“A Shift in Sentiment”: The Legacy of the FIFA Women’s World Cup

An image showing the Matildas at the end of the 2023 FIFA women's world cup

The dream is over. Spain, deservedly, emerged as the champions of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The games are finished and the trophy has been lifted but, for Australia, this is not where this story ends. Indeed, it’s only the beginning.

The Women’s World Cup changed this nation in ways even its most ardent supporters and financial backers couldn’t have imagined. Across both co-hosting nations, 2.6 million tickets were sold to the games, far surpassing any previous tournament and smashing by half a million even the “stretch” targets set by FIFA.

“This tournament is one of the biggest tournaments, not only amongst women, but I think it’s one of the biggest tournaments in the world,” Football Australia’s Head of Marketing, Peter Filopoulpous, has said.

Not even the might of Nike and Adidas could keep up with the surge in demand for official fan merchandise. The sports fashion powerhouses hadn’t anticipated the fact that people would want to wear the kit of their favourite keepers, with fans outraged over the impossibility of buying a Mackenzie Arnold or Mary Earps jersey.

Wednesday’s heartbreaking semi-final against England was likely the most watched thing in Australian history, topping all previous records set since the current recording system was implemented. 11.15 million people tuned in on official channels, blowing the 2003 Rugy World Cup and Cathy Freeman’s 400m dash out of the water by a wide margin.

The official stats don’t include the hundreds of thousands of people packed into stadiums, pubs, bars, streets, car parks, and fan festivals around the country. The true numbers are likely to be far higher, cementing this World Cup as the most unifying moment in Australian history. With single-mindedness like this, there’s no telling what other wrongs we could right as a nation.


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There is a sneaking suspicion that part of the popularity of the Matildas is in Australia righting a wrong. The history of women’s football in this country is… not good. The Matildas have been put through every humiliation under the sun, culminating in posing nude for calendar shoots so that the country would even know who they were. In the chorus of elation ringing out across the nation after Sam Kerr slotted a world-class goal from outside the box, rocketing past two defenders and one of the game’s all-time goalkeepers, a vague tint of apology could be heard.

The Matildas have proven themselves as titans of a game that most Aussies know little about and turned this nation into one of football fanatics. While the heartbreak and hangovers subside, Australian eyes turn to the future of the sport and the legacy of the games.

Supporting the Next Generation

It’s not been lost on organisers that, with the faces of Australia now a scrappy gang of queer and proud girls from rural communities and mixed-race heritage, the country has monumental potential to capitalise on the popularity of the events.

Whether that capitalisation actually happens, though, is another question.

Prior to the kick-off of the tournament, Football Australia released a 76-page report on the legacy of the games and how the new-found celebrity of the Matildas can be used to boost the nation and its sporting prowess.

“An event without a legacy is just an event. We need to leverage the momentum to make the World Cup last beyond just a few weeks in 2023,” Sarah Walsh, FA’s Head of Women’s Football, has said.

The report covers boosting playing facilities, streamlining pathways into the national team, increasing media coverage and support at A-league games, and using the team in international outreach programmes and diplomacy.

Fundraising by FA has already secured $357 million from state, federal, and commercial partners for legacy projects across the country. On top of that, the Prime Minister announced an additional $200 million in funding would be invested into the Play Our Way programme which is aimed at increasing participation in women’s sports.

Whether that money will actually be delivered in the areas it’s needed most is however already being questioned, as most of it is not for football specifically.

In addition, the Queensland government announced that it would be spending its $2.63 million in funding for legacy programmes on upgrading stadiums, not all of which are used for football. There is nothing for lower-level competition funding while, at the same time, $33 million will be spent on rugby and AFLW stadiums and training programmes.

“The comparison to other sports isn’t really good enough,” said Kerr on the topic of funding, following the loss to England. “I can only speak for the Matildas. We need funding in our development. We need funding in our grassroots. We need funding. We need funding everywhere”.

Vice-Captain Steph Catley said it now no longer makes sense not to pour the kinds of money Australia does into other sports into football.

“When you look at football in general in Australia — football is very much not funded the way it should be,” she said. “There’s no argument now that people aren’t interested. People are interested. The numbers are there. Kids are playing. People want to be watching the sport”.

Part of the real test of the legacy of the games will be seen in the turnout at A-Leage and A-League Women’s games once the season gets underway in October. Due, in part, to a lack of domestic support, Cortney Vine is the only Matildas player who actually plays in Australia. The rest play for clubs overseas, mainly in Europe. If Australia wants to turn this around, it will have to invest heavily in the game and the supporters will have to turn out to the matches.

“People closer to the game than I are sort of worried about when the carnival moves over, the A-league, men’s and women’s, will go back to normal,” sports economist Tim Harcourt has said recently.

“We have our great players coming home for the big tournaments. But, at the end of the day, they’ll go where the money is. So they can’t kick him selves too hard if the A-league isn’t, tomorrow, like the World Cup. It’s not going to be”.

Early indicators suggest there will be a big surge in support and the ALW will be starting its season with a standalone round to separate it from the men’s. Early membership numbers and free-pass ticket claims are already at historical highs, months ahead of the season. The figures are however still in the low hundreds or thousands for ALW clubs — nothing like the millions seen during the World Cup.

“If we’re going to do it, it’s going to be right now,” Western United player and fringe Matilda Chloe Logarzo has said.

The Pay Problem

One of the most eye-watering statistics to come out of the World Cup is the fact that those who won it will be paid ten times less than those who won the Men’s World Cup.

Argentina, who took home the 2022 World Cup, raked in US$42 million for their win while Spain will be going home with a cheque of just US$4.2 million.

At the start of the tournament, the Matildas spoke out about pay disparity, lamenting the fact that FIFA only pays its female athletes one-quarter of what they pay the men. This is after the prize pool tripled from the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

“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,” Professional Footballers Australia co-chief executive Kate Gill said in July.

“They’ve got $4 billion in reserves, so they can afford to spend and equalize things now. So it’s a call to arms and also the players understanding that their power is in their collective and in their solidarity.”

With the Matildas drawing in more viewers than Australia has ever seen for a sporting match, old arguments about sponsorship, viewership, and talent ought to no longer apply. The fact that they are still present however reflects a broader issue with gender discrimination in the country — a much harder challenge to overcome than a well-honed England squad.

Deanne Stewart, CEO of Aware Super and Workplace Gender Equality Agency‘s Pay Equity Ambassador, told The Latch that, “Sport is very much a platform that showcases the unconscious bias our society still forms and carries — especially when it’s women who take front and centre”.

Aware Super‘s forthcoming Hold the Door report identifies the vast discrepancies in gender pay differences across Australia and areas in which these can be addressed. Stewart argues that what the Matildas and other female footballers experience in terms of pay discrepancies is just a microcosm of how society operates more broadly.

“The first thing we have to do is take advantage of key moments to have the serious conversations that we’re having right now,” Stewart said.

“There is much that we need to change as a society to address these systemic issues of stereotype and unconscious bias, starting in childhood. The performances of the Matildas have shown us that women’s sport has all the potential to be a huge commercial winner and so it’s vitally important that as a nation we take these opportunities to have the hard conversations about fairness in sport, and in all industries”.

An Economic Powerhouse

The primary financial support for professional athletes is their commercial deals. With the renewed attention on the Matildas brands are eyeing up female athletes like never before.

New data from brand tracking platform Tracksuit has found that 42% of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand that actively promotes and supports women’s sports over brands that do not. This is led by the younger generations, over 60% of whom say they prefer to buy from brands that back women’s sports.

“While many said there’s no money in women’s sport, this data proves the exact opposite,” Tracksuit’s Head of Marketing Mikayla Hopkins said in a press release.

“More businesses should be capitalising on the opportunity that comes with backing women’s sports.”

Speaking to The Latch, Hopkins has said she can feel a culture shift happening in the way brands engage with female athletes.

“It used to almost be a bit of a brave thing for a sponsor or a brand to support a women’s team, but now I almost feel like there’s been a shift in sentiment where it’s the expectation, and it should be the norm,” she said.

As for the future of the games, Hopkins assessed that brands would be missing a trick by not capitalising on sponsorship deals with local clubs, given the attention she expects they’ll be receiving over the next few years.

“I think we’ll start seeing that increase over the next few years. I think it’s a really exciting time for women’s sports in general.”

As if they needed any more convincing, Commonwealth Bank took what was considered a huge risk in 2016 to terminate its contract with the Australian men’s cricket team while keeping its support of the women’s team. In 2021, they picked up a four-year deal for Matildas’ sponsorship and, in return, have reaped undisclosed ‘huge dividends’.

At the other end of the life of a sports star is the retirement funnel. The Matildas have had to fight hard throughout their history for benefits and support that would have been given in other sectors. Many have struggled to redefine themselves post-game.

But with the international recognition that the girls now have, with monumental sway around the world, Harcourt believes new pathways have been opened for sponsorship deals and international diplomacy roles that would not only benefit retired players but the country too.

“We used to always worry about what people do after sport. Because they often, after they leave the stage and they’re over 30, they sink without a trace. It can be very hard on them. But here’s an avenue and here’s a global market and, if I was running Football  Australia, that’s where I’d be looking.”

A lot is currently on offer for the future of the game and the future of women’s football in Australia as the four-year cycle to the next World Cup clicks over. It’s down to the country that the women’s national team has given so much to not to leave any of that potential sitting on the table.

Related: Female Football Fans Say World Cup Alcohol Ban Has Reduced Misogyny

Related: From the Stands: The Beautiful Duality of Matildas’ Semi-Final Match

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