The Matildas Have Ignited Women’s Sport Across Aus So What Can We Do To Keep The Fire Going?

A collage of The Matildas. The Matildas Have Ignited Women’s Sport Across The Country So What Can We Do To Keep The Fire Going?

The Matildas have done something greater than their performance on the field over the Women’s World Cup. They’ve bound a nation together and put women’s sport on the map, and now there’s no going back.

The Matildas wanted to create a cultural moment likened to Cathy Freeman’s iconic victory at Sydney’s 2000 Olympics. A sporting image cherished by generations of female athletes across the country. Despite the loss to England last night, they did create this moment. Just not in the way we anticipated.

We’ve seen the Matildas become household names in a matter of weeks and been hit by the wave of Matildas fever that has swept the country. 

Their talent, tenacity and sportsmanship has struck a chord and dispelled long-held views of prejudice towards women’s sport in Australia. The Women’s World Cup has cranked open the door, not only for women’s soccer but for women’s sport more broadly. 

There’s no denying that women’s sport is having a cultural moment, and even though the Matildas aren’t going head to head with Spain in the grand final, we need to hold onto this moment with two hands and acknowledge the real opportunity we have before us

The World Cup has given us a taste of a sporting environment devoid of toxic antics and forms of masculinity that can make Australian sport feel exclusionary for women of all ages. 

We have the power to create a new sporting cultural ecosystem. Not just in soccer but across all codes to see the continued acceleration of women’s sport in Australia.

(The Matildas have changed the face of sporting culture in Australia for the better. Image: Getty)

From soccer, to AFL and NRL there are women paving the way forward in a multitude of ways. They’re breaking barriers and changing components that from the outside may appear small, but ultimately contribute to a landscape that says: ‘this isn’t for you.’

This includes uniforms and kits that athletes play in. Even at elite levels in soccer, research has found that 96 per cent of Australian women players have had to play in a men’s kit. 

Canberra United’s Emma Ilijoski is an ambassador for PARK, an Australian-born company leading the charge when it comes to making uniforms that actually fit women’s bodies.

They’ve made kits with feedback from players around the world and created a design that fits female body shapes. It removes the need for players to roll up their shorts on the waistband and reduces the discomfort that can come with playing in white shorts during your menstrual cycle.

“As a female athlete there are barriers that do restrict us from certain parts of the game. Not just in my experience, but for all female athletes. One of them is definitely [the] playing kit. It seems like a simple thing but it really does go a long way,” Ilijoski told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

Ilijoski shared that when she was growing up, having a women’s kit didn’t seem like an option. But now having played in one, she wants girls of all levels to have the opportunity to play in clothes that don’t restrict their ability and feel the confidence that comes with playing in a kit that actually fits their body.

Many sporting fields still don’t have bathrooms or change rooms that are accessible for women. Ilijoski noted that as an athlete you want to feel as though things are possible for you. Simple things like having a space to get changed or access to a sanitary bin makes female athletes feel safe and included.

The NRL’s Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have led the way within the NRL in this space with their new Washroom Dignity program. They’ve partnered with Rentokil Initial to install sanitary bins and free menstruation products in all locker rooms, staff facilities and public bathrooms. 

This means anyone who visits the Belmore sports ground, from punters to players, has access to sanitary products free of charge. 

The dispensers provide a full box of tampons and multiple pads, acknowledging that sometimes a single tampon may not be enough. It also helps eliminate the potential risk of toxic shock syndrome.

“I think for us it was all about providing females with access to everything,” said Lauren Milner, Female Football Operations Coordinator at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. 

“We give them all of the products that they need to perform on the field when it comes to supplements or strapping tape. We see menstruation products as an essential item. So why shouldn’t we be providing them with that as well?”

Milner said that she would always carry sanitary products at training sessions in case players were caught unaware. Now they have access to these products without the need for a potentially awkward conversation.

“We want them to be able to focus on their performance and not have to worry about this,” she said.

“It’s something that players can get really anxious about. We have players as young as 15 coming into our elite pathways and the conversation isn’t as comfortable for them as it is for someone like you or I.” 

(The sanitary dispenser is available to everyone at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs home ground in Belmore. Image: Supplied)

The growth of NRLW is incredibly exciting for the code and has the power to combat concerns of decline in uptake of the sport at grassroots levels. 

“I think it’s a really authentic game. We’ve got young females, even young boys looking up to our female athletes and that’s great,” said Milner.

Channel Nine now broadcasts the NRLW on its main channel and in 2022 viewership increased by 24.4 per cent, the highest in the competition’s history. It’s also accessible through streaming platforms such as Kayo and Fox and has seen viewership increase by 85.1 per cent year-on-year on those platforms.

“There’s always been a little bit of a stigma around rugby league and girls playing a contact sport, but we’re seeing more and more growth in younger grassroots,” she added.

“I think as long as we keep seeing the product, there’s going to be more and more girls coming through at a younger age growing into an NRLW player.”

Visibility is essential in creating a canopy for young girls to believe that their dreams are achievable. It gives them access to role models and shows young girls that becoming a professional athlete is a reality for them. 

It’s estimated that off the back of the Women’s World Cup there’s going to be a massive spike in girls picking up soccer. We’re about to witness a new generation of girls whose dream will be becoming a Matilda.  

“Being able to see role models who are women in professional sport is such a powerful thing,” said Chloe Dalton, Olympic gold medallist, GWS Giants AFLW player and founder of The Female Athlete Project.

The Female Athlete Project is a platform dedicated to amplifying the successes of women in sport. Although women make up 40 per cent of sporting participants they only receive 4 per cent of the sports media coverage. Dalton has set out to change this knowing the power and importance of visibility.  

“I think about me as a seven-year-old-kid. I feel like the Cathy Freeman moment kind of changed the course of my life,” she said.

Dalton grew up playing basketball and found herself quickly moving up the ranks but felt as though she wasn’t getting as much game time as she wanted. While sitting on the bench she found herself reminiscing on the moment that started it all: Cathy Freeman’s iconic 400 metre win. 

After a game of basketball she went home and Googled “list of Olympic sports.” She spotted that the Rugby Sevens would be included in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the very first time. This kicked off her Olympic journey.

“I’d grown up in a rugby family so I knew the game but I’d never learned how to tackle or the ruck and the breakdown.

“I had to learn pretty quickly [and] I gave myself about three years out from the Rio Olympics to learn the game and make my local team, the state team and then I was in the team that got to travel over and compete in Rio where we got to bring home a gold medal.”

Dalton now dons the grey and orange for the GWS Giants and believes that sport is a powerful tool that can change the way women are perceived.

(Chloe Dalton plays for the GWS Giants. Image: Getty)

The Matildas have proven that women are strong, athletic and brilliant athletes who can (obviously) run rings around the men. Dalton spoke about the tired and incorrect myths that surround women’s sport. Particularly when it comes to comparing women’s and men’s codes. 

“It’s really important to acknowledge that when you make that comparison between men’s and women’s sport, you’re not actually taking into account the lack of access that these girls and women have had to elite pathways for their entire lives.

“Many of my teammates at the Giants had to stop playing footy by the age of 12 because they couldn’t play with the boys. There weren’t girls teams available.

“If you think about these prime years that you could be developing as an athlete, you actually miss that altogether and then [are] thrown back into an environment where you have these full-time professional expectations but you actually only get paid as a part-time athlete and have to juggle a whole range of different things on the side,” said Dalton. 

Despite these adversities female athletes are still out-performing men who have had access to these programs their entire sporting careers. 

England’s Chloe Kelly booted per penalty goal against Nigeria at a staggering 111 kilometres per hour. A kick more powerful than the fastest strike of the men’s Premier League season in 2022-2023 by West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma

It’s facts like these that help erase myths that women aren’t as skilful as male players. The Matildas have proven this to Australian audiences over the competition and have obtained a level of respect for female athletes across the board which Dalton describes as “incredible.”

(Cathy Freeman’s win at the 2000 Sydney Olympics has been an iconic inspiration for generations of female athletes. Image: Getty)

With the Women’s World Cup drawing to a close we need to recognise the new sporting cultural epoch we find ourselves in. One that could have only been achieved by the women who have played before us. 

There’s been generations of women who weren’t allowed to play the sport they loved because they didn’t have the opportunities.

They didn’t have access to coaches, uniforms, equipment or a safe environment that could have allowed them to play professionally. We need to ensure that this won’t happen for the next generation of women and girls.

We’ve already seen the Matildas break broadcast records. The game against Denmark was the most viewed broadcast since Cathy Freeman’s Olympic race with a whopping 4.17 million people tuning in. For context that’s more than the AFL Grand Final and the NRL’s State of Origin.

The most recent semi-final was the most-watched TV program in Australian history with 11.5 million viewers seeing the Matildas go up against England. 

So, where to from here?

At the moment 50 per cent of Australian teenage girls quit sport by the age of 17. We need to invest in women’s sport so girls see sport as a full-time career, not something they have to juggle on top of another full-time job. We need the government and investors to put billions of dollars into women’s sport to create stable pathways all over the country. 

There’s evidence that proves the success that comes with investing in women’s sport. Investors receive a better return on their investment because of the connections fans have with female teams and athletes. Investment creates more opportunities for women at elite levels and at grassroots levels for young players.

We need to nationalise our domestic leagues and continue to show up at games. Joining your local A-League club, or heading along to an NRWL or AFLW game is a brilliant way to keep pushing the rapid rise of women’s sport.

The Women’s World Cup has set a new tone in this country. Its legacy will reach beyond its impact on Australian sport but on Australian society as a whole. This is not a splash in the pan, but new sporting cultural ecosystem. It’s only forward for women’s sport from here.