A-Leagues court controversy with double headers but eyeballs count

Photograph: Mark Evans/Getty Images

The concept of the double-header has been a controversial topic for about as long as they have been around. To the advocates, they attract normally otherwise-engaged eyeballs for free. To the detractors, they perpetuate a problematic less-popular-little-sister vibe – whether intentional or not.

The objective is thus: schedule a women’s domestic match directly before a men’s and the former can piggy-back off the crowds already attending the latter. The women’s game consequently gets more exposure and broadcasters are financially content.

It sounds like a simple equation. The caveat, of course, is the slightly insulting notion that women’s sport does not hold the same worth as that played by their male counterparts. That to be properly valued it must stand on its own, as a singular entity, and entice the same number of fans by virtue of the seismic growth of women’s sport globally.

Related: Welcome Wellington, just don’t mess with Victory: A-League Women guide | Joey Lynch

In theory, this is a sound argument and a goal towards which sporting bodies should strive. It is also – right now, at least – utopian. And in the context of Australian women’s football, 18 months out from a home World Cup, the priority must be to lure as many eyes as possible towards A-League Women.

In terms of the national team, women’s football has no problem drawing a big crowd. The Matildas’ two-match friendly series with the USA drew a record record 36,109 to Stadium Australia on Saturday and 20,495 to McDonald Jones Stadium on Tuesday. Based on sheer numbers alone, many of those spectators are not regulars at ALW fixtures. The average attendance across the Covid-affected 2020-21 regular season was about 1,000. In 2019-20, just before the pandemic, it was about 1,500 and in 2018-19 – just before the mass exodus of Matildas and other higher-profile players to Europe – about 1,800.

This is not a reflection on the quality of football. Last season was fascinating viewing, not least because of Melbourne Victory’s title and Sydney FC’s dominance, Melbourne City’s struggles, and the movement of others in between. The departure of big-name stars also thrust young players on centre stage. Kyra Cooney-Cross’s superb campaign with Victory has made the 19-year-old a regular starter for Australia, and the form of 17-year-old Jessika Nash for Canberra United earned her an international call-up and a contract with Sydney FC. Lisa De Vanna demonstrated her longevity with Victory, while former national teammate Emily Gielnik won the golden boot with Brisbane Roar.

More abounds this coming campaign and the A-Leagues has made a point of attempting to maximise this by scheduling almost half the ALW’s regular-season fixtures as double-headers alongside A-League Men games. Victory will play all seven home games at AAMI Park as part of double-headers which, overall, account for 32 of the 70 regular-season matches.

A-Leagues commissioner Greg O’Rourke said the draw was configured in this way to ensure “highest levels of broadcast quality”.

“The double-headers we have scheduled allow our clubs to stage both their men’s and women’s teams in top-quality stadiums for their fans, and mean that the football will not stop flowing on Paramount+,” O’Rourke said last month.

On the airwaves, it certainly works for broadcast partner ViacomCBS, who can pool production resources across two matches instead of one. The relatively short gap of less than hour between the two games means little dead time during which spectators must entertain themselves.

On the ground, though, it also has to work for the players. In the past, A-League Women players involved in double-headers have often found themselves bumped out of venues’ main change rooms, which were being saved for use by the men in the subsequent match.

At the old Allianz Stadium that meant actually leaving the ground at half-time and walking through a throng of fans to the AFL changerooms in the neighbouring SCG. On one occasion, while playing a double-header at Leichhardt Oval, a women’s team had to use the change rooms at an aquatic centre across the road.

Related: Late Kyah Simon strike salvages 1-1 draw for Matildas against USA

But attitudes are changing, and logistics with them, and if done correctly and respectfully, this format can make a difference. In recent months we witnessed such a difference in the Hundred which which ran almost every match of the cricket franchise’s inaugural men’s and women’s competitions as double-headers and attracted so many spectators even the England and Wales Cricket Board was surprised.

“If we’re honest, we didn’t quite know how the double headers were going to go,” Beth Barrett-Wild, head of the women’s Hundred, said in August. “But when I walk into the stadium now, I’m expecting 7,500 people to come and watch – it’s mad.”

Of course, roaring success in one setting does not guarantee it in another, and infrastructure and cooperation from the many Australian sporting codes utilising shared stadia are parameters not always in administrators’ control. But if it works, and the two games are marketed as one match day under the banner of one club, is that really such a terrible thing?

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