It's a new day in the A-League Women. And it's a good one.
On Wednesday, league administrators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) revealed a host of significant and long-overdue reforms for the competition, taking effect from the 2022-23 campaign, which is pencilled in to commence on Nov. 18 this year.
Cutting through to the substance, Western United's admittance to the competition in 2022-23 will coincide with the league expanding from 14 to 20 rounds, increasing the number of regular-season games played from 70 to 99. The 2023-24 season, staged in the aftermath of a Women's World Cup on home soil, will see the Central Coast Mariners, pending Football Australia's approval, become the 12th team in the competition and a full home-and-away format of 132 matches achieved.
When the reforms are fully realised, the 1980 minutes on offer to players throughout the regular season will bring the league in line with its American, English, and French counterparts and, with the ALW's minimum hourly wage already codified as being the same as the A-League Men, will lead to the minimum salary in the competition increasing by more than 50% over the next two years.
"We did a huge amount of work trying to find the right balance to get more playing opportunities for young aspiring Australian female footballers but probably just as important, if not more important, more minutes and more matches," APL CEO Danny Townsend told journalists.
"So we've found a good balance there. It's something that we've been thinking through, being able to do it and announce it now with the Women's World Cup right around the corner.
"The time is now for women's football and we want to get out ahead of that."
The APL hasn't gotten everything right since they took over the running of the leagues from Football Australia, that's something they acknowledge themselves, and there will inevitably be complaints in the years ahead. And while it's not fair to tar an APL that has only been in charge of the league for 18 months with the brush as opposed to a Football Australia that ran it for 13 years, there's a certain air of "it's about time" feelings to the news.
But Wednesday's announcement, quite simply, needs to be seen as the absolute win it is. A feather in the cap of the league's operators. Even if it's not the end of the road, as Melbourne Victory director of football John Didulica told ESPN the goal must be for ALW to become a viable, 12-month profession for players as is the case for the ALM.
And its a necessary step at that, from multiple angles. Women and girl's sport looms as the biggest battlefield for sporting codes seeking participants, eyeballs, and dollars in the years ahead, and both the AFL and NRL are also seeking to rapidly grow their women's competitions. The ALW needed to act so that it wasn't left behind. And while these other codes will likely move to counter Wednesday's announcement in the future, this can only be a good thing for women's sport: a rising tide lifts all boats.
"If you were a young athlete at the moment looking at what things will be like in five to ten years ... this is not just one move we're making, this will be a continued commitment to growing the game at a professional level," said Townsend.
"Being able to make advancements in the elite game here in parallel with some of those global events that will be on our doorsteps is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take advantage of."
"The players have been involved right from the start," Professional Footballers Australia co-chief executive Kate Gill added to ESPN.
"When we sat down with them and talked with them about organising them to be able to build their solidarity to then go in and collectively bargain and negotiate their employment framework they told us there were three priorities.
"A minimum wage, a visible and viable competition, and a balanced competition. So, looking at those three metrics now, they've been achieved. And that's built off the player's vision and their belief in the competition."
Undoubtedly, the biggest development in a footballing sense is that the designated breeding ground for future generations of Matildas will now swell the number of minutes available to its players by almost 50% and, just as importantly, increase the amount of time they spend training and working in elite environments.
"What it means is that players, staff and club have time to implement something that's of high value," Perth Glory coach Alex Epakis told ESPN.
"Purely because you've got more time on the field, you've got more competitive match minutes. You've got an opportunity to grow a competition to be competitive.
"Each club will have its players benefit from this because they're having more time in a professional environment where there's day-to-day contact, training, and medical support.
"Only just recently I was saying to someone that I've transitioned from NPLW to ALW and I was coaching more in the NPLW than I was in the ALW.
"It's like playing: you want to be out there on the field, you want to compete as a coach, you want to improve your players and staff."
A sheer lack of football and the time spent inside professional setups has been one of the major bugbears of both academic and anecdotal analysis of ALW since its inception as the W-League in 2008 and was reiterated as an issue by Matildas' coach Tony Gustavsson in the wake of his side's 7-0 defeat to Spain this week. This, in turn, has led to an increasing tide of Australian players, seeing it as their only way into the national team and not dissuaded of that notion by national staff, heading overseas in the hope of opportunities.
"Looking at it, the biggest issue we've had with the league, and it's no secret, is the availability of match minutes," said Gill, herself a former Matilda.
"I think what we'll see [as a result of the reforms] is that progression of players staying within the ALW structure instead of choosing to go and find game time elsewhere and looking to the likes of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland for those options. Which you'd probably say are second-tier women's competitions."
"This [reform] commitment should pay back over many, many years for our national teams," added Townsend.
"It's our number one priority: to develop talent that can represent our country on the world stage and put us on the map as a sporting nation."
According to Didulica, this ability to retain talent, as well as the potential to begin to attract international players intrigued by the increase in professionalism back to ALW, speaks to one of the other major potential benefits of the changes: closing what he sees as a perception gap between the quality and professionalism offered by ALW clubs compared to their European equivalents.
"Women's football, for me, is non-linear compared with the men's game," he explained to ESPN.
"For the most part, there are clubs that do things incredibly well but there are also clubs that might be within that same league that are pathetic. So this notion of having to go to Europe or to the NWSL to advance your career is a total misnomer and it's based on the sensibilities of men's football.
"Because I've got no doubt that some of the programs that ALW clubs can offer would be far superior to clubs that might even be in the French or Spanish first divisions. Just because Lyon or Barcelona are at a certain level, it doesn't mean that the bottom clubs in those leagues are [at that level].
"That's what we forget. That's what sometimes we've been told in blanket terms: that players have got to get over to Europe. Why? What if they're going to a club that doesn't care about or doesn't value women's football?
"That's the misconception that we can have around women's football and as a consequence, we devalue what we can offer in Australia. Continuing this ongoing investment in the ALW will put us ahead of many of the programs here in Europe."
Ultimately, Townsend is of the belief that the ALW was already the premier women's league in Australia. But with a home World Cup looming and these reforms now in place, he believes that a standard has now been set.
"We've now managed to do the work," said the executive. "The strategy behind this is extensive and the way in which we're going to roll this out is going to set a benchmark for women's sport in this country.
"And football should be the benchmark for women's sports. We are a sport that is genuinely gender-agnostic. We have a huge wealth of young females playing the game at the grassroots and we want to give them the right pathway and opportunity to play at the highest level in this country.
"I think this is doing that."