The Next Steps: Three options for the future of the W-League

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  • Samantha LewisAustralia Correspondent

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      Samantha Lewis is an Australian-writer based in Sydney. She specialises in the W-League and Matildas but has covered all levels of the game from the grassroots through to the Women’s World Cup.

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 1 assesses a potential partnership between the W-League and America’s NWSL.

The past six months have been among the most exciting for Australian women’s football despite the fact that COVID-19 has ground world sport to a halt. In March, the Matildas qualified for their second consecutive Olympic Games, while June saw Australia and New Zealand win the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

These significant international achievements have been mirrored by global shifts in the domestic women’s game, with more than a dozen top-level Australian players opting to pursue permanent opportunities overseas; England, Norway and France have been the most popular destinations, and it’s likely that more Australians will follow.

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While the exodus of Matildas to overseas clubs is creating anxiety within Australian football circles, this transitional moment provides an opportunity to better understand what the women’s game looks like — and to imagine what it could become.

Australian football has arrived at a fork in the road, a moment at which the game must decide how to respond to the wider forces affecting it, choose a path to follow, and solidify its new position in the emerging landscape.

The players’ union is among the key groups with a vested interest in the future of Australian women’s football. This week, the PFA will release a document titled “Professional Women’s Football: The Next Step” that outlines three different visions for the women’s game in Australia.

This document, seen exclusively by ESPN ahead of its public release, considers the various global factors affecting the Australian game, and offers three possible directions for women’s football to travel as it emerges from COVID-19.

Although the pandemic has forced many sporting bodies to reconsider their future plans, the PFA stands by the three roadmaps it has provided, and insists that decision-makers must come together to do what’s best for current and future Australian players.

Part 1: Partnership with the NWSL

The W-League has had an informal relationship with the United States’ women’s leagues — the WPS and the NWSL — for more than a decade. Since 2012, when the NWSL was founded, the relationship between Australia’s and America’s women’s leagues has strengthened; the number of American-born players who appeared in the W-League tripled in the space of four seasons, plateauing at an average of 24 since 2016-17.

Likewise, the number of Australian players who have appeared in the NWSL since 2012 has also increased over the years, with the 2019 season seeing an all-time high of 14 players taking part. Notably, every Australian who has appeared in the NWSL since its founding has a Matildas cap to her name, which suggests the W-League/NWSL partnership has played a role in producing world-class Australian players.

The informal, symbiotic relationship between the leagues has been made possible by their complementary season calendars. While the W-League traditionally runs from late October to early March, the NWSL usually takes place between April and September. As the PFA notes, this snug playing cycle means that “players can maximise their earning potential and commit to a year-long calendar of football,” ensuring they receive as many competitive minutes as possible while developing in increasingly professional environments alongside some of the world’s best players.

The rise of the Matildas internationally parallels the increasing number of Australians playing in the NWSL. Similarly, the growth of, and interest in, the W-League has gone hand-in-hand with the larger number of Americans who ply their trade Down Under in the NWSL offseason.

The PFA’s first option for the future of Australian women’s football is to formalise this relationship, and create a structure within which greater collaboration between W-League and NWSL clubs can occur. The snug season windows means league-hopping players often struggle to complete a full pre-season, but greater synergy between clubs and leagues may allow the sharing of medical information, training data, and other player-specific details so that breaks, loading, and season preparation are uniquely tailored to individual athletes.

Further, the PFA suggests that formalisation of the league ties could “strengthen the competition of both leagues, allow for the development and emergence of talent, maintain the integrity of both competitions while ensuring the health and wellbeing of the players, remunerate players to a level allowing them to be modern professional footballers, maximising the commercial value of both leagues, and amassing the good-will built by dedicated fans by giving them the opportunity to continue to support their teams and players on both continents.”

Formalising the relationship between the two leagues may address a number of issues that players face in the current ad-hoc arrangement, such as contracting. Last season, almost every NWSL-based player — including Matildas — participated in the W-League “on loan” from their parent club in the United States. This meant that NWSL clubs could recall players at any point and for any length of time, particularly at the request of U.S. Soccer, with whom the NWSL has deep player and logistical ties. The W-League therefore remains vulnerable to decisions about which they have no control and no recourse to address within the current informal set-up.

However, there are also challenges posed by formalising this relationship, too. Since January, the number of Australians contracted to NWSL clubs has dropped from 14 to just one as more Aussies are attracted to the year-round playing seasons and full-time professional set-ups offered in Europe, as revealed in the PFA’s recent 2019-20 W-League player survey.

With several Matildas having cited the already-gruelling back-to-back seasons as part of the reason for their European moves, the player welfare aspect of formalising the relationship between the leagues remains questionable.

In addition, global pandemic aside, the complementary playing calendars that players have exploited in the past may soon become logistically unmanageable. Just last month, the NWSL announced it would expand the league to include two new clubs: Racing Louisville FC, and Angel City based in Los Angeles. As the league expands, a longer season window will be required to account for extra games, meaning the calendar within which the W-League can operate becomes smaller.

These are concerns also noted by the PFA: “[The NWSL’s] capacity to shape-shift combined with an aggressive expansion strategy will see the competition have broader and deeper impacts on our own calendar. The implication of this is two-fold: firstly, Australia’s best players will have to decide which league they play in and, secondly, it severs the opportunity for NWSL players to participate in the W-League.”

Despite these challenges, though, the PFA believes that formalisation of ties with the NWSL offers one of the best propositions for the W-League and Australian women’s football.

“Ultimately, the W-League is best served through a formalised agreement with the NWSL,” the PFA says.

“The focus should be on preserving the status of both competitions, ensuring it can offer an attractive 12-month proposition to exceptional women footballers, provide valuable economies of scale and enable our leagues to take on the best clubs in Europe.”

Part 2 of this series, published tomorrow, will look at the PFA’s second proposal: The W-League becoming a standalone women’s league that is competitive globally.

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