Seeking to capitalise on the "halo effect" of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, ESPN can reveal that Western United and Wellington Phoenix loom as favourites for inclusion in a potential 11-team W-League for the 2021-22 season.
Australian Professional Leagues (APL) managing director Danny Townsend confirmed during an exclusive interview with ESPN that the organisation had tapped expanding by "one or two" teams as the most sustainable option heading into next season, but he wouldn't divulge specifics.
Of the four A-League clubs without a W-League side, Macarthur FC chairman Gino Marra ruled his side out of next season when contacted by ESPN, while sources have said that Central Coast Mariners will not be pushing for immediate entry.
"[One or two team expansion is] what we're looking at at the moment, it's probably unrealistic to go beyond that in the first year," Townsend said in the exclusive interview.
"What we're looking at very closely at the moment is what we do with one or two teams into the coming season, and also what we do around the number of rounds they play.
"If you ask the players; the players [who] are in the league at the moment want to play more often, and when you ask the players [who] aren't in the league right now they want more clubs so they can play.
"We've made clear that investment in the W-League is important to the APL. I think we all recognise that getting to a home-and-away season is really important for women's football and the competition and expanding our clubs.
"Every CEOs' meeting starts with the CEOs of clubs that don't have a W-League team saying, 'What's expansion? When is it happening? How can we get a team there?'
"The key thing is timing and making sure that we can manage the financial requirements around growth, but equally manage the competition quality."
An APL spokesperson confirmed to ESPN later that the organisation remained committed to a full expansion of the W-League but there was significant work to do to get that strategy in motion and set a definitive process.
Beyond exploring more teams, the league's newly independent administration is engaged in talks with the players' union, Professional Footballers Australia, about a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for the coming A-League and W-League seasons.
ESPN understands, however, that a decision on expansion or season length for the W-League will not be required before a deal is brokered -- with allowances to be built into the agreement to ensure it is adaptable. It is hoped a new CBA will be agreed this week.
It is also understood that the W-League's salary cap will remain largely the same for 2021-22 as it was for the 2020-21 season.
Beyond the need to capitalise on momentum from the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, sources have told ESPN that extra impetus for Western United, the Phoenix, Macarthur and the Mariners to field women's teams is also being provided by the APL's new broadcast deal with Network 10 and Paramount+, which carries an expectation that all A-League sides will field a W-League equivalent.
Wellington's previous attempt to join the competition ahead of the 2020-21 campaign was foiled by Football Australia refusing to allow them to field New Zealanders as domestic players, as is the case in the A-League. But the feeling on both sides of the Tasman is that, with a home World Cup looming, any women's side launched by Phoenix will attract significant backing from the New Zealand Government -- an attractive proposition to the APL -- and that previous barriers can be overcome.
The Nix, though, won't be joined by either of the New South Wales sides without a W-League outfit.
"Macarthur is very keen to have a W-League side in the competition, we are working with the APL to make that happen," Macarthur FC chairman Gino Marra told ESPN.
"But we want to do it justice and we feel that perhaps it is premature for us to be looking at one for next season."
ESPN understands the Mariners also don't see 2021-22 as the right time to launch a sustainable W-League side, although the club remains determined to re-launch a W-League side and has taken significant steps to improve its facilities to become more female friendly.
Despite not possessing a W-League licence, the Mariners are one of the few A-League clubs to field a women's team in its local National Premier League competition; the Mariners are currently sixth in the New South Wales Women's NPL2 competition.
Macarthur's fellow expansion club Western United is significantly more bullish surrounding its admittance to the W-League.
The West Melbourne-based club secured an agreement with Victorian NPLW power Calder United in late 2020 to provide the foundation of a senior team and administration, as well as a pathway from junior teams to a W-League side.
Western United last September announced the construction of a training facility that could host its senior men's and women's sides, as well as potentially hosting W-League games thanks to its 5,000 seat main pitch; on Monday, it revealed its first women's development squad, and the club remains adamant that it is ready to enter the W-League in 2021-22.
"Having a women's team in the W-League is critical to Western United," club CEO Chris Pehlivanis told ESPN.
"We're preparing as if we are entering into the upcoming season.
"We've got support from all of our sponsors and all of the key stakeholders at our club. We're ready to go.
"We're jumping up and down. It's very important to us. Girls from the West are leaving the state to play elsewhere. It shouldn't be happening."