[This piece first appeared in the Hamilton Wanderers’ match day programme ‘sidelined’ on Sunday 9 December 2018]
Confession time: I haven’t been to a single men’s national league game so far this season, and I don’t expect to get to one this side of Christmas. Sorry not sorry.
The reason for that is simple. The National Women’s League is happening and I strongly believe that it merits my undivided attention for the three months or so that it’s taking place. There will be plenty of time for the blokes to enjoy being the only game in town from the week after New Year until the winter leagues start.
The old arguments about women’s football not deserving equal standing are antiquated, but you still hear them sometimes. People say it doesn’t pull in enough spectators or sponsors ergo it’s just an undeniable fact that it’s an inferior product and there is nothing that can be done to change this. It’s utter codswallop. There are structural things that prevent the women’s game from bringing in sponsors and crowds (and let’s face it domestic men’s football hardly fills the San Siro either) and until we are honest about those and try to address them the playing field will never be truly level
For example, scheduling men’s and women’s national league kick-offs for the same time doesn’t help and this happens a lot which is both annoying and unnecessary. Even if I wasn’t determined to focus on the women’s game at the moment, when faced with an either or I would favour the women’s fixture every time out of principle but most don’t, to at least some extent because of prejudices and old habits.
As an example, even though Wanderers are by no means the worst or only culprits here, there are a huge number of blues involved in the WaiBOP National Women’s League squad and the club and the federation should be working together to make sure they get every bit of the fan support from their club that they deserve rather than forcing them to compete with the men and hurting both attendances.
But even if I wasn’t a stubborn pillock, there are plenty of merit arguments for favouring the women’s game as well. It’s great football played with a positive vibe and the ball predominantly on the deck. Plus it features high scoring games and results that so often go right down to the wire.
There are genuine world class players on display too, with a plethora of full internationals like Annalie Longo, Sarah Gregorius and Anna Green who are some of the best footballers of any gender that New Zealand has produced in quite some time – players who have played massive roles in lifting our national women’s team to 20th in the world. And along with them there are stars of the future as well. Last year’s National Women’s League featured Katie Rood – a few weeks later she was playing for Juventus. There are others this year who will follow in her footsteps.
Then there’s our Under 17 women’s national team that we all watched with awe over the past few weeks – every single one of whom plays in the National Women’s League, generally recognised as a competition that has played a vital role in their development and success.
Despite all those who used all those tired old arguments to justify why it wasn’t a good use of resources – meaning that to some extent the men’s game would have to cross-subsidise the women – the National Women’s League has been placed on more of an equal footing with the ISPS Handa Premiership this year, and most people involved in the women’s game will tell you this has tangibally contributed to the history making results our Young Ferns achieved in Uruguay.
Expanding from a single round robin that only saw the seven teams play each other once to a full double round home and away competition has breathed fresh new life into the league and given it a massive credibility boost with players and supporters alike.
Along with this has come a massive shift in the level of marketing that has been undertaken by both New Zealand Football and the federations and this, in turn, has led to much more comprehensive media coverage from both mainstream and alternative media organisations and individuals. Before the league kicked off there were more season previews than you could shake a stick at, each round has seen a plethora of write-ups, there have been slick YouTube highlights videos and my own blog has even produced a weekly NWL podcast featuring analysis of every game and interviews with all the key protagonists – and best of all it’s female dominated.
Because without these things it’s all very well to say that the league doesn’t have enough sponsors or spectators but it’s a chicken and egg scenario. People don’t watch and sponsors don’t flock to what they don’t know exists. And even with all this coverage, it still takes time to build a following.
Improvements can still be made of course. One obvious issue is the incredibly tight squeeze inherent with a schedule that started the week after the winter cup finals and will finish shortly before Christmas. The reason for this was an understandable request from the players who wanted the league done and dusted before Christmas to give them a break in the new year.
Despite this I still think there is considerable benefit to finding a way to incorporate both something of a pre-season and a semi-final week. The latter would provide some of the lower placed teams with something to play for in the later late stages and the former would add more quality to the games in the early rounds when first impressions are being formed by observers who are new to the women’s game. Some federations have managed to find resourceful ways around the problem of no pre-season but none of them are particularly ideal.
One way to achieve this might be to take the plunge and move the winter season forward a week or three. Who would that hurt? Making small tweaks to the men’s game in order to suit the women’s game might be a bit radical for some but it’s something we should be prepared to at least explore.
There’s also the small matter of WaiBOP needing to play all their games at home. It was sad to see them give up all the extra exposure the women’s game in the region should have enjoyed from the double round by playing their extra home games in Auckland and Palmerston North.
After that, the only other thing on my wish list (for the time being) is for people to wake up and get out and support it!
WaiBOP’s season is done and dusted for the year, but the best thing about football is its perpetual nature. Make sure you keep an eye out next September when the summer season rolls around again and go make some noise in support of your team. I promise you won’t regret it.
Categories: NZ Women's National League
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.