The Wellington Phoenix women’s team will make history next Friday when they run out against the Western Sydney Wanderers in their first-ever A-League Women’s game.
- Wellington Phoenix head coach Gemma Lewis says it’s “disappointing” New Zealand’s first professional women’s team is yet to find have a major sponsor
- Phoenix were given the green light to join Australia’s top women’s football league earlier this year
- The A-League Women’s competition has expanded to 10 teams for the upcoming season
At this stage, though, they won’t have a major sponsor on the front of their jerseys.
Despite being a passionate sporting country, it has taken until 2021 for New Zealand to form its first professional women’s football team — outside the national team, the Football Ferns.
New Zealand currently has no professional football clubs — for men or women — and the domestic National League only includes amateur women’s teams.
The addition of the Wellington Phoenix to the A-League Women’s competition is seen as a huge milestone for women’s football in New Zealand and comes in the wake of FIFA granting them co-hosting rights for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
This, coupled with the meteoric growth of women’s football around the world, suggests that investing in New Zealand’s first women’s team would be a no-brainer.
However, it has been a different story on the ground.
“It has been disappointing [not signing a sponsor],” said Phoenix Women’s inaugural head coach, Gemma Lewis.
“Being the first that’s ever happened, building this brand, achieving something we’ve waited so long for, I did think there was going to be a lot of people stepping up and wanting to be a part of it.”
Wellington’s female team were given the green light to join Australia’s top women’s football league earlier this year, expanding the competition to ten teams.
The club’s sponsorship woes have not been through a lack of trying on their end. Phoenix administrators have approached banks and major corporations in the country, but none have put pen to paper.
Border restrictions means the team must also play out most of their first season in Australia, away from potential home fans and sponsors.
“I think people have struggled a bit with the first New Zealand team playing in Australia [and] not being in New Zealand,” Lewis said.
“Also the criteria of only having so many New Zealand players in this team [due to Football Australia’s visa requirements].
“That affects the sponsorship opportunities. So there’s a few things that have made it slightly more complicated to get the backing behind [the team].”
Phoenix General Manager David Dome has also expressed his disappointment, having worked for the past few years to get the team up and running.
“The Phoenix have shown their investment in the female game and female pathways; not just in the game, but in administration and [at] all levels,” he said.
“The game needs to be appreciated as something different that you don’t have in the men’s. It should be appreciated in its own right: how the football is played and the talent of these players.”
Warm welcome from Wollongong
The women’s team will be based out of Wollongong on the New South Wales south coast. Lewis says the team has been welcomed with open arms.
“We’ve had great support from the Wollongong community: training at the Wollongong Wolves [NPL] ground, access to a high-performance gym. They’ve really gotten behind us, we feel quite at home, embraced, and looked-after.”
This has been particularly helpful for the players themselves, many of whom are young and have relocated from New Zealand to participate in the four-month-long competition.
They will be staying in accommodation at the University of Wollongong, which also provides facilities such as gyms and training fields.
“Being away from home, what’s normal to you — your family, your friends, your routine — these are young girls, so for that to be turned upside-down has taken some adjustment,” Lewis said.
“But they’re very happy and we are lucky they are so passionate about football. They’ve thrown themselves into it.”
Questions remain over the border situation with New Zealand, but the Phoenix are hoping both their men’s and women’s teams will have an opportunity to play games in front of home fans towards the back-end of their respective seasons.
A catalyst for growth
Last week, it was confirmed that Sky wpuld retain the rights as the main broadcaster of the A-Leagues. The deal includes a free-to-air component that will expose New Zealand fans to selected games from the women’s competition, including their opening match against the Wanderers.
In addition to the Leagues’ new broadcast partnership with Channel 10 and Paramount+ in Australia, it’s hoped this extra visibility will boost interest and investment in women’s football across New Zealand.
“It’s been something that’s been missing for so long,” Lewis said.
“The younger players really struggle to see the visibility of a career pathway in football. Because a lot of our Football Ferns play overseas, they don’t have the visibility of those leagues.
“Having this [team] and the competition being broadcast, now there’s a tangible pathway that’s been missed out on before. It’s huge for the players and the next generation having role-models closer to home that they can aspire to, [and] will really help to drive the game in New Zealand.”
The first season for any new club is challenging, but Lewis is confident that they’re not just making up the numbers.
“We definitely want to make some noise,” she said.
“We want to surprise some teams and be a team that attracts players in New Zealand and fans to want to be part of the Phoenix.
“We want to shake the tree a bit; disrupt and cause some problems.”