The Matildas and Socceroos are soaring, while participation is growing – but the A-League is missing its moment to shine

This should be a golden age for Australian soccer. After all, the big picture is good: the Matildas are waltzing, the Socceroos are well supported and Australia was just awarded hosting rights to the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.

Australia is still buzzing from the success of the amazing FIFA Women’s World Cup last year in Australia and New Zealand. In a phenomenon I dubbed “Matildanomics”, the huge crowds of 80,000 and more for the Matildas in the largest stadiums in the land contrasted with the 15,000 they achieved in a friendly against Brazil in Penrith just seven years ago.

Football Australia was excited about the economic impact even before the World Cup kick-off. They anticipated at least A$400 million in total benefits, including 3,000 full-time jobs and 60,000 visitors to the country.

Beyond tourism and broadcast rights, they were expecting a legacy of long-term economic and social impact.

In the men’s game, the Socceroos also performed admirably at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It was an incredible sight to see masses of fans at Sydney’s Darling Harbour and Melbourne’s Federation Square watching the national team play.

Soccer is no doubt in great shape at the elite level in Australia. Things are also purring at grassroots levels.

What about soccer participation?

Soccer has long been one of Australia’s dominant codes in terms of participation.

This is particularly so at junior levels, although it drops off as kids enter their teens.

At the moment, at junior levels, participation levels for girls should receive a boost with 407,000 new participants expected by 2027. This is mainly thanks to “the Matildas effect” and Football Australia’s “Legacy23” strategy, which seeks to boost community infrastructure (such as soccer pitches, training facilities and change rooms) to meet surging demand.

With Australia’s national teams performing well, strong participation at the grassroots levels and individual athletes (such as Sam Kerr) and Spurs manager (Ange Postecoglou) having made a name on the world stage, it should be a sparkling era for soccer in this country.

However, these achievements mask some problems for the game at home.

Record women’s crowds but the A-League is still struggling

A-League Women (ALW) attendances are still hardly Matildas-sized, averaging a touch more than 2,200 a match this season. But the 2024 campaign attracted 300,000 fans, which the APL says was the most attended season of any women’s sport in Australian history.

This compares favourably to last year’s Super Netball competition (266,000 fans) and the latest AFL Women’s season (284,000).

But the bigger picture is that the A-League is in financial turmoil. Some of its clubs are in trouble too.

The league’s governing body, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), is trying to plug a $100 million funding hole and is planning to cut its funding to A-League clubs by 80%.

Then there is the perrenial discusion as to why A-League attendances are falling, on average, since the league’s early days but they are still reasonable by world standards.

Then there are issues with the A-League’s recent broadcast deal with Network 10 and Paramount, with production company Global Advance recently placed into voluntary administration.

Many fans were also outraged by the A-League’s decision to “sell” the grand final to Sydney, with backlash forcing the league to abandon the deal with the NSW government.

What to do at the national competition level below the A-League is also causing issues. Football Australia says a national second division competition for men’s clubs is going ahead, but there is a scramble for clubs that want to be included.

To top it all off, three male players have recently been charged in connection with alleged betting corruption. There has also been recent violence involving fans, players and even referees.

Three athletes from A-League team Macarthur FC were arrested and charged with corruption offences.

These are headlines the domestic game definitely doesn’t need at a time of financial fragility.

Challenges converting opportunities into wins

Late last year, as the A-League Women’s season was set to kick off, former Socceroos and A-League coach Postecoglou warned Australia still lacked serious financial investment in the sport.

When you look at what the Matildas did at the World Cup: unbelievable. But you still won’t see an influx of resources to the game. You won’t, I guarantee it.

Asked about football in Australia again this week, before Tottenham’s friendly match at the MCG, Postecoglou said “I don’t think too much has changed”.

Another challenge for the A-League is the global nature of the sport.

More often than not, Australia’s best talent heads offshore. Most of the star Matildas – like Kerr, Mary Fowler, Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter – play in the United Kingdom or Europe, just as male players like Craig Johnston, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka did before them.

The domestic game can’t attract and keep homegrown talent, with notable exceptions like Sydney FC championship player and World Cup penalty hero Cortnee Vine.

And what about the fans? Is the global nature of “the world game” a mixed blessing? After all, some fans are more interested in how Liverpool or Barcelona are going than Western United or Melbourne City.

Streaming and the digital revolution has changed viewing habits – supporters of overseas teams can watch their games easily, meaning fans in Australia don’t have to engage with the local leagues to get their soccer fix if they don’t want to.

Some observers who love the game point to the need for domestic soccer to get its own house in order, as well as celebrating the global journey of our Matildas and Socceroos stars abroad.

They also believe the sport doesn’t need to engage with “code wars” with other Australian sports.

As leading sports journalist Michael Cain once told me:

We need to look after our own game at home at the local level, as well as on the big stage, and the beauty of Australia is that we coexist with other football codes. Infighting within the sport has always been the code’s Achilles heel. Maybe if soccer in Australia worried about cleaning up its own civil wars, it would never have to look left or right at rivals ever again. Läs mer…

Rugby league in Perth and Papua New Guinea? Here’s what could be next for the NRL

This year the National Rugby League (NRL) opened its season in Las Vegas. It was an audacious move by the league’s ambitious head honcho Peter V’Landys to showcase the game in the United States – and perhaps to attract some gambling industry attention too.

While the NRL was stateside, the Australian Football League (AFL) opened its 2024 season in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland – rugby league heartland.

The battle between the NRL and AFL for football supremacy has always been intriguing – where is the battle headed next?

A history of expansion

In terms of football participation and support, Australia is divided by a “Barassi line” between the north-east and south-west of the country.

Both codes have expanded over the years. It started in 1982 when the then-Victorian Football League sent the South Melbourne Swans to Sydney and the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) established the Canberra Raiders (making the ACT a rugby league stronghold rather than the predominantly Aussie rules city it originally was).

The NSWRL added teams in Newcastle, Illawarra, Brisbane, Melbourne and Gold Coast, and later Auckland and North Queensland. The AFL added sides from WA and SA, as well as Brisbane and Gold Coast and later, Greater Western Sydney. Tasmania will soon become the 19th club, and the AFL may ponder a 20th team – in Darwin, Canberra or perhaps a third club in WA or SA.

Read more:
Darwin Dingoes, Canberra Capitals, Cairns Crocodiles? Weighing up the options for the AFL’s 20th team

In 2023, the NRL expanded to 17 clubs with the addition of the Redcliffe Dolphins and the league is considering further expansion – V’Landy’s has stated he would like to see 20 teams by the end of the decade.

So where might future sides be based?

Resurrecting the Bears

The first option is the resurrection of the North Sydney Bears – but in a different location. The old Sydney club exited the NRL in 1999 after 90 years in the premier competition, but V’Landys has ruled they won’t be based at North Sydney as there are too many clubs in that city.

Some have therefore suggested the Bears relocate to the Central Coast, given that area is rugby league heartland and boasts a great stadium in Gosford where NRL fixtures regularly attract good crowds.

There’s also a proposal to bring back the club as the Perth Bears. WA did have the Western Reds in the mid-90s but the team was axed at the end of the Super League war in 1997.

But with the demise of the Western Force in rugby union in 2017, there’s room in the growing sports marketplace of Perth.

The Perth Bears would be a rare foray for the NRL on the other sides of the Barassi line, but they would have the advantage of an historic North Sydney connection – although Sydney fans would find it easier to see their side on the Central Coast, an hour or two away, than on the other side of the Nullarbor Plain.

Exploring New Zealand

The second option is New Zealand.

Given the popularity of the Auckland-based Warriors, there is a push for a second team, either in Wellington, as the Orcas, or Christchurch, to be known as the South Island Kea.

In New Zealand, rugby union talent is spread through the many local provincial sides and ultimately, the All Blacks. But rugby league talent flows through to only the Warriors. Given the growth in popularity of rugby league (particularly among Maori and Pacific youth) the Warriors may not be able to accommodate all the athletes who want to stay in NZ and still play at the highest level.

While rugby league is traditionally strongest on the north island, hence the push for Wellington, there is an opportunity to open up the South Island with a Christchurch team playing at the new covered multi-function stadium.

A bold new horizon up north

The third and most interesting option is Papua New Guinea.

Rugby league is the most popular sport in PNG and Prime Minister James Marape describes the sport as part of a national project to “unite the most diverse nation on the face of the planet.”

The sport is seen as a tool to help fight crime and inter-tribal tensions in the country, with Australia providing A$600 million over 10 years in technical assistance to the bid.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sees sport as an important part of the bilateral relationship between Australia and PNG. In a
speech to the PNG parliament last year he said:

I want to see a PNG-based team competing in the national rugby league competition.

The PNG bid is part of “soft diplomacy” or “sports diplomacy” in the Pacific in response to geo-political tensions in the region.

A rugby league team is regarded as something the Chinese Communist Party can’t give PNG, similar to the expansion of rugby union teams in Fiji and the rest of the Pacific.

The benefits are economic and diplomatic but there are risks too – there have been warnings that safety and security concerns in PNG could affect players, fans, officials and support staff.

There is also a view the NRL bid may crowd out other development assistance that’s of vital importance to PNG, although this ignores the economic and social flow-on benefits of sporting participation.

The NRL is considering a pitch for a team to be based in PNG.

A fourth option closer to home

Finally, there could be another team in Brisbane, based around the Ipswich area.

The Ipswich Jets only marginally lost out to the Redcliffe Dolphins in the race to become Brisbane’s second NRL club. The bid included a new stadium of 20,500 capacity.

Given the growth of Brisbane and South East Queensland, and the popularity of rugby league in the area, the Ipswich or Brisbane Jets may be a safe option. It would however be more of a consolidation than expansion option, as it would mean three teams in greater Brisbane and five in Queensland in total.

The NRL’s big decisions

The NRL currently has 17 clubs and like the AFL, wants to get to a 20-team competition.

The Central Coast Bears would be a safe option, along with a second team in NZ and another in Ipswich. That would be sticking safely to rugby league territory.

A more radical (but exciting) approach would be to bring the Bears back in Perth, go for a PNG club and a second New Zealand team.

It’s a big decision for the NRL but knowing the drive and political instincts of V’Landys, something is going to happen, and happen soon. Läs mer…