Photo: Adam Butler

Expanding Horizons: A discussion about the introduction of a 10th W-League team

Later this year, the Westfield W-League is set to reach an important milestone as it commences its 10th season.

In that time period the W-League has powered the growth and success of the Matildas, along with the progression and popularity of women’s football at grassroots.

Now, more than ever, there has been increased interest in the league with several clubs and interest groups stating their intent to join the competition.

If you hang around A-League circles, you would have to be under a rock to miss the at times contentious conversations regarding A-League expansion or promotion/relegation.

However, while the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City have joined the foundation teams, W-League expansion has rarely been discussed; until now.

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Officially or rumoured, there are a number of possible contenders to join the W-League either next season or in the future.  That there are a number of contenders bodes well for the W-League but what are the merits of the different licence bids.

The Central Coast Mariners were the first to make their objective known to re-acquire a W-League licence in December 2016.

“The club has been quietly working hard behind the scenes for the last 18 months to understand what a Mariners W-League team will look like,” said Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp in the announcement.

“It is with great energy and confidence that today we make the significant step forward on this journey.”

Foundation members of the W-League before withdrawing in 2010, the Mariners have the inside running.  The club’s previous participation in the W-League means they have some knowledge of what is required, although it must be noted that their previous squad was administered by Football NSW.  Further. with their partnership with the North Shore Mariners, they have an established catchment area to pull in players from.

One of the critical questions in relation to the Mariners is whether a fourth team in NSW is one too many.  While NSW might have 45% of women’s football participants, the Mariners catchment area is one that is currently reasonably well serviced with the Newcastle Jets, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.  Whether their inclusion cannibalise from those three existing teams is a topic of discussion below on the merits of W-League expansion.

Mariners are not the only Australian club with W-League aspirations.  Former NSL powerhouses South Melbourne have been slowly putting together the building blocks.  Their most recent move has been the acquisition of Matildas co-captain Lisa De Vanna.

“South is a complete football club,” A-League bid director Bill Papastergiadis said.  “Investing in the development of women’s program is central to the club’s future blueprint.”

South Melbourne would face a similar problem of a geographical catchment area.  It is one that Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City have not really been able to solve.  Despite building championship winning squads, City has mainly called on interstate and international players with the majority of Victorian based players finding a home at Victory.  Again they would have the question of home growing players or pulling from City, Victory or interstate W-League teams.

South Melbourne have made no formal moves but across the ditch, Wellington Phoenix have made inroads into gaining the required approvals to be in a position to pull together a pitch.

“We’re keen to have one next season. Whether we can pull it round in quite that time we don’t know,” said general manager David Dome in April. “We’re working hard on it and it has to be a collaborative effort with New Zealand Football and there is still stuff to work through there.”

“If we can get it done for the next W-League season that would be fantastic, it might take a little bit longer, but everyone is pushing for it to get done this year.”

Lisa De Vanna in action for South Melbourne in NPLW against Calder United. (Photo: Ashley Perez)

 

Wellington Phoenix would not raise the player depth question that CCM and South Melbourne pose with the whole of the New Zealand women’s football community available to them.

The introduction of a Phoenix side in the competition would create some interesting logistical problems for the FFA and NZ Football to work through.  Currently the longest trip Perth-Brisbane is 3,608.7km (2,242.3 miles) which is already one of the longest domestic flights in women’s football[1].  At 5,261.4km or (3,269.3 miles), the Perth-Wellington travel would eclipse that, bringing with it all the associated costs.

Closer to home the Southern Sydney expansion consortium were next to put up their hand but their offer to enter a team in the upcoming season has already been rejected by the FFA.

“Frankly, we find it hard to understand,” said Southern Expansion’s CEO Chris Gardiner.

“The W-League has a 9-team competition, the A-League a 10-team competition. The FFA says it wants to grow the Women’s game and Southern Expansion is in a position to fund the team, at levels that meets the best benchmarks set by Professional Footballers’ Australia and with a marquee player, but the FFA won’t even discuss the matter.”

The amount of interest in joining the W-League is a positive development also brings to the forefront a number of questions including if and when should the W-League expand?

Central Coast Mariners played two seasons win the W-League (Photo: Getty Images)

 

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At the conclusion of the 2016/17 W-League season, Professional Footballers Australia released an ambitious blueprint for women’s football in Australia.

A key component of ‘From grassroots to greatness: Roadmap for women’s football’  was the expansion of the W-League to be better aligned with top women’s football leagues in Germany, France, the United States, Sweden and Japan.

For PFA Chief Executive John Didulica, W-League expansion is a positive advancement in the context of building a depth of players to feed through to the national team.

“Within our Grassroots to Greatness document, we are advocates for – at least for the next season – a 10 club competition,” he said.

“I think the advantages that come with that are more opportunities for players, the ability to have more games and obviously avoiding the bye when you have an odd numbered competition.”

“Ultimately the key aim is to create as many playing opportunities as we can and then the reciprocal obligation is to make sure those opportunities are of the highest quality.” 

“That then feeds into where we want to get to, which is to be World Champions, Olympic champions and having that real critical mass of high quality players within Australia.”

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Didulica’s statements provide a number of points to explore further.

When it comes to W-League expansion, one of the continual questions is in relation to player depth.  Namely, does Australia have the player pool to sustain a 10th team?  And, subsequently, are there players who are of W-League quality currently missing out on development opportunities due to a lack of squad positions?

“The idea of having a strong league with more teams in to give more competition is a good thing,” said current Melbourne Victory head coach Jeff Hopkins.

Hopkins has been involved in women’s football for over a decade.  First with the Queensland Academy of Sport program and then with Brisbane Roar, coaching the club to two W-League championships.  The former Welsh international has also been involved in player development including as a former Young Matildas coach.

“Number one [question to expansion] is you have to have the depth of talent there.  I think that league is moving forward but I am just not sure if we are right at this moment to dilute it down.”

Currently there are 144 Australian players on W-League rosters with a 10th team resulting in a further 16 Australian players required for the league.

While the past decade has seen beneficial changes at the top tier of women’s football, further down the elite pathway there has been substantial erosion.  With Australia’s top players heading overseas before returning home later in the year, the gap between the state leagues and the W-League has slowly increased.

Didluca acknowledges the issue of the gap.  It bears out in the information gathered and feedback received from the PFA’s research for their blueprint.

“We certainly accept that as a starting point,” he said. “But if we are going to wait for when we think it’s ready, the horse will have bolted.  We really have to be ambitious with how we are positioning the competition.”

North Shore Mariners in action (Photo: Toby Lord/NSM Facebook)

 


In that Didluca is right.  One of the criticisms of Australian football has related to imagination and vision, more precisely, its scarcity.

When the W-League was founded back in 2008, it was off the back of hype from the Matildas first quarter final run at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  While women’s football found some traction, it certainly wasn’t as much on the radar as it is now.  The ambition and foresight to build a national league has been critical for the visibility of the game and its players.

“I guess that could be an argument,” said Hopkins.  “But again I guess we have got to look at the league and ask what are we looking to get out of the league?”

“I think there definitely has got to be an element of player development there but are we looking to put extra teams in just to develop players.”

Hopkins’ question is an existential one.  It is a question for which the answer can directly affect which path is taken.

On inception, the W-League was a development league with the ultimate aim to cultivate players for the Matildas.  Is that still the key objective?

Hopkins puts forward a proposition that the objective can remain the same but the method of fulfilling that objective can evolve.

In the early days it was experienced Matildas like Dianne Alagich, Joey Peters, Cheryl Salisbury, Kate McShea, Alicia Ferguson, Heather Garriock, Sarah Walsh etc who provided the leadership and mentoring for the next generation of players.  Nowadays, it is arguable that the international contingent plays a greater role in that process by virtue of their quality assisting in lifting up the level of play.

“I always thought [the objective] is to provide our players a stage and a platform on the national scene. That’s number one,” said former Football West CEO and Perth Glory Women’s administrator Peter Hugg.

Hugg has been involved in football for over 20 years including as the former CEO of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association.

“Development and the acquisition of the skills and talent, that is number two.  As aspirational role models, as promotional and marketing tools for the game, they would be number three.”

Hopkins concurred with Hugg’s assessment of the key objective of the league.  He believes – and this writer agrees – that safeguarding the growing reputation of the W-League should be vital.  Essentially that means ensuring that the standard of play continues to improve season to season.  In this way, the development of the next generation and the continual development of the current Matildas can occur.  The two objectives need not be mutually exclusive.

“The W-League has gained respect over the years and we just have got to be a little bit careful about how we want to be seen as a league,” Hopkins continued.

“We have just got to be careful that we don’t take steps backwards with the quality of the league.  There is quite a fine balance.” 

Conversely John Didulica points to Melbourne City’s entry into the W-League as an example of where expansion can benefit the team as a whole.  As Director of Football at City in 2015, Didulica was a key figure in the attainment of a licence and assembling arguably the best squad in the history of the W-League.

“Bringing in a club like a Melbourne City who can apply resources to the competition has helped lift the entire league.”

“I think if we could bring in a 10th team and down the track and 11th and 12th team who do similar things will see the water level of the league to continually rise.”

“That is what we need to do, we need to actually drag the state and the regional levels up with what’s happening at the top rather than wait for that to actually tangibly improve before we take that next step.”

That premise is predicated on the fact that clubs increase resourcing to their W-League teams.  That is in an ideal world.

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While Canberra United were one of the few teams to come close to their $150,000 salary cap, Melbourne City were the first team to use the full cap allotment.

To put that in context, Perth Glory, under the leadership of Hugg spent $46,000 of their salary cap in Season 7 when they claimed the premiership and made the grand final.

“As much as Melbourne City are to be applauded for their investment, unless everyone comes along and keeps pace with that you will have this runaway team,” said Hugg.  “To a certain extent other teams have upped the ante a little bit.”

“Anything that contributes to the players getting more money, staying in the game, to be able to dedicate themselves greater to the game, train better and become more professional, then it is to be applauded.”

The question of resourcing leads to the next W-League expansion discussion point; where are the limited resources best spent?

A former W-League club administrator was blunt on this point.

“Unless FFA commits to a full home and away and there is increased funding for the teams, absolutely not should there be a 10th team next season.”

“It is not a level playing field while there is not a full home and away season.”

The question of a full home and away season has become a contentious one in recent years and the voices to increase the number of games have grown stronger and louder from all spectrums of the women’s football community.

Earlier this month, moments after being crowned the W-League Player of the Year, Sam Kerr was asked about what is required for the W-League to go to the next level.

“A full season of home and away games is what we need,” said Kerr.

“When you look at the top leagues around the world, in the US league where I play, playing week in and week out is so important.  The more you play, the more you learn and we need that in the W-League.”

Kerr is not alone in those sentiments.  Michelle Heyman, Lisa De Vanna, Ellie Brush, Katrina Gorry are just a number of players to go on the record about a need for a full home and away season.  In our survey of 32 players last season, 17 players stated the need for a longer season.

“I think we need to go to full home and away rounds of the competition schedule before we start considering W-League expansion with more teams,” said Hugg.

Hugg is also not alone.  Former Canberra United CEO Heather Reid and the coaches of the W-League, on and off the record, have continually voiced this opinion for the past 5 years.

“For me, and the conversations that I am having with other coaches, our main priority would be to make it a full home and away league at the moment to make it more balance,” said Hopkins.

“It’s to keep growing the game and once we have done that I think we can move onto expanding the league.”

The FFA have not been deaf to these calls and an FFA spokesperson provided an indication that it is being evaluated at head office.

“For the Westfield W-League the intention is to expand the number of teams and the length of the season when it is possible to do so in a sustainable way,” they told The Women’s Game.

Sustainability is vital.  One of the key lessons learned from the collapse of leagues overseas is going too hard too early can result in significant setbacks to the development of the game in a particular nation.  On the other hand, the old adage of “if you are standing still, you are moving backwards” comes to mind.

“FFA is working with the existing clubs on a new operating and ownership model for the Hyundai A-League/Westfield W-League and is planning for expansion as a part of this.”

Again in an ideal world additional clubs or additional rounds shouldn’t be an either/or proposition.  However, with the FFA footing the travel bills, tv production costs and providing a stipend to the clubs, the reality is the financial resources are finite.

When you consider that travel costs are approximately $60,000 per round the cost of including a 10th team would be go close to that cost of including an additional four rounds of competition.

“If it’s either/or you definitely have to go home and away,” said the W-League club administrator.  “You can’t bring in a 10th team and still have only 12 rounds.”

With whispers of the FFA potentially increasing their stipend to the clubs from $50,000 to $150,000, this adds to the either/or proposition.  Unless the federation goes all out and funds a 10th team and goes to a full home and away schedule of 18 games.  In this fantasy scenario, the cost would be around $1.5 million.

Interestingly that cost is similar amount that the PFA cited as required to take women’s football to the next stage of success.

“The other key area of focus for the Westfield W-League is an improvement of pay and conditions for players.  We will be making an announcement about this in the near future,” the FFA spokesperson concluded.

Melbourne City have proved a successful expansion team (Photo: Ann Odong)

 

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The arguments for and against expansion are numerous and compelling but whichever aisle you stand in, the position aspect is that these discussions are occurring.  That, rather than remaining stagnant, key stakeholders are deliberating a way forward for the women’s game.

“The continuing development of female football, at every level, is a high priority for FFA.” 

At a time when women’s football is facing stiff competition from other football codes, as well as a revitalised netball and cricket, serious debate on the direction of the W-League is required if the W-League is to be here for another decade and to serve another generation of players.

For now, we wait.


[1] Seattle Reign and Orlando Pride have the longest domestic travel in women’s football at 4123.8km or 2562.4km

About ANN ODONG

ANN ODONG
Ann is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TWG.