The Matildas have inspired record registrations for women in football, but where will clubs put them?

The Matildas have inspired record registrations for women in football, but where will clubs put them?
  • PublishedApril 4, 2024

With the 2024 winter football season kicking off this weekend, clubs across Australia have experienced a record influx of registrations in the afterglow of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

By the end of March, Football NSW alone had over 25,000 more player registrations than the same time last year, with a significant chunk of that being women and girls inspired by the Matildas.

In fact, registrations of women and girls across the state have increased 18 per cent per from last season, with the biggest boost coming in the junior girls age bracket (23 per cent), followed by senior women (15 per cent) and youth girls (9 per cent).

In total, women and girls now make up just over a quarter (26 per cent) of all NSW football participants spread across over 580 community clubs, with eight associations already surpassing last year’s player registration records, with more associations very close behind.

A group of women in yellow soccer shirts celebrate wildly.
The Matildas inspired record numbers of women and girls to sign up for their local clubs this year.(AAP Image: Darren England)

This unprecedented number of sign-ups for the winter season comes off the back of a boost to small-sided summer football registrations, too, which grew 34 per cent on last year’s numbers thanks to being the only competitions available in the months immediately following the World Cup.

Increasing the participation of women and girls in football was a major pillar of Football Australia’s “Legacy 23” program, in addition to ticking several boxes in the federal and state governments’ respective sporting participation plans.

However, now that the winter season is underway, clubs and competitions are having to reckon with a long-standing issue for Australian football: not having enough fields for everybody to train and play on.

Paul Avery is the President of the Balmain and District Football Club, one of the biggest community football clubs in the country with over 3,000 registered players from under-5s all the way to over-50s age brackets.

Avery says the club has experienced “an overwhelming influx” of women and girls joining the club, starting with their holiday camps and clinics — which they ran for the first time ever in anticipation of the World Cup bump — with so many extra players signing up for the winter season that they had to add nine more teams.

A team of soccer players wearing orange and black uniforms stand in a circle as a man in a yellow vest talks
Balmain and District Football Club has added over 100 extra women and girls to their teams in the wake of the Women’s World Cup.(Supplied: Balmain and District Football Club)

“We’ve seen big growth in the juniors and younger age groups: the under-6s and 7s, and the under-9s have had really big growth,” Avery told ABC Sport.

“These are the young girls who are so enthusiastic and supportive of the Matildas who are now going: ‘I want to be a Matilda, I want to play, I want to be part of that.'”

However, space in Sydney’s Inner West, where the club is based, was already at a premium before this wave of new registrations, with Balmain having to play their “home” games out of seven different grounds scattered across surrounding suburbs.

According to the Inner West Council, there are 36 natural turf sports fields located across 26 different locations in the local government area. Three of those are all-weather synthetic pitches, while two of them — Leichhardt Oval and Henson Park — are used for elite sports events.

Avery says his club’s long-standing problem of finding fields has gotten even worse with the wave of new registrations this season.

“It’s an enormous issue for us; it’s the single greatest factor affecting our capacity to actually provide space for girls and women,” he said.

“We are turning players away across many different age groups because we just can’t accommodate them, we can’t add even one more extra team.

“You need space for teams to train and to play. This is an issue we’ve faced as a club for a decade, and unfortunately it’s just not getting any better because there’s no extra fields… there just hasn’t been enough fields being built in the past few years.

“Girls and women want to play football. They’re choosing that sport. But there’s just nowhere for them to play.”

According to Football NSW, there are currently 1,649 full-sized fields used by 232,400 registered players for training and playing purposes across the state.

As such, many of the available fields must be shared by multiple clubs and teams (sometimes other sports and competitions), accelerating the wear-and-tear of surfaces and making the time slots available for training and games even slimmer.

Players from the Kahibah Football Club Girls Under 13s team training.
Australian clubs have experienced a record number of women and girls registering, but many are struggling to find space to put them.(ABC News: Anthony Scully)

“One of the things we struggle with the most is Sunday fields,” Avery said.

“We share all our fields with other codes, and there’s a lot of legacy and history in our area with sports who may have been here for a century or more, but they just don’t have those participation numbers.

“What we find is that on Sundays, which is when women and girls play within our association, it’s really, really hard to get space for games on those days. So a lot of our teams have to play away from home, as far away as Roselands or Belmore.

“That’s a real frustration: not having those local fields for local players.”

So what is the process of actually getting new football fields built? Where does it start, who is responsible for its various parts, how is it funded, and how long does it take?

And, perhaps most pressing of all, will enough extra fields be built in time so that this wave of new, enthusiastic players don’t drift away from the sport before they’re given the space to play it?

“There’s a number of factors that go into getting new fields built,” Football NSW CEO John Tsatsimas told ABC Sport.

A man in a suit with a beard stands on a soccer pitch and smiles into the camera.
Football NSW CEO John Tsatsimas says the game has been struggling for space for years.(ABC News: Jessica Rendall.)

“If you’re talking about new sites, there’s challenges in terms of not just the availability but also accommodating the reinvigoration of current sites, matters of funding, and whatnot.

“There is a lack of facilities, and what with the property prices in Sydney for accommodation and residential, let alone having to have sporting facilities, it’s a real challenge.

“We’ve lobbied extensively to make sure that local councils are cognisant of the needs of their constituents, and we work closely with [our] associations in lobbying in terms of making applications for funding, we advise in terms of what grant funding opportunities are available, which come and go in terms of what rates are available government by government, area by area.

“So there’s a lot of factors that go into it, but we’ve got a NSW Strategic Plan and pillar that is supporting community football, and we need to keep doing that and evolving with the needs of the constituency.

“But it’s not an easy task. There’s a lot of people that go towards trying to organise appropriate funding and facilitating appropriate amenities, drainage, lighting, and surfaces for the people who are playing.”

From the perspective of the Inner West Council, one of the most densely-populated areas in NSW, they are a small cog in a larger machine that involves the various levels of community, government, and sport having to pull in the same direction over a long period of time.

The local council’s role in this bigger process includes identifying potential new open space areas, assessing the community need for a new sporting ground, engage the local community on their potential support or opposition, and assess the different housing, environmental, and other impacts of providing such a facility, in addition to how to fund and maintain it all.

On top of all of that, there is, as always, politics involved.

“There’s always a capacity in terms of infrastructure, whether it’s hospitals, schools… and how big a part you play in that conversation depends on where you are with a respective politician, a local government area, and the opportunities that are available to them,” Tsatsimas said.

“You’re competing with a number of other sports in that area to actually open those doors and have those conversations, as well. So they need to be seen to be fair to everyone, but obviously with the numbers that we have [in football], there’s a strong position or argument for us to say, ‘we need to be consistently at the forefront of everyone’s mind.’

“You can’t just turn up on their door and say ‘we need money,’ because we have 31 associations in the Sydney metropolitan area, and everyone needs something. So the government is going to say, ‘well, 31 associations, what are your priorities?’ But our priorities are everyone.

“There is never enough for anything in terms for women and girls. The exponential growth is something that was always going to come. This is how we’ve evolved as a sport and society.

“You need space, you need more appropriate coaches, you need more appropriate medical guarantees in terms of sports science specific to female participants. All of those things, we need to provide more in every category.”

In other words, football, like housing, is experiencing a crisis of supply.

Associations located within and immediately surrounding major population centres are often the most affected, with available green space caught in a tug-of-war between sport, business, housing, transport, and other public infrastructure.

And even when space is secured for sport, football is just one piece of the bigger allocation puzzle, with multiple other codes such as rugby, cricket, Aussie Rules, and field hockey often grappling for the same patch.

While every sporting ground is different, it can take anywhere from five to 15 years to build a new sporting facility from scratch. This schedule means that upgrading existing facilities takes priority, but even then there can be delays, such as at the new Rozelle Parklands which was found to have asbestos soon after opening earlier this year.

Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne, who has been advocating for the construction of more all-weather, multi-purpose sporting fields in the area over the last decade due to the lack of available space, says the drawn-out process could have a significant effect on the participation of women and girls in football for years to come.

“This has been a long-standing problem that’s come to a head due to this huge influx of women and girls into local sport,” Byrne told ABC Sport.

“That’s a great thing because, historically, men and boys’ sport has taken up such a huge proportion of the ground space, and we don’t have new playing fields come online very often.

“There was a real public health and social benefit of the World Cup last year: this exponential growth in women’s sport, not just women’s football. That’s been turbocharged; we want that to continue. But that is dependent on us either making better use of the spaces we’ve got, or building more fields.

“There’s a real danger that the Matildas effect will be blunted, and we’ll see an increasing number of women and girls being turned away from participating in sport. We can’t let that happen.

“We need a whole mix of measures to both increase the number of fields available and increase the utilisation of existing fields. And we can’t delay decisions on that any longer because the consequence will be that women and girls turn away from organised sport.”

Byrne’s government has also been trying to secure funding to upgrade the historic Leichhardt Oval, which they want to turn into a women’s sporting hub for the local area.

However, despite one-quarter of the 120 sporting events hosted there over the past year being women’s sport, the council are still awaiting funding to make the facility women-friendly.

Are suburban rugby league grounds dead?

“It’s exactly the sort of second-tier facility that you’d think, if you were committed to expanding participation in women’s sport, you would invest in, but we can’t get a single dollar out of the NSW Government,” Byrne said.

“Whereas Penrith Stadium, which hosts only 11 games of men’s rugby league a year… they’re getting $309 million for an upgrade that they don’t really need. We can’t even get female-friendly change-rooms at Leichhardt Oval.

“This A-League Women season, we’ve had professional footballers have to go outside into tents that we set up outside the ground to get changed because there’s only two change-rooms in the oval, which are pretty old as it is. So that’s very frustrating.

“You’ve got a council saying, ‘we want this to be a hub for women’s sport; that’s our highest priority, that’s what we think the future of the ground is,’ yet we can’t get our fair share of funding to make the facilities safe and decent.

“We need to keep pressure on state and federal governments to actually deliver the investment that was talked about last year so that this opportunity to equalise participation in sport – and football in particular – isn’t lost.”

Girls run across a cricket pitch
With space at a premium, football must often share its fields with many other sports.(Supplied: Jasmine Sharma)

Avery agrees, saying the lack of football fields in NSW comes down to local, state, and federal governments being proactive, instead of reactive, to the needs of the community, and for those in power to put their money where their mouths are.

“Having women and girls being enthusiastic and wanting to play sport is driving politicians to actually consider infrastructure for the first time, but they have to do more,” Avery said.

“Putting a Matildas scarf on during the Women’s World Cup is not enough to support women’s football. You actually have to include it in everything you do.

“That means allocating money, allocating space, allocating facilities, allocating infrastructure. You have to do more than just wave a scarf around: you have to get out there and do it.

“We are the photo opportunity that they want, but not the project they want to fund.”

A spokesperson from the NSW Office of Sport said that the state government has committed over $594 million in grants since 2021 aimed at helping various sports upgrade or build new facilities and infrastructure, particularly for multi-purpose grounds.

Last year, ahead of the Women’s World Cup, the NSW Government committed $10 million to the NSW Football Legacy Program, of which $5.8 million has been specifically allocated to football clubs for the same purpose.

After the Matildas’ inspirational run through the tournament, the state government then announced an additional $30 million program titled “Level The Playing Field” to upgrade sporting facilities and deliver fit-for-purpose amenities such as change-rooms for women and girls as well as improved lighting and access to create safer and more inclusive environments.

four soccer players sit on the sidelines
With new football facilities taking years to build, will the game lose all these new players before it’s too late?(Supplied: Jodie McCumstie)

On top of this, late last year the federal government, inspired by the World Cup, unveiled a $200 million “Play Our Way” grant program to help upgrade various sporting facilities across the country. But how much of that overall pool of money will be funnelled to football is, so far, unclear.

“Football has an incredible story to tell,” Avery said.

“We all need to be talking more about the numbers, more about participation levels, more about who the players actually are at community grassroots level, because I think that’s a very compelling story, but we don’t talk about it enough.

“We have to keep pushing at it. All of our members have to get involved, too. In every club, there’s a small group who work really hard and are active in trying to get more grounds and facilities, but we need more of the football community to get involved and say, ‘yes, I will write to a politician’ or ‘yes, I will go to a meeting’ to help clubs get the outcomes that everybody wants.

“We are a large club, we have a lot of members, and the girls and women has been that area of growth that has been most heartening to see. But we must support it otherwise it will slowly die out, because there just won’t be the space there.

“And that’s just not fair. So we have to look after our girls and women.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *