What the W-League can learn from FIFA's Women's Football Benchmarking Report

Last week, FIFA unveiled the findings of its first ever study into the current state of the women's club landscape.

The report, titled "Setting The Pace: FIFA Benchmarking Report," took a snapshot of the global game and teased out trends and themes that clubs, leagues, and federations can learn from as they move into the next decade.

"In line with FIFA's overall vision and dedicated strategy to develop women's football, which sets out the game plan for the future of the sport, it is vital that we maintain the momentum and boost the growth of women's football between every edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup," wrote Gianni Infantino in the report's foreword.

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"In this respect, national club competitions play a key role to sustain the development of the game. Leagues and clubs around the world are experiencing unprecedented interest -- with more fans, more players, more media and more broadcasters and sponsors looking to be part of the women's game.

"As this interest continues to increase exponentially, we need to develop an in-depth understanding of the elite women's football landscape, as well as identify any emerging challenges and opportunities facing clubs and leagues around the world."

The report focuses on 30 top-tier women's leagues and 282 clubs around the world, assessing them across six key areas: sporting, governance, finance, fan engagement, players, and COVID-19.

As the W-League enters its new, independent era, in what ways can Australia's Professional Leagues improve its top women's competition with respect to FIFA's report?

1. More games

At its core, women's football begins with the product on the pitch. If the product is not there, the rest of the ecosystem -- broadcasting, sponsorships, fans, players, governance -- cannot develop.

One of the first pages of FIFA's report shows the various lengths of each of the 30 leagues chosen for analysis. The W-League, with its 14-round season plus finals, has one of the shortest competition windows of any "top-tier" women's league in the world.

The only leagues that played fewer games than the W-League over the past year were New Zealand, which doesn't have a professional women's league, as well as Iceland and Colombia, whose seasons were cut short due to COVID-19. By contrast, leagues in Mexico (316) and Spain (240) play the highest number of matches, four to five times as many as Australia (57).

As Football Australia identified in their Performance Gap report, Australian players -- particularly youth internationals -- play some of the fewest match minutes compared with similar-aged players elsewhere.

The lack of game-time has knock-on effects across various areas of the women's football ecosystem. Not only does it mean players are not given opportunities to improve their own game -- and therefore improve the competitive standard of the product on the pitch -- but the small number of games also impacts the ability to attract and retain sponsors and raise the value of broadcast rights.

As FIFA's "Sporting" section says: "One of the key factors [in growing the game] is increasing the proportion of matches broadcast, which could increase the appeal (and hence broadcast rights fees) of women's football leagues to broadcasters. It may also have a positive knock-on effect on fan engagement as a higher number of matches broadcast enhances visibility, potentially increasing the exposure of the women's game to fans."

Increasing the length of the W-League season to a full home-and-away calendar has been a league priority for some time. However, making the league a full home-and-away season still only adds four extra rounds to the current 14 (excluding a two-week finals series), meaning a team will only be guaranteed 18 games a season -- still far fewer than comparative women's leagues elsewhere.

Extending the season even further to, for example, align with the A-League's 26 rounds + finals, in addition to adding new expansion clubs would help to both increase the number of games and grow the fanbase across untapped markets.

2. Increased investment

Adding more matches is not the only way FIFA suggests growing women's leagues across the world. Continuing to raise the competitiveness and overall playing quality of those leagues -- which, in turn, impacts the amount of revenue clubs and leagues can attract and therefore re-invest back into their women's teams -- is also a priority. The report suggests a number of ways to do this.

The first is to increase wages, allowing players to focus on football full-time without having to juggle other work. As FIFA notes, 73% of leagues had champions in the past five years that paid higher wages than other teams. Higher wages also attract better talent from overseas, raising the standard of football within the team and therefore across the league.

The W-League is on a positive trajectory in this respect, with the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement ensuring that player wages have continued to rise since its implementation in 2017. The minimum wage currently sits at $16,344.

Now, with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar broadcast deal with ViacomCBS and Channel 10 finalised, a new CBA can be negotiated and the amount of money available for player budgets can be distributed according to the FIFA report's findings.

Secondly, clubs can offer players access to more and better facilities, which the study shows has a significant effect on overall league performance. While the study found that majority of clubs studied had access to basic facilities such as a gym (80%) and a medical room (80%), only a minority of clubs had regular access to more elite facilities such as a player lounge (32%), indoor training facilities (37%), a swimming pool (21%) and a spa/recovery area (19%).

As FIFA notes, clubs that have access to the most facilities tend to outperform other clubs in their leagues, with half of teams that have access to the most facilities winning their league in the past five seasons compared with only 23% for all other teams.

In a W-League context, the most obvious example is the dominance of Melbourne City. Since their entry into the league in 2015, they have won 50% of the trophies on offer. They are also one of the only W-League teams to have their own bespoke training facility, as well as sharing wider club facilities with the men's team.

3. Improving structures and staff

FIFA's report found that clubs which reduce the number of "levels" between players and the CEO tend to both perform better and raise more revenue than clubs that have more levels between them.

Clubs can therefore create formal roles, such as a "Head of Women's Football," that streamlines access between the playing group and decision-makers to ensure that women players are being advocated for at the highest possible level.

The only W-League club to have such a role currently is Adelaide United, whose on-field performances improved markedly after it was implemented. Further, FIFA found that clubs which have both a dedicated women's football department and a written "Women's Football Strategy" lead to higher revenue, more facilities, higher match attendances, and are more likely to break even or generate profits than clubs that have neither of these things. While the APL has a league-wide written strategy, it is not known whether individual clubs have either a women's football department or written strategies.

Another way in which clubs can continue to grow the game is through the development of players, particularly through youth academies. FIFA's report found that clubs and leagues with girls' academies correlate with higher national team rankings: in leagues where 80% or more of clubs have an academy, the average national team ranking is 13, compared to a ranking of 28 for all other leagues.

While the report does not focus on national teams, there is a positive feedback loop that begins at the international level and benefits domestic leagues. Specifically, the higher a national team ranks and the better they perform in major competitions such as Olympic Games and World Cups, the more community and commercial attention tends to be paid to its players and the leagues where they play most of the time. Currently, only 22% of W-League clubs have a girls' academy, though that is expected to rise over the next few years.

FIFA also found that in 65% of leagues, teams with the highest-licensed coaches out-performed teams whose head coaches had a lower-tier license. Indeed, leagues that require head coaches to have at least an A-level license record "significantly higher" TV audiences per match (111,000) compared with leagues that have lower or no license requirements (22,000), which is a trend that also extends to average game attendances (1,300 vs. 1,000).

Further, clubs with a higher number of technical staff -- particularly those in specialist positions such as physiotherapist, nutritionist, and psychologist -- were also found to perform better. W-League clubs can therefore accelerate the development of coaches and other specialist technical staff to ensure players receive training and support from the highest possible qualified professionals.

4. Marketing, sponsorship, and fan engagement

Finally, FIFA's study found that clubs which negotiate sponsorship contracts exclusively for the women's team generate higher overall revenue and higher sponsorship revenue than clubs that did not. Despite this, 69% of sponsorship contracts within affiliated clubs are still linked to men's teams, suggesting there is further opportunity for revenue growth in negotiating bespoke sponsorship contracts for women's teams. Australia's professional clubs average just 36% of sponsorship contracts exclusively for their women's teams.

Further, in terms of broadcasting, FIFA's study found that leagues which negotiate broadcast rights exclusively for their women's competitions generate on average $700,000USD more revenue than leagues which bundle the rights together with their men's competition. While the Australian Professional Leagues' recent broadcast deal with ViacomCBS/10 is a bundled deal for the next five seasons, this data suggests there may be further revenue opportunities by negotiating broadcast rights separately in future.

Lastly, FIFA found that clubs which have a greater engagement with fans tend to generate more revenue than clubs that do not. This engagement extends to matchday experiences (including stadium use), the availability of season tickets vs. game-by-game tickets, broadcast accessibility, merchandising (clubs that offer women's-specific merchandise generate more sponsorship revenue), and social media use. Clubs with higher social media followings were found to generate more sponsorship revenue than clubs with smaller followings, and as football audiences trend towards younger age brackets, this suggests clubs should maximise their social media engagement for women's teams in order to attract more revenue.

FIFA's report offers one of the most comprehensive snapshots yet of the current state of women's club football. As this is the next frontier for the growth of the women's game, it is imperative that clubs and leagues around the world analyse the data and make strategic decisions along the themes and trends uncovered.

FIFA intends to conduct studies of this nature each year and with ever-increasing detail, making it easier for decision-makers to take the women's game to the next level. As the Australian professional game enters its own independent era, there are many lessons that clubs can take from the above findings and ensure that the W-League and the women's game more widely continues to flourish.