How women's football is shaping the game's financial future in Australia

It's been just over a year since Football Australia were forced to stand down 70% of its staff as COVID-19 swept across the country. For four months, the governing body operated with a skeleton crew, with many of those remaining taking on extra work to keep the sport and its various national and state organisations running.

It was the first major crisis that CEO James Johnson had to face, suspending football at all levels until the pandemic was under control. It was, according to Johnson, the most difficult financial position FA had ever been in.

"These developments impact many forms of revenue for [FA] including national registration fees, broadcast fees, sponsorship, ticket sales and government funding, so we have needed to adjust our operations to ensure that we can remain operational," he told media in March last year.

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The pandemic also exacerbated some underlying financial issues that the sport was already facing. For example, Hyundai -- the naming-rights sponsor of the A-League -- finally withdrew from the league. A number of clubs were (and still are) in the market for new owners. Caltex, too, withdrew its support for the Socceroos. Neither the men's team nor the men's competition have found a replacement.

The same, however, cannot be said for the women's game.

Priceline Pharmacy, Cadbury, Pantene, Rebel Sport, Commonwealth Bank: these are just some of the major brands that women's football -- both the W-League and the Matildas -- has attracted to the sport in the past six months.

These aren't simple sticker-slapping exercises, either; they are multi-year, multi-million-dollar deals with major brands that are both better-suited and more willing to "activate" their partnerships: to more visibly and actively promote the women's game and its athletes to their wider markets.

In that sense, it's Football Australia's partnership with the Commonwealth Bank that is arguably the sport's biggest financial coup. In early April, the FA announced that the bank recently rated the country's strongest brand would become the new naming-rights partner and bank of the Matildas set-up (including senior and youth teams) until at least 2024. In addition, the bank will also invest in grassroots initiatives that aim to accelerate the game's female development pathways.

One need only look at what CBA has done for Australian women's cricket over the past 20 years to see the long-term benefits such a partnership can bring to the sport on the domestic and international stage. Finally, it seems, more major brands are jumping on board the women's sport bandwagon and recognising the financial opportunities (for all parties) that lie in wait.

According to CBA CEO Matt Comyn, the bank has similar aspirations for women's football as it did -- and does -- for women's cricket.

"We've been proud and, I think, lucky to be partners at such a great time in women's cricket," he said. "It's really the players who did a fantastic job and we've grown participation and won the World Cup [twice in four ODI appearances since 2005 and six times from seven in T20 since its formation in 2009], which is extremely exciting.

"Even over the last four years, we've seen women's sport across all codes really start to increase in terms of audience and recognition. So yes, I think the Matildas are on a very good trajectory, and we're delighted to be sponsoring and partnering with Football Australia. Of course, we hope that they achieve tremendous success over the next few years, naturally, but we're also just really pleased to be part of trying to grow participation, inclusion and equality in the game as well."

These aspirations stem from more marketing and in-store initiatives to major events such as breaking attendance records, which occurred last year when over 86,000 people flocked to the MCG to watch the ICC T20 Women's World Cup final between Australia and India thanks to a CBA-supported marketing campaign.

"It'd be fantastic to see those sorts of audience numbers like at the Women's World Cup final at the MCG," Comyn said. "I thought it was just an incredible event and it's really exciting that in July [2023] Australia will host the FIFA Women's World Cup. I think it's going to be a tremendous tournament regardless, really seeing Australia compete on the world stage. It's a very exciting time to be part of that.

"[Football] really is the world game so there will absolutely be a global audience. But to me, there's no question that we'd love a lot of audiences and viewers and participation in the tournament, and then, of course, to support Australia, which I'm sure Australia will.

"From our perspective, all of the principles and values and the things that we think in terms of how we can support a community and our country is really important to us. But from a commercial perspective, we also think it's a great brand. We think the Matildas brand is an iconic one and will continue to grow in popularity and recognition and it's something that we want to be associated with.

"So it's going to be a really exciting couple of years in the lead-up to that; that's the pinnacle of the sport. But the sponsorship and partnership extends across grassroots level right the way through. Part of success for us will be seeing the growth in the game and participation more broadly."

For Tom Rischbieth, Head of Commercial and Events at Football Australia, active brands like CBA, Priceline and Rebel Sport are exactly the kind that the game requires as it begins to write a new chapter filled with the kind of growth and opportunity its massive participant base has always promised.

"As we look ahead to a new era for football in Australia, our commercial strategy is focused on working with partners who will not only invest to acquire rights from Football Australia, but will make additional commitments to proactively promote and market the game," Rischbieth said.

"This is the most exciting part of the Commonwealth Bank partnership, as CBA will be putting its significant business and marketing power behind promoting our sport right across Australia. It's early stages but we envision that coming to life in significant above the line activity, employee engagement and a few other ideas we have in the works.

"[They have] scale, ambition, and a proven capability to deliver growth. [CBA] is one of the most influential organisations in the country. It has over 15 million customers, 48,000 employees and a huge network across Australia and internationally, and so the opportunity to establish a truly holistic partnership that looks to activate all of that is going to be a game-changer."

All of these major brands and the details of their long-term partnerships with the sport lend themselves to the growing argument that the women's game is at the financial frontier of Australian football -- helping lead the game out of the COVID-19 crisis it found itself in just 14 months ago.

This follows global trends as women's teams and leagues form multi-year partnerships with major domestic and international organisations including Barclays, BBC, Verizon, Twitch, Google, Budweiser, Vitality, CBS and Sky Sports.

As someone who operates in the thick of commercial discussions, Rischbieth is better positioned than most to test the temperature of the marketplace. These recent partnerships, he believes, shows that the women's game is a much more promising financial force than many give it credit for.

"There are so many amazing, passionate and brilliant people who have built women's football up, on and off the field, for decades, and we hope that in some small way, these recent partnership announcements are seen by those people as vindication for everything they have done," he said.

"Bullishly, we still think we're at the start of the bell curve. We've had some modelling done to project participation growth and fan interest in women's football to 2027 and things were already looking good before the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 announcement, but that event is only going to accelerate things, provided we continue to build out a strong legacy plan.

"Investment from sponsors, broadcasters, government, and philanthropy are all vital ingredients for growing the sport, so we'll continue to speak with those that share the vision and want to help us get there, faster."