W-League 'chalk and cheese' compared to 11 years ago
Servet Uzunlar has seen the W-League come a long way in its 11 years. Comparing the status of the W-League’s inaugural season, which coincided with her own breakthrough season with the Matildas, and its current incarnation, the Western Sydney Wanderers captain describes its as “chalk and cheese”.
As sports law expert Braham Dabscheck notes in a paper on the evolution of women’s wages in Australia professional sports teams, one W-League club paid its players in that first season “to mainly cover travelling and accommodation expenses for overseas players and out of pocket and miscellaneous expenses for local players”.
Fast forward several years and investment in the W-League, especially in recent times, has accelerated. Professional Footballers Australia notes the 2016-17 season was the first in which W-League clubs “were required to spend their entire $50,000 FFA grant on player payments”. In the years since, that base player payment requirement increased to $180,000 in 2017-18, and is $221,166 for 2018-19. This translates into a minimum salary of $12,287 for the current W-League season.
It’s unsurprising, then, that standards between the W-League’s inaugural season, which Uzunlar characterises as mainly functioning as a “platform” for Australia’s top young talent to be seen, contrasts so strongly to now. As Uzunlar says, the league “being 11 years old is one factor – you learn and grow every year. And there’s obviously more money being invested and that raises the standards and also is able to cater for international players, which also lifts the standards.”
That the W-League is a league of choice for so many international players – overseas players made up nearly a fifth of last season’s league, often coming straight from the NWSL in order to make up a full calendar of football – is testament to its growth and increasingly competitive standards. Perth Glory’s signing of Sam Kerr as the league’s first marquee player reinforces the point. The Ballon d’Ornominated player represents the pinnacle of global talent, and is also a domestic player whose early devel-
opment was facilitated by the W-League.
At the same time, these advances in the league do not mean all players are able to be full-time professional athletes. Around half juggle work and football – like 29-year-old Uzunlar, who works full-time on top of her W-League commitments.
“For me, that’s all I’ve known – it’s just part of what it is for my generation,” she says. “There was a period where I played in the W-League then had a contract overseas, so was going from league to league and also playing in the national team. So there was a time where all those wages were keeping me afloat; there was a period where I was just doing football.”
Perhaps this situation will be less prevalent for the next generation of W-League footballers. Young players make up a considerable proportion of W-League talent; in the 2017-18 season, for instance, 95 of the 172 players who made an appearance that season were aged 24 or under.
“Hopefully as the years roll in, there will be more players coming through that are able to devote 100% of their time to their craft and to their job, which is playing football,” Uzunlar adds.
As Uzunlar notes, players “tend to peak quite young” (around 24 years of age). For these players, beginning their careers in a league where these minimum standards are the norm and improved upon, and bring with them increased opportunities to play, it seems more likely they will be able to extend their careers.
“If players can find a W-League contract, and potentially be in the Young Matildas or Matildas, or head overseas and if that caters to full-time wages and if they’re able to be a full-time footballer then absolutely that will help with their longevity within the game.”
Increased investment in the W-League and women’s football more broadly sits in the wider context of women’s sport being recognised and players being better remunerated, especially in Australia. While it took the W-League a decade to implement a minimum salary, this came in around the same time as other sports initiated elite women’s competitions. For comparison: the AFLW’s 2018 minimum salary was $10,500 (the competition began in 2017). In cricket, the WBBL’s 2017-18 minimum salary was $10,287 (the competition’s inaugural season was 2015-16).
If one sport improves the lot of its female athletes, Uzunlar notes, then the impetus falls on the others to follow suit. Rather than being a competition between codes, it can also be seen as encouragement – or leaving other codes with little excuse not to properly invest in their female athletes.
“It’s setting the standard for women in sport. If one code does it then another one follows – it makes them go ‘oh, we need to do better’.”
Servet Uzunlar, in her 11th W-League season, still holds down a full-time job which she juggles with football. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/AAP