The only way, hopefully, is up: A-League Women’s season kicks off new era for women’s football

It’s almost half-time in Adelaide United’s round-six match against Melbourne Victory in the 2020/21 W-League season.

The score is 0-0. The first 38 minutes have been a tight, tense contest between two sides brimming with emerging local talent.

The game pauses as Victory midfielder MelindaJ Barbieri sits in the grass, clasping at her ankles. The commentator, realising he has some time to fill, begins a thought about a particular combination of Adelaide players he’s enjoyed watching so far.

Adelaide United striker Fiona Worts (centre).
A game between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory was interrupted by a mysterious man in one of several broadcast bungles during the 2020/21 W-League season.(Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

But before he’s able to finish his sentence, his audio drops out. The video freezes too. A deep, long sigh spills out of living rooms across the country.

These broadcast bungles were the norm last season. Stuttering streams, disappearing graphics, out-of-sync audio, sometimes dead silence.

Any game that wasn’t played at a major stadium with the accompanying higher-quality broadcast infrastructure brought with it a kind of resigned expectation that fans might not end up watching the entire game.

A few weeks prior, it was a giant hexagon graphic that floated for several minutes in the middle of the screen during a game between Canberra and Melbourne City.

The week after that, it was a complete blackout of audio, video, and graphics as Victory played Brisbane before the panicked broadcaster, Fox Sports, threw to a clumsy, male-dominated ad.

But this week, well, this was “Tuba Guy” week.

Instead of a simple frozen screen, what audiences around the world saw of Australia’s top women’s competition was the interior of a mysterious man’s bedroom.

The presence of a large tuba on a shelf in the background led to an explosion of memes and nicknames on social media.

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Tuba Guy was in our lives for almost 30 seconds, clicking away at his computer before the screen cut to black.

This was the moment, more than any other, that encapsulated how far the W-League had fallen on the priority list of its main broadcast partner.

Outraged statements from several major stakeholders, including the league itself, followed. It was also, as it turned out, the death rattle of Fox Sports’ relationship with Australian professional football.

A lot has happened since then, during the world’s longest off-season. Most of it stems from the “unbundling” of the leagues from Football Australia late last year.

In the intervening months since that fateful final campaign, the newly formed governing body, Australian Professional Leagues (APL), which is now owned and operated by the clubs themselves, has embarked on a rapid, holistic rejuvenation of the professional game.

It began, thankfully, with the securing of a new broadcast partner: Channel 10 and Paramount+.

Fans have already witnessed the impact in the early rounds of the A-League Men’s season, as well as Matildas and Socceroos games, which have been delivered with the kind of glittering, tuba-free professional production standards now expected of top-flight sports competitions.

In addition, the marketing heft of Channel 10 has seen unprecedented exposure of the leagues and its players through cross-network promotional spots such as The Project and Celebrity MasterChef, slick and engaging television advertisements aimed at younger markets and simulcast across social media platforms, and the promise of more football in free-to-air prime-time slots than ever before.

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The new broadcast partner has been accompanied by a leagues-wide rebrand, removing the separate “A-League” and “W-League” competition names and incorporating them under one umbrella: the A-Leagues.

This shift in the game’s vocabulary was presented by the APL as a symbolic gesture of equality, presenting the two competitions as two parts of the same whole. “It’s not men’s football, it’s not women’s football, it’s just football,” goes their guiding motto.

However, the real-world application of these competition names, which currently stand as “Isuzu UTE A-League” and “A-League Women’s” across most of their platforms, remains awkward and confusing, particularly for new or casual fans tuning in for the first time.

Beneath the surface, though, serious work has been done to improve the competitions themselves.

A new five-year collective bargaining agreement between the leagues and the player’s union (PFA) has been reached that ensures equal access to facilities, travel arrangements, accommodation, medical resources, and club staff for both senior competitions.

It also incrementally increases the individual wages for players, as well as increasing the minimum spend clubs must make on their women’s teams.

More subtly, too, the A-League Women’s competition seems to have settled with its new identity in the wider women’s club landscape.

As Europe and the United States continue to lead the way, the A-League Women’s has recognised its role as a springboard for emerging players to enter the next stage in their careers.

It no longer laments the loss of big-name players like Sam Kerr or Ellie Carpenter, but rather uses them as examples of what Australia’s top women’s league is, now, all about.

Finally, the last major change ahead of the 2021/22 season is the long-awaited introduction of a 10th team, Wellington Phoenix — the first new team in the women’s competition since Melbourne City six seasons ago.

With the co-hosted 2023 Women’s World Cup edging ever closer to Australian and New Zealand shores, allowing the Kiwis their first professional women’s football team seemed, in many ways, a no-brainer.

Football Fern Annalie Longo poses with Wellington Phoenix scarf.
Football Fern veteran Annalie Longo hopes Wellington Phoenix finds the support they deserve from a proud sponsor.(Getty: Hagen Hopkins)

According to the APL, the introduction of Wellington will usher in a swathe of new women’s teams over the next few years, with Central Coast Mariners and Western United next in line, ultimately leading to an extended home-and-away season as well as new parallel competitions such as a women’s FFA Cup.

And so, as the men’s competition navigates yet another “new dawn” after several stumbling starts, the women’s competition, you feel, can only improve after where it was stuck barely a year ago.

As more resources are poured into the women’s game, accompanied by greater publicity and a promising content-creation wing in the APL’s own KeepUp platform, there is a growing feeling of optimism that this league — one of the longest-running in Australian women’s sport — will finally reach the heights its true believers always believed it could, that it will have trumpets, not tubas, heralding a brand new era for the sport.

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