W-League: The elusive dollar is holding us back

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Australia has an extraordinary competition in the W-League; a flurry of the women’s game’s biggest names come meandering through customs checkpoints at the end of each winter, anticipating a cracking Australian summer in which they will ply their trade on our pitches.

But for our home-grown stars, it’s a different kettle of fish. In this country, W-League players can’t consider their football an income, yet they are at the top of the local game.

With a salary cap of just $150,000, W-League clubs can only realistically pay three players a rather moderate wage. How they decide to split the money is indeed a matter for each club, but on payday, most players aren’t buying caviar.

This budgetary constraint creates an interesting problem for W-League clubs, which is that whilst their players have reached the top of Australian football, most of them will have to supplement their time with other remunerated activities.

Kristy Moore, Adelaide United’s highly-decorated captain, believes that this is hurting the league because players are having to leave the game in order to make ends meet.

“If you look at our Adelaide team now, there are some girls in my age group, and there are girls that are 17 to 18 years old, but there are barely any girls in that mid-twenties age group,” Moore said.

“They were here five or six years ago, but they haven’t stayed in the game.”

Moore explained that this is because women playing in the top league in Australia are destined to make a tough choice as they reach their early twenties: sacrifice their opportunities now to play football, or leave football and take the traditional route.

“I think that a lot of it is down to choosing between their career and football, and they choose to go off and work,” she said.

“You have to dedicate a lot of time to football, and for those that manage to develop a career at the same time, you say goodbye to any sort of social life.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as unimportant, but according to Shayne Hanks, who is a leading sports psychologist for Performance Boost, this is a key contributor to what has become known as ‘burnout’.

“To play in a sport where there’s not enough money or no money at all… is a much harder gig,” Hanks said.

“This is mostly because the training, for instance, has to accommodate people’s work and study schedules.

“Training can be at five o’clock in the morning, and then again at seven o’clock in the evening, so it’s not dissimilar to people playing ‘f-grade’ sport, but [top level] athletes are elite, so they have to manage extra training, going to the gym and seeing service providers.

“They have to fit everything in, and the expectations around their commitment are very high… so it’s almost like another full-time role on top of what they may already do,” he said.

Lady Reds defender Jenna McCormick is one such player who will be forced to make that decision fairly soon. As well as turning out for Adelaide United each week, she works at a local burger bar, studies criminology at university and coaches a schoolgirl team. That’s four big commitments from a woman only two years out of school.

Someday in the near future, though, she will have to decide if she can still afford to play W-League football, as the pressures of growing up mount.

“It’s a tough one [combining all her commitments]… but the fact that I still live at home is the reason why I can do it,” McCormick said.

“From the added stress of work and study, it’s easy to question ‘do I have enough time to fit everything in?’

“I need to work; I want to go to university for my career, but I want to play as well because it’s the one thing I love,” she said.

It seems unfathomable that an Australian athlete playing at the pinnacle of her sport would have to make this decision, but for McCormick and many of her colleagues, it’s a genuine concern, despite her obvious love for the game and commitment to her club.

For every season that the Kristy Moores and Jenna McCormicks turn out in the W-League, all of football wins. For every female 20-something footballer who has given it away to pay the bills, all of football loses.

As a country that hates to lose anything, we should be doing more about this.

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