively stable and predictable sports economy. But the ongoing financial struggles caused by the pandemic means future projections and aspirations must be reconsidered and potentially re-strategised. For the W-League to become the best global women's league, it will require an unprecedented amount of financial investment from both inside and outside the sport. Whether this is possible in a contracting football economy, though, is uncertain.
Another questionable aspect of W-League independence is accountability. If the league comes under the total control of its male counterpart, what checks and balances will be in place to ensure the product and the players do not suffer in the event of future financial instability? While the A-League has invested more into the women's game in recent years, will that investment continue to grow in the way it should if their main product -- the A-League -- is suffering?
Is there, for example, a force majeure clause that allows FFA to take back control of the W-League if certain standards are not met? Who decides what those standards will be, and who enforces them? Finally, is there an option to delay the transition of the W-League while the A-League becomes a sustainable, standalone entity before it's allowed to run the women's league, too?
The PFA shares many of the same concerns: "The challenge faced by players and clubs in deciding to build the best professional global women's league will be an immediate increase to the number of games played, a considerable uplift in the level of remuneration and establishing elite environments. Entering an investment phase requires absolute commitment and patience."
Their own suggestions in this regard include "creating an aggressive centralised contracting system where FFA works with W-League clubs [where, for example, a certain number of Matildas or 'allocated players' sit outside a salary cap or have their salaries paid for by FFA], a global marquee player strategy understanding the capacity to elevate the level of players with a relatively low investment, long-term contracts to players, [and] whole-of-football ambassadors [where players are more embedded in the wider football community]."
An independent W-League with these kinds of structures in place could be a truly unique and world-leading women's competition, offering local and international players the kind of environments and off-field support that their male colleagues have received for several decades. As more women's leagues around the world begin moving in the direction of independence, the W-League is well placed to capitalise on the interest in football in the lead-up to the 2023 Women's World Cup and rapidly evolve its top women's competition before it's left behind by leagues elsewhere.
Part 3 of this series, published tomorrow, will look at the PFA's third proposal: Developing a talent pipeline that prepares future Matildas for a career overseas.