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A-League Women: End of regular season perspective and future of the league

Equalizer Soccer recently talked to Emilia Skopal of the APL, which operates the A-League Men’s and Women’s League, in order to understand the future plans for the league, particularly after the Women’s World Cup concludes this summer.

The 2022-23 A-League Women regular season has ended in Australia with three of the four 2021-22 playoff teams repeating — Sydney FC, Melbourne City and two-time reigning champions Melbourne Victory — while surprise expansion side Western United of suburban Melbourne replaced Adelaide United, who struggled with goalscoring this season and never made a consistent playoff run.

This season was significant as the regular season was extended by four matches to 18, from 14 games in 2021-22. We will review this season more after the playoffs conclude in a few weeks, but now we look ahead to plans that the league is developing to drive future growth for the women’s game in the region.

The A-League has expanded each of the past two seasons; adding New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix for the 2021-22 season and Western United of Melbourne in 2022-23. The league has another franchise joining for 2023-24 as the Central Coast Mariners in Gosford, New South Wales will take the league to 12 teams. The Mariners were one of the original eight sides in the then W-League’s first two seasons in the 2008-09 and 2009 seasons, with former U.S. national team goalkeeper Jill Loyden and defender Kendall Fletcher (ex-University of North Carolina, WPS and National Women’s Soccer League — primarily with the Seattle Reign — who was capped once by the U.S. women’s national team) playing with the original Central Coast franchise. With 12 teams, the league will expand to 22 regular season games in 2023-24—with a full home and away schedule for each team — an increase of four games from 2022-23, after a regular season of 14 games in 2021-22, 12 for the nine previous seasons and an unbalanced 10 game slate per team for the first four seasons of the league.

Canberra United has been an independent women’s side since 2008-09 but the A-League is adding a men’s expansion franchise to the capital city for 2024-25, for 13 top-tier men’s franchises. At that point, the only team that will not have a men’s-women’s pairing will be Macarthur Bulls of suburban Sydney, who entered the A-League league in 2020-21. Macarthur was originally coached by 2019 Women’s World Cup Finals Matilda head coach Ante Milicic, who despite initial success at Macarthur, including an Australia Cup win last season, left the club to move to Croatia for family reasons.

Auckland, New Zealand is favored to take both leagues to 14 teams (assuming Macarthur joins the A-League Women at some point). Auckland is the largest metropolitan area in the two nations without an A-League club, with the potential to create a nice intra-country rivalry with the Wellington Phoenix. Auckland interestingly had an A-League franchise back in 2005-06 and 2006-07 (the New Zealand Knights), but poor gates led the league to transfer the franchise rights to owners in Wellington.

Sources in New Zealand have said that a men’s side would likely start first in order to provide a larger fan base, before adding a A-League Women’s side, as was done quite successfully with Wellington, which drew an opening game crowd on Nov. 20, of 5,213, an A-League Women record for a stand-alone game, to see a 4-1 loss to Melbourne City. In their expansion season of 2021-22, because of COVID-19, the Phoenix was forced to base their operations out of Wollongong in New South Wales.

Next season will also see an important change in the number of playoff sides, as the league expands the post-season to six teams; it has always involved four teams in its 15 seasons to date. The manager, Emilia Skopal, said the format for the expanded playoffs, though not finalized yet.

“Should see teams that finish first and second get a free pass for the first round of the finals, with the third-place side facing the sixth-place team and four versus five in knockout games,” Skopal said to The Equalizer. “The winners would then play the top two teams in a two-leg home and away format, with the winners playing a one match Grand Final.”

One of the A-League Women’s goals is to extend the length of the season, with 2023-24 possibly starting in October and running to the end of April or even May. Under that scenario, clubs would begin pre-season training in September 2023. A longer-term goal is to have the men’s and women’s leagues run concurrently.

There is currently an effort underway to launch a second division professional men’s league in Australia. There are bids from 32 state league franchises, including successful sides such as: Canberra Croatia, APIA Leichardt and Sydney Olympic in New South Wales, Gold Coast United (a previous incarnation of which played in the A-League from 2009-12) and Adelaide City. The second division will be run by Football Australia (FA) and will eventually pare the bidders to 10-16 teams in order to target a March-September season in 2024. Whether or not the league will be staged on a national basis, as the A-Leagues are, or in a regional or conference set-up, will be determined in the future, in part by the composition of the final teams selected.

When asked if a second professional division is being planned for the women, Skopal said that the league average is still young.

“For the A-League Women, it is still quite a young average age — women in their 20’s [and as always, a number of teenagers played prominent roles in 2022-23 as in seasons past] — and there is not necessarily the scope and the talent pool to stretch to a second division for the women just yet; maybe 5 years, 10 years down the track,” she explained.

The next phase for the women will be the FA introducing a women’s version of the Australian Cup, which will start to bring in matches between the state league teams and potentially A-League teams for a national cup competition.

“That would run preseason for us,” Skopal said. “We still have player crossover from state-based leagues into the A-League [Women] but that is looking more likely for pre-2024/25 season for the Cup competition to commence.”

Expanding the Australian game

Another effort to expand games for teams, although likely for only the previous year’s champions and perhaps the second-place team, is the Asian Football Confederation [AFC] Champions League for Women. Three editions on a pilot basis have been held with Melbourne Victory finishing fourth in 2019, as Nippon TV Beleza of Japan won the title, with representatives of South Korea and China also participating. Amman FC of Jordan won against league champions from India, Iran and Uzbekistan in 2021 in a West Asia Pilot tournament. In 2022, College of Asian Scholars of Thailand won a three team East region tournament while host side Sogdiana Jizzakh of Uzbekistan won what ended up being a two-team contest against Bam Khatoon of Iran, after India’s Football Federation was banned by FIFA for a short time while Jordan’s Orthodox FC withdrew. A planned game late last year between the two regional winners was cancelled.

Another important long-term goal for A-League Women is to have players move to 12-month, fully professional contracts, which could reduce the gap in the calendar with the NPL leagues at the state level, who typically run from 6-8 months, currently. The increased salary costs to clubs could be offset to some extent by a regular funding source for transfers abroad, as the global transfer market rapidly expands for women’s soccer. Particularly for players under 19 years old, the state leagues have been their primarily development path, even for A-League Women starters, with a number of players active in both leagues every season. Australia’s U-20 Women’s Asian Cup Qualifiers roster in Kyrgyzstan last month had 19 of their 23 players with A-League Women clubs this season including Melbourne City’s Daniela Galic, Melbourne Victory defender Jessika Nash, Sydney FC midfielder Shay Hollman and Canberra United keeper Chloe Lincoln. Many also play in the offseason in the state leagues. The Australians won both of their preliminary group matches against Guam (13-0) and the hosts (7-0), while Iraq withdrew before the tournament.

The full national team is going to Europe to play England and Scotland this month and five of the 24-player squad currently play in the A-League Women: Holly McNamara (20) of Melbourne City, Sydney FC’s Cortnee Vine (24), Western Sydney Wanderers captain Clare Hunt (24), Brisbane Roar forward Larissa Crummer (27) and Sydney FC goalkeeper Jada Whyman (23), while Racing Louisville’s Alex Chidiac (24) played most of the season with Melbourne Victory before returning for the NWSL preseason.

Vine recently told the A-League’s website that the A-League Women has been crucial in her attempt to make the Australian World Cup side this summer — she scored a world class goal in her country’s 3-2 win over Spain in a February friendly tournament — and has stayed home despite interest abroad.

“I’m only in the Matildas because of the A-League… I am definitely someone that needs to be around my support network,” Vine said. “Each individual has their own thing they want to do with their career, and at the moment, I’m stoked that I’m here and get to do it here.”

Australia and the post-Women’s World Cup crowd

Meanwhile, Skopal said the federation must leverage this summer’s Women’s World Cup to expand interest and support in the A-League Women.

“Post Women’s World Cup, we are expecting a big uplift in participation for the grass roots level,” she explained. “So, our plans are, ‘How do we capitalize to get them to follow A-League Women?’ So, we want to have our fixtures ready to go as they [the WSL] did with the EUOS in England to tell people, ‘You can still see these players on a weekly basis.’”

She cited the WSL capitalizing on England’s 2022 Women’s UEFA EURO win last summer with large early season crowds for league games and Manchester City more than doubling their women season ticket holders the very next day after the Final win over Germany.

Melbourne Victory head coach Jeff Hopkins earlier this season told Equalizer Soccer, “Where we need to work is building the crowds with people who want to come to watch the pro football game [for women]. It would be great to start to build on the 1,500-2,000 people who come to the games now… We don’t want them to turn up once or twice and we get back to where we were [before the 2023 Women’s World Cup]. Clubs and coaches and players have a big role to play in that, to play a fast, attacking brand of football like what they will see in the World Cup. If we can do that, then we can start to grow the crowds who come to the game and make the game a little more financially viable for the players and the club.”

The A-League Women averaged 1,240 fans this season, the fifth highest total in league history, with 2,139 in 2017-18 still the record. Wellington’s first season with home games was a huge boost as they averaged 2,419 fans across nine games, with five being doubleheaders with the men’s team.

Emilia Skopal also represented the A-League Women at the first World League Forum held last year in England in conjunction with the Women’s EURO Final. She said that there were about a dozen representatives from global women’s leagues, including the NWSL, Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil, Japan’s WE League, England’s AXA Women’s Soccer League, and the national leagues of Sweden, Germany, Norway, Spain and France.

The participants discussed commercial, broadcast and youth development ideas, and the challenges of women’s leagues in their operation.

“Australia is unique as we have AFLW [Australian Football League Women—Aussie Rules], NRLW [Rugby Football League Women] and Rugby Union Women [to compete with], whereas in other countries, women’s football leagues are battling against men’s teams for fans, sponsorships and media attention,” Skopal said. “Many of the other leagues are run by the national Football Association whereas the A-League Women is independent [as of January 2021], though we work closely with the FA (Football Australia) …. The long-term benefit [of the Conference] is that we have connections and can continue the dialogue and will only strengthen the voice of women’s leagues.”

The remarkable changes that the A-League Women have implemented in the past few years, along with future plans to capitalize on the focus of the country on women’s football with the Women’s World Cup in the region, shows that the A-League Women — so often viewed as a minor league and a brief end of European and North American season training league — is becoming a major force among women’s leagues around the world and is poised to become a full-time destination for top-class internationals in the years to come.

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