The Matildas are having a moment right now. Tony Gustavsson's team have reached a level of affection and awareness that few could have predicted and even fewer would have expected. The question is: Who else gets to piggyback on the national team's success and grab a moment of their own in the coming months and years? Can Australia's premier local competition, the A-League Women, seize its chance?
Whoever does seize this opportunity will be building off special foundations. After three years of anticipation, Gustavsson's side secured a best-ever fourth-placed finish at the Women's World Cup: Sam Kerr's blast against England, Mackenzie Arnold's brick wall, Cortnee Vine's penalty downing France, Steph Catley's hometown sealer dispatching Canada, and Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord's sublime connection against the Danes -- all moments that etched themselves in Australian folklore.
A community previously disengaged with football suddenly couldn't get enough. Stadiums were filled and social media exploded with excitement and a bevy of famous types with a hitherto unknown but apparently deep-rooted appreciation of the game. Millions not fortunate enough to have tickets gathered in hives of support as long-standing ratings records previously thought untouchable, tumbled. For one remarkable month, the earth's axis bent towards Australia. To the Matildas.
But now it's over and here comes the future: The task of securing legacy and winning the peace.
Ask yourself, was this World Cup a triumph of football, women's football, women's sport, or Australian sport? It depends on who you ask, really. And plenty are sharing their interpretation to anyone who will listen.
Ostensibly, the A-League Women should have a head start. Every single one of the Matildas who captured the public's imagination have played in the league, while the next generation of that beloved brand are plying their trades in it now. It's full of great stories, fun experiences, and community feel. The body that runs the A-League Women, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), have distributed more free passes for under-16s for the coming campaign than all of last season. And it is football; people fell in love with a football team this past month, that should mean something.
The scale of this opportunity is immense.
The APL knows they don't need to convert everyone to see a sizable boost. The Matildas sold out every stadium they played in last month, while the A-League Women averaged crowds of 1,260 in 2022-23. Last season's A-League Men decider drew roughly 3.8% the size of the average 7.13m television audience of the Matildas' semifinal against England. Just a small percentage of people sticking around could make a big difference.
"I think it's a huge opportunity for us to build on the momentum," APL chief executive Danny Townsend told ESPN.
"You've got to be realistic ... not every person that was engaged over the last month is immediately going to suddenly pick up on women's football as their passion.
"It's a target of ours to convert as many as we can."
The fixtures released last week seem a decent start. It accounts for several longstanding complaints, especially by shifting games from the stifling heat of 3 p.m. kick-offs in the summer. It features 12 teams playing a full home-and-away season (Australia's only women's footballing code to do so). It will pause for international breaks to get a top-up of Kerr-, Foord-, and Fowler- hype. There are marquee fixtures at major stadiums, which the league says is amongst the best ways to enrapture new fans. Thought had been put in.
Yet for all the optimism, bitterly won experience shows that Australian football does not do have history in converting its rare moments in the sun toward sustained success. Few need reminding of what befell the momentum from the men's World Cup nine months ago.
Sophie Lawson reacts to Australia's 2-0 defeat to Sweden in the third-place playoff game at the Women's World Cup.
The A-League Women carries 15 years of history but, according to Townsend, consistently loses money for its clubs. And though the "Dub" is beloved by its fans, they rage at what they see as substandard treatment and respect for the competition by its administrators -- Townsend's APL and Football Australia before them. Last week, Matildas legend Elise Kellond-Knight told AAP that the league needed to move toward a "world-class product" if it wanted to retain its World Cup momentum.
"If we don't go all the way and we give them a product that was like last season, where games are out far away in rural areas, in poor stadiums, poor pitches, the TV viewing, using minimal cameras where it's close viewing, and it's not conducive to the user -- people don't want that product," she said. "They want a world-class product."
When read Kellond-Knight's comments, Townsend was sanguine.
"Everything KK said there is about money," he said. "Fundamentally, you could do all those things when you have the money to do them.
"There was a lot of money made in last month by someone. It wasn't us; it wasn't the domestic competition. It wasn't the players.
"So how does that euphoria and that commercial engine that we've just seen drive through the centre of our country, how do we convert some of that into the economy that will be here when it's gone?
"You've got to build towards the product that you want to be and you need to do that sustainably.
"Unless you've got support -- we've obviously been on record questioning the level of commitment from other stakeholders in the game around the domestic game here."
Money. It's what makes the world go around. It's what Australian football never seems to have quite enough of -- especially the sort lavished out by Australian state and federal governments -- but what it desperately needs.
While the A-Leagues will benefit from upgrades made to a small handful training venues and stadiums (so will the NRL), it has been sidelined from the recent World Cup's bounty. Much to Townsend's chagrin, there was no A-League Women's investment in the $200 million package for women's sport revealed by a federal government also keen to carve off a slice of the Matildas hype mid-World Cup.
Nonetheless, Townsend is maintaining a $12.2m ask to government to help fund an investment in the A-League Women's broadcast, expansion, community outreach programs, tentpole fixtures and the bringing of marquee Matildas back to the league. Per the APL boss, a basic A-League Women broadcast costs $18k, with a full production coming in at $80k. This total would be matched by club owners and, Townsend says, put the league on a path to sustainability it has mapped-out.
If others are going to bathe in the halo effect that comes with the Matildas' performances, he argues, they too should play a role in ensuring the vine from which they are plucked doesn't wither.
"We play a role in the development pathway of that product that the government's invested heavily in at the elite level by hosting this World Cup," he said. "So if we're not investing in the development pathway for women's football then the Matildas won't be competitive, and that will have a knock-on effect on participation and the ability to host major events.
"When you fund the development of every one of those Matildas that graced the field last month, and you receive zero compensation for that, or even recognition for that, it's pretty difficult to tolerate."
Of course, the APL is a for-profit, private organisation. It's a collective body of clubs given the keys to Australian football's professional tier after a bitter governance battle in which they vociferously argued they possessed the knowledge and nous to unlock its latent potential. Melbourne City, who is represented on the APL board, is part of the City Football Group -- the Abu Dhabi-backed group amongst the wealthiest in the world. Miami-based private equity firm 777 Partners has a pathway to own Melbourne Victory. Indonesian conglomerate the Bakrie Group owns Brisbane Roar. Resources, it has been pointed out, should hardly be scarce for the league's owners.
"I don't think we're asking for [handouts]," Townsend responded. "What we're asking for is the development of Australian women's elite football. And that's not the responsibility of [City Football Group] or 777 Partners or any one individual, for that matter. I think it's the responsibility of all stakeholders.
"We can keep delivering what we're delivering. It's just not going to change. If you want to move the needle from A to B, then it's going to take a collaborative effort.
"We didn't we didn't take a responsibility to do it alone. We never did. We shouldn't do. We don't own the game. We have an opportunity to contribute in a certain compartment of the pyramid that we take very seriously and we will continue to do that.
"But you can't do it alone if you want to if you want to improve and do things better, you need other people to get in behind, other stakeholders to get behind the sport.
"You've got to bridge yourselves to sustainability. And the reality is, it's unsustainable under its current structure. Now, how do you do that? You don't just keep pouring money into something with no end game.
"We believe that women's sport will be commercial at some point. We're just not there yet. So if we can do the things that we want to do over the next couple of years, we see a pathway to it being a genuinely sustainable competition."