W-League 'chalk and cheese' com­pared to 11 years ago

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Ella Reilly

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

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