The W-League's Next Steps, Part 3: Focus on being a development league

ESPN presents a three-part series taking a closer look at the options proposed by the PFA regarding the future of Australian women's football. Today, Part 3 assesses if the W-League's wisest long-term option is to remain what it has been for much of its history: a development league.

JUMP TO: Part 1 - Partnership with the NWSL | Part 2 - Becoming the best in the world

By virtue of moves and machinations elsewhere, Australia's position within the women's football landscape is rapidly changing. As the PFA's 2019-20 annual W-League player survey found, the W-League continues to lose ground to leagues elsewhere in the eyes of the players themselves.

Australia's unique athletic ecosystem -- which includes its geography, economy and multi-sport culture -- means that football must be flexible and adaptable to these domestic challenges while also recognising its place as part of a global sport.

Part 3 of this series, which deconstructs the PFA's "Professional Women's Football: The Next Step" document, we take a look at the third option proposed by the PFA regarding the future of the professional women's game in Australia: Becoming a development league.

Part 3: Developing a talent pipeline into the big leagues

Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter have become household names in recent years. Their impressive performances, for both club and the Matildas, have seen them recognised both domestically and internationally, with all four players signing for some of the biggest clubs in the world -- Chelsea, Arsenal, Olympique Lyonnais -- over the past nine months.

But what many don't realise about Australia's best and brightest is that they all got their start in the W-League as teenagers. Of the 23 Matildas who travelled to France for the 2019 Women's World Cup, 20 made their domestic club debut in Australia before the age of 20. Ten of those were younger than 17, including Kerr (16), Foord (15), Catley (15) and Carpenter (15).

But this isn't a relic of W-Leagues past; it's a trend that's continuing with players like Kyra Cooney-Cross (now 18), Karly Roestbakken (19) and Mary Fowler (17) being called up to the senior national side in the last year. The W-League, in other words, has always been a development league, and it will continue to have youth development at its core for as long as the next generation of Matildas -- almost all of whom are based in Australia -- continue to play in it.

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This is, perhaps, the most realistic path forward for a women's football ecosystem that is facing obstacles on multiple domestic and international fronts. As the PFA summarises: "Firstly, the perception of diluting quality with a large number of players leaving the league to pursue options elsewhere. Secondly, the increase in appetite across all players to pursue a full-time football career. Thirdly, harnessing the developing public interest in women's football. Fourthly, the challenges of a 'bump-in-bump-out' women's football program. Finally, ensuring that our international teams continue to improve against the rising tide of quality across the world."

Crucially, the PFA states that "Our current structure does not have the capacity to achieve this."

As such, the two questions at the heart of Australian women's football going forward are:

1) What is its goal?
2) What structure will allow that goal to be achieved?

The PFA, for its part, are clear on the ultimate purpose of football in Australia: "Developing internationally competitive and coveted footballers."

In other words: Developing Matildas.

Development, therefore, is -- or ought to be -- at the foundation of the sport. That is the PFA's answer to question 1.

The answer to question 2, therefore, becomes clearer: "Harmonising our fragmented pathways ... Central to this are: creating a 12-month program with our elite and professional clubs; designing a year-round (12 month) model of competition which integrates existing National Premier League Women (NPLW) competitions; and ensuring the W-League continues as a competitive global league -- continuing the momentum that it has [generated] for over a decade."

Put another way, the third option is not so much to achieve greater alignment with the leagues above it in the United States and Europe, but instead to better align itself with the tiers below it: the NPLW competitions through which all future Matildas develop. A brief glance at the aforementioned 2019-20 PFA player survey illustrates the importance of such pyramid alignment: 117 of the 181 players who appeared in the most recent W-League season emerged from these state-based leagues, and 90 players will return there for the 2020 season.

Within the context of development, then, producing players capable of signing for major clubs overseas is no longer something Australian football should prevent or fight against, but rather something to aspire to. Exporting footballers to more advanced, lucrative leagues where they will play with and against the best in the world ought to be celebrated, as those environments will contribute to the game's ultimate goal: Developing Matildas.

Greater alignment of the domestic women's pyramid -- finding synergies between the W-League and NPLW -- wouldn't just result in a more acceptable year-round playing calendar for young and emerging talent. It could also be a "rising tide lifts all boats" move, leading to the greater professionalisation of state-based clubs through, as the PFA suggests, professional contracts, greater investment, and equitable access to facilities and resources.

Creating stronger ties between the various levels of the women's football ecosystem would ensure that the vast majority of the players who appear in the W-League have access to ongoing, competitive match-minutes; provide W-League coaches (established and aspiring) with ongoing employment, development opportunities, and access to players; provide players with professional environments for longer periods of time; and allow NPLW clubs to harness and accelerate the talent available at grassroots level to increase the competitive playing pool while also promoting their own brands and pathways so that Australia continues to achieve its answer to question 1.

Greater alignment between domestic competitions could also lead to greater flexibility in terms of playing windows by, for example, expanding the W-League season while adding extra clubs while reducing the NPLW season window, so that a greater number of players can play more match minutes at the highest domestic level.

An extended W-League season could run from late October to mid-April to incorporate a full home-and-away calendar as well as, as the PFA suggests, an extended finals series. Closer strategic alignment and communication between clubs could see preseasons and player data shared so as to manage minutes, loads, and injuries.

However, an extended season window would likely affect the ability for the United States' NWSL-based players to participate in the league -- many of whom, as Christine Nairn and Kristen Hamilton, the two most recent Julie Dolan Medal award-winners, illustrate -- are a cut above the rest. The knock-on effect of this could be a drop-off in fan interest both at home and abroad as NWSL supporters no longer need to follow their players in the offseason.

However, a player development philosophy could also inform the way Australian football conducts its business operations and make up for potential financial losses elsewhere

For example, the PFA notes that the transfer fees in the women's game are on the rise, with player spending increasing by 16.3% in 2019. With Australia now producing a number of world-class players who are heading to big clubs, the amount of money Australian football could potentially earn as a result of transfer fees could help make the W-League and NPLW competitions more financially secure.

This financial relationship with overseas clubs could even translate into resource-sharing and player development pipelines, as well as club friendlies, trials, academies, and camps. As the PFA says, "Through integrating an established elite product, the W-League, with a stable state-based club structure, Australian football is well-placed to build a cohesive model that connects Australian players to iconic football brands and our clubs to the global football economy."

Ultimately, the goal of the W-League -- the answer to question 1 -- will determine which of the three options -- the answer to question 2 -- will be chosen.

There are, as in all things, pros and cons to the three options presented by the PFA which this series has attempted to break down and contextualise. Whether it's a partnership with the NWSL, creating the best global women's league, or developing a talent pipeline into the leagues of Europe and the U.S. (or perhaps a combination of all three), current and future players ought to be at the heart of whatever decision is made.