Australian W-League set for major overhaul with 2023 Women's World Cup on the horizon

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Seeking to harness the "halo effect" of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup and establish itself as Australia's premier women's sporting competition, the W-League is set to undergo a major shakeup before the showpiece tournament lands in Australia and New Zealand in two years' time.

Key amongst the changes is an expansion of the league from nine to 12 teams by the 2022-23 season, with sources telling ESPN one team may enter even sooner. Further reforms will see the league's finals series extended and a joint A-League and W-League Club Championship introduced from 2021-22. Improved conditions for female players under a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) have also been negotiated between league operators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) and players' union Professional Footballers Australia (PFA).

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Though contingency plans are being investigated, the APL remains hopeful that Australia's COVID-19 vaccination rate will have reached a stage that will allow the 2021-22 season to commence with minimal disruption from its scheduled Nov. 13 kick-off.

"We're working with all the government health authorities to ensure that our season gets underway unencumbered but we're not hiding away from the fact that there are challenges in the coming months," APL managing director Danny Townsend told ESPN. "The rates of vaccinations are our way out of this and we're confident that when the nation gets to the levels required there will be football again, with crowds in stadiums, and we can celebrate the one thing that we've all loved and missed.

"There are some practical realities around the women's game that aren't there in the men's game [W-League players' work, education and family requirements add cost and complexity to hubs or extended travel] but that goes to the fact that we need to work equally as hard to ensure the women's game gets away as the men's does."

According to ESPN sources, Wellington Phoenix retain a strong chance of entering the league whenever the 2021-22 campaign commences, with their entry ultimately dependent on approval from the league's regulatory bodies. The team would be strongly supported by New Zealand Football, which sees the project as a major boost for its local game ahead of a home World Cup -- although steps would likely be put in place to ensure it didn't simply become a facsimile Aotearoa national team.

With a New Zealand team's entry to the competition a fraught issue -- Phoenix's efforts to join the W-League last season were dashed after Football Australia declined to amend player eligibility rules that would have allowed the club to field New Zealanders as domestic players -- Townsend wouldn't comment on the possibility of Phoenix fielding a team in 2021-22 when asked by ESPN. He did, however, confirm that it was the APL's intention for the Kiwi side, alongside Western United and Central Coast Mariners, to begin playing soon.

"The 2022-23 season [is the target for 12 teams]," he said. "Essentially, we'd like to have the 12 teams in the league before the Women's World Cup. At the moment we're still working with Macarthur on their submission -- there may well be another one [added for 2022-23]. Our ambition has always been that every A-League team would have a W-League team.

"Women's football in Australia is not new, it's been a strength to our code for years. The W-League is the longest-running elite women's sports league in Australia and the clubs have always stood behind that with investment. As we move into the exciting future with the Women's World Cup coming to Australia, our goal is to build on the halo effect that it will bring all of women's sport in Australia; it's a sustained approach to investing in the women's game. Because ultimately, the women's World Cup is going to be an amazing 30 days in 2023 but women's football is here for the long haul. We want to make sure that we get out ahead of that momentous 30 days and make the most of the opportunity that it brings to women's football."

PFA co-chief executive Kate Gill added: "The expansion of the competition is an important step forward and illustrates the confidence in the women's game and the solid foundations that have been built. The players have been vocal advocates for the growth of the competition and positively APL's women's football strategy will not only provide additional employment opportunities and match minutes for our talented players but delivers a healthy boost to the W-League in the lead up to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup."

Further changes to the W-League landscape will arrive in the form of a newly introduced Club Championship and an extended finals series. Previously teased by the APL, the Club Championship will see A-League and W-League teams' results collated to determine the most successful club across both competitions. It's a move the APL hopes will lead to greater numbers of A-League fans taking up support of their club's women's programs, as well as encourage clubs to properly resource both.

"Announcing a club championship for this upcoming season is a key symbol of where we place the women's game alongside the men," Townsend said. "Having the opportunity to encourage our fans to not just be fans of just the A-League team, but be fans of the club -- support the men's and the women's teams and celebrate their contribution to silverware and being crowned Australia's best professional football club."

While there won't be an increase on the four teams that currently qualify for the playoffs, next season will also mark a shift in the way they are conducted: the league's top two teams face off for a spot in the Grand Final in the first week of the finals, with the loser subsequently receiving a shot at redemption in a preliminary final against the winner of a meeting between third and fourth. The winner of that meeting will then advance to the Grand Final.

"The finals series is where interest peaks in both our A-League and W-League," Townsend said. "So ensuring that we've got more games at that interesting time of the year will just add further emphasis on the W-League."

The coming reforms, however, don't include the implementation of a full home-and-away season, a much-requested change from W-League coaches, players and fans. Under its current format, a number of studies have shown that the competition offers its players amongst the fewest elite games in the world.

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As Townsend explained: "Expansion will bring more games naturally. Our goal was always to bring opportunities for more players to have more games, have higher-quality games and ultimately step towards home and away. How long it takes to get there, we're still mapping out but [home and away] remains our stated goal. The W-League plays a critical role in the women's pathway and how we develop talent that's going to go on and represent the Matildas is something we take very seriously as the APL.

"[A key factor in implementing a full home-and-away season is] the orientation with the football pyramid. You've got a domestic calendar that allows registration windows that works for both the NPL and the W-League. So we need to ensure that we're able to find a window that will allow the players to play in both competitions.

"Ultimately, we do want to get to a stage where the players don't need to play a second season in the NPL or overseas. From our perspective, working through how that calendar works is probably the most challenging part of it. It's also about ensuring that the financial framework around the game is sustainable for players to be full-time professionals. It's complex, it's probably slightly more complex than the A-League, which is why we've got to manage our growth with a degree of caution."

While a full home-and-away season thus remains an aspirational goal, conditions are set to be improved for W-League players under a new CBA negotiated between the APL and PFA. The agreement -- negotiated with remarkable amiability compared to the near-civil war that erupted between clubs and players last offseason -- will feature improved equality between men's and women's players in accessing elite training facilities, trainers and support staff, and medical and treatment as well as see provisions put in place surrounding pitch quality and matchdays.

"The new CBA is very focused on ensuring those standards and we're really excited about what that means, what opportunities that's going to bring for female players," Townsend said. "It really should just be the standard. That we've got to talk about it in a CBA in 2021 is probably a bit sad in and of itself. But we're excited about what it means for female football."

With last season's broadcasting of the W-League subject to much controversy (we hardly knew ye, Tuba Guy), Townsend also promised that the league's new agreement with Viacom CBS, which will see the W-League broadcast on commercial free-to-air television for the first time, augured improvements in that space.

"Part of the reason that we were so adamant that we wanted to take on production ourselves was to ensure that we delivered a quality product across both competitions that befit the level of competition that we have," he said. "It's clear to everyone that last season wasn't up to standard in the W-League. We've got a commitment to ensure that's improved upon with this new deal."