How the Matildas have changed women’s sport in Australia forever

The beloved Aussie women's football team has changed the game.

Australia’s cheers as Sam Kerr equalised the semi final match against England may have turned to sobs as the Lionesses scored twice more, securing their place in the grand final of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. But while ending the tournament in fourth place isn’t the outcome the country was hoping for, the ‘Matilda effect’ has triggered a seismic change in how women’s sport is perceived in this country.

From government funding to goosebump-inducing moments of inspired girls in Matildas jerseys, the impact has been unprecedented – if long overdue.

Team members, including senior players like Sam Kerr and Mackenzie Arnold, have publicly stated that one of their main goals was to inspire young girls to embrace sport – and it’s safe to say, mission accomplished.

But beyond inspiring a generation of young women and uniting a nation in a way few have been able to, this world cup campaign has led to some real, tangible changes.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 16: Australia players huddle after the team's 1-3 defeat following the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Semi Final match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on August 16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images )

Women’s sport is starting to get more funding

Following the incredible efforts of the Matildas, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party have commited to investing $200million into women’s sport.

The program, dubbed Play Our Way, is one of the country’s biggest comprehensive investments in women’s sport. The funds will be put towards improving sporting facilities and equipment for women and girls, as well as working to ensure women’s sporting events are increasingly accessible to watch.

“The Matildas have given us a moment of national inspiration, this is about seizing that opportunity for the next generation, investing in community sporting facilities for women and girls around Australia,” Albanese said.

“Sport is a great unifier and a great teacher – it brings communities together, it teaches us about teamwork and resilience and the joy of shared success. 

“We want women and girls everywhere in Australia to have the facilities and the support to choose a sport they love.”

According to a government media release, the program “will promote equal access, build more suitable facilities, and support grassroots initiatives to get women and girls to engage, stay, and participate in sport throughout their lives.”

While the funding will be put behind all sports, it is anticipated that football (soccer) will need significant resourcing in the wake of the Women’s World Cup.

Significantly, an expert panel of women “with a lived experience navigating community sport through to professional sport” will help design the program. The panel includes former soccer player Tal Karp, basketball player Lauren Jackson, paralympic wheelchair racer Madison De Rozario, and former netball player Liz Ellis.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 19: FIFA Chief Women's Football Officer Sarai Bareman delivers keynote speech - Positive Impact of the FIFA Women's World Cup during the FIFA Women's Football Convention at the International Convention Centre, Darling Harbour on August 19, 2023 in Sydney / Gadigal, Australia. (Photo by Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
FIFA’s first Chief Women’s Football Officer, Sarai Bareman

More women are being included in sporting decisions

Currently, women are under-represented across all levels of sporting, including coaching and executive positions.

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, “women make up less than 20 per cent of CEOs across national sporting organisations funded by Sport Australia, and 17 per cent of national sporting organisations do not have any women on their board.”

With the establishment of the expert panel for the Play Our Way program, women with lived experiences and knowledge of the industry will have an active voice in the future of women’s sport.

This decision comes after the government announced a $10.3million investment to “promote and create leadership and long term senior career pathways for women and girls in sport.” The money will be put towards a Women Coaches program, and a Community Sport Leaders program.

We have already witnessed the power of women being allowed ‘in the locker room’, so to speak. When appointed to the reform committee for the Oceania Football Confederation, FIFA’s inaugural Chief Women’s Football officer Sarai Bareman advocated for women’s involvement in governance, and more resourcing for women’s sport.

“It was not something that anyone could ignore, irrespective of their gender,” she told GQ Australia. “You know, it was very, very clear even in that room itself that there needed to be more women involved.”

As a result of the reform, FIFA’s council now has a formal entrenchment of gender quotas, and a new women’s football division. 

crowd at matilda's game.

Women’s sport will be more accessible to watch

As part of the Play Our Way program, the government will release a paper outlining options to reform anti-siphoning laws. These stop pay television broadcasters from buying rights to certain sporting and cultural events so they can be televised free for the general public.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup broke broadcast records in Australia. The Matildas’ quarter final against France was the most viewed event since Cathy Freeman’s gold-winning Olympic race in 2000. An incredible 4.17million people tuned in to watch the ‘Tillies’ – that’s more than the AFL Grand Final and NRL’s State of Origin.

Crowds gathered in Federation Square in Melbourne, Festival Plaza in Adelaide, Sydney Olympic Park, Optus Stadium in Perth, and more. On an Emirates flight, almost every screen was tuned into the quarter final, with passengers roaring when Cortnee Vine scored her history-making penalty.

Numbers near-tripled for the semi-final, with 11.5million viewers watching Australia face off against England.

It’s a stark contrast from the crowd in 2014 when the the Tillies played two games against Brazil. The first match saw only 2583 fans in the stands of the Queensland Sports and Athletics Centre. Tickets couldn’t be given away. For the second match, Football Federation Australia shut the doors to the stadium as opening the venue would have been too costly.

The Matildas have created a previously unseen demand for women’s sport. 

young girl playing football.

Young girls are more inspired than ever to get into sport

Since Matilda-mania swept the nation, grassroot sports clubs have already seen a “mind-boggling increase” in female participation, according to The Guardian.

Meanwhile, SmoothFm reports that up to 150,000 more girls and women are expected to take up football.

“Being able to see role models who are women in professional sport is such a powerful thing,” Olympic gold medallist Chloe Dalton told Pedestrian.

The Matildas have inspired young girls to get involved by being a perfect example of “be what you can see.”

Up until now, it has been reported that nearly 50 per cent of Australian teenage girls quit sport by the age of 17, as per Suncorp.

Melbourne University sport also found that only a third of Australian women and girls aged 15 and over take part in a sport-related activity at least once a week.

One of the reasons girls drop out of sport is due to lack of accessibility. Now that the government is investing into grassroots sports for women, young girls will have more opportunities to get involved outside of junior associations.

As women’s sport is more accessible, it will become more represented, and inspiration will only grow for budding young athletes.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 12: Sam Kerr of Australia celebrates her team's victory through the penalty shoot out during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Quarter Final match between Australia and France at Brisbane Stadium on August 12, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Women are (slightly) closer to getting pay parity in sports

So low is the income of most top-performing female athletes that they have to subsidise their sporting career with other jobs. According to Professional Footballers Australia, 60 per cent of female A-League athletes work outside their football commitments, compared to 15 per cent of the male A-League athletes.

In 2018, Sam Kerr was one of the many players who called for equal pay for female football players.

“It’s a subject that we’re never going to get away from,” she told The Women’s Game. “Some women are still earning below the minimum wage and anyone with a brain knows that’s not right for the amount they give up to play football.

“People think we give up a couple of hours a week to play on the weekend, which is all they see on TV, but there’s so much more hard work that goes into it on a daily basis. We’re not asking to be paid millions and millions of dollars like men, we just want to be paid fairly and correctly for the amount of work we put in.”

In 2019, pay parity was established between the Matildas and Socceroos when the male players agreed to a pay cut for the salaries to be equalised.

“To actually hear that first-hand account of the sacrifices that the women have made, and the competing demands that they have placed upon them just to be able to piece together a living, [that] was quite confronting for our male players,” co-chief-executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Kate Gill told GQ.

It’s a brilliant step in the right direction, at least for football. However, there are still discrepancies.

For the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the prize money was $US110million; this is compared to $US440million for the Men’s World Cup cup held in Qatar. Both the Tillies and the PFA called out the gap at the start of the tournament.

“While prize money has advanced, it’s still only 25% of what the men get, and FIFA are championing that that’s equality and there’s still no assurance that there will be equality,” Gill told Australian Associated Press.

FIFA claims they are making efforts to equalise the men’s and women’s World Cup prize money by 2027 – which is just one cycle away. When pressed on the issue, FIFA President Gianni Infantio criticised broadcasters for not doing enough to support the Women’s World Cup.

“FIFA is receiving between 10 and 100 times inferior offers for the Women’s World Cup than for the Men’s World Cup,” he told FIFA congress in March 2023. “The news I have for those broadcasters or sponsors who don’t want to offer similar amounts than for the Men’s World Cup is simply that we’re not going to sell women’s football and a Women’s World Cup at these prices.”

Gill, however, doesn’t adhere to the argument that broadcasting rights and sponsorship income contribute to the uneven prize money.

“They’ve got $4 billion in reserves, so they can afford to spend and equalise things now.”

Liz Watson of Australia with Dame Liz Nicholl and The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa during the Netball World Cup Medal Presentation at Cape Town International Convention Centre, Court 1 on August 06, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Netball World Cup 2023 via Getty Images)
Liz Watson during the Netball World Cup Medal Presentation at Cape Town International Convention Centre.

The ‘Matildas effect’ is having a knock-on effect on other sports

A lot has been said about what the Matildas have done for women’s football – but what about other sports?

At the beginning of August 2023, Australia’s national netball team, the Diamonds, won the Netball World Cup for a 12th consecutive year. Yet, their achievements have not been nearly as publicised as the Matildas.

During a tournament press conference, World Netball president Liz Nicholl admitted she wished that FIFA had considered how both events could have worked in conjunction to maximise publicity for both parties. With the new Play Our Way panel, there will hopefully be more opportunities to discuss how these events can work together so all women’s sports can have a place in the zeitgeist.

Nicholl, however, assured reporters she didn’t see FIFA as a “threat” as she aims to “encourage the netball community to celebrate the growth of women’s sport as a whole.” Indeed, as women in the sporting industry are all fighting similar battles, the success of the Tillies has done more good than harm by encouraging the country to take an interest in women’s sports more generally.

Cricket Australia has already recorded a significant growth in female participation, with women sign-ups having increased by 26 per cent for the 2022-23 season, as per the official CA census. CA’s general manager of community cricket, James Allsopp, told the AAP that representation of professional female athletes, no matter the sport, is beneficial at all levels.

“For young girls to see that in multiple sports, there’s a genuine opportunity to make your career through sport; whether it’s through administration, coaching, officiating, but most importantly playing, so absolutely we’re seeing that flow through to the grassroots of the game.

“It’s just amazing what’s happened at the elite end and how it’s just having that flow-on effect to inspiring the next generation of girls coming through our grassroots program.”  

What’s more, on 21 August 2023, the AFL announced it will award, somewhat, equal prize money for the men’s and women’s competitions for the first time ever. The total pool will be $1.1million and it will be split among the top four teams in the AFL and, albeit, among the top eight teams in the AFLW.

The announcement comes after the relaunch of the McClelland Trophy to include AFLW. The McClelland Trophy is an annual award for the Australian rules football Champion Club.

“We have two of the best sporting competitions in the country, on the eve of the 2023 NAB AFLW Season, I am pleased to be able to announce equal players’ prize money for both our elite AFL and AFLW competitions,” said soon-to-be AFL CEO Andrew Dillon.

“A great announcement coupled with the McClelland Trophy and $1million in prize money to be shared across the champion club’s AFL and AFLW players that was introduced this year.”

While we mourn a sad loss for the Tillies, let’s look at the big picture – this is a win for women’s sport in Australia.

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