When Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief executive James Johnson assumed his role in January, one of the first issues he raised was the rising cost of registration fees for grassroots football players.
- Football journalist Ann Odong said girls of colour often found it more difficult to participate in sport because of gendered expectations
- Balga Soccer Club in Perth has waived registration fees for players aged between five and 18
- Some say the coronavirus pandemic may offer football an opportunity to reassess how fees are applied to junior sport
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across world sport, various codes now have an opportunity to address such long-standing problems.
Football is becoming one of the more expensive team sports played in Australia, particularly at the development level between grassroots and semi-professional competitions.
While some grassroots player registration fees in regional and social settings can total less than $50, more advanced youth development programs run by Football NSW, for example, can cost up to $2,650 per season — and that is not including the added expenses of equipment, transport or extra training clinics.
This has drawn criticism from many leading figures, such as recently departed FFA technical director Rob Sherman, who see prospective young players being priced out of the game.
But as occurs in all economies, there are some groups which are disproportionately affected, and rising fees come down hardest on players who already face multiple cultural and financial barriers to entry, especially women and girls from minority and migrant backgrounds.
The consequences of those barriers are already visible in the lack of cultural diversity at the top levels of Australian women’s football.
Ann Odong, a first-generation African-Australian woman from Uganda who has reported on football for almost 15 years, said women and girls of colour found it more difficult to participate in sport due to the additional gendered expectations placed on them by their communities.
“When a lot of migrant families or refugee families come to Australia, they have very different priorities,” Odong said.
“Sport — football — is not at the top of those priorities.
“Football is utilised, particularly for the boys, as a way of getting them involved in the community. But for girls, very much culturally, football and sport are not the top priority.
“Instead, it’s about being in the house and assisting with the home, because there’s often not a lot of time as the parents are usually working one or two jobs.
“The second priority is education, which is very much pushed [by migrant families] because that’s seen as the way out.
“The third thing is the cost. Football is a tough game to be able to get multiple children to go through.
“If you’ve got four kids, for example — like my family did — and you’re getting them to play sport, you can only afford to have so many kids play football. So normally, culturally, it’s the boys who are pushed to play football first.”
While rising registration fees affect all grassroots players, these financial anxieties come with an added layer in the women’s game in Australia because competitions like the W-League are still semi-professional and many players struggle to make ends meet through football alone.
Cultural norms and attitudes in some migrant families are thus tangled up with the financial issues facing women’s football more broadly; girls are less likely to pursue football as a career if they know there is no secure future in it for them.
“That’s the economic reality,” Odong said.
“And unfortunately, you then think about it in terms of traditional gender roles: who is going to be able to bring in the most money for the family? And where are the opportunities to bring in that money? It’s not there for girls [in football].”
But that does not mean there is no progress being made, especially when it comes to alleviating the cost of entry for girls from minority backgrounds.
Perth club introduces fee-free junior football
In 2017, Balga Soccer Club in Perth implemented a fee-free model for players aged between five and 18.
According to club president Ken Shorto, Balga has since doubled the number of registered players — with the vast majority being newly arrived migrant families.
“Our area of Balga has always had migrants,” Mr Shorto said.
“It’s a cheaper suburb and therefore easier to get established. And with the new migrant communities, it’s very hard for mum and dad who are in their first year or two in the country, working two or three jobs and also trying to look after their kids and their sporting club.
“All we did was say for members of the club, their children could play free.
“It’s $40 for a membership and you have to help out in the club somehow, whether it be selling a raffle ticket or bringing oranges at half-time or setting up goals; anything you can do, we want you to be involved in your children’s sport.
“That’s been the beauty of the club. Now we’re knitting it closer together because the whole idea is to become a family and help them get established in Australia and get to love the place.”
Fee-free football can also provide a competitive advantage both on and off the field.
“We got very good coaches coming in to help because they loved the idea,” Mr Shorto said.
“So we didn’t just get better quantity, we got better quality in the running of the place as well.
“I’ve got an assistant now who’s one of my original players that we put through a course. She’s almost got her C Licence and is helping out, and she wears the full hijab when she’s playing.
“That way, we get everyone more relaxed, so they can join in much better.
“That’s one of the challenges with fee-free football; a lot of people see it as free, which means it can’t be very good.
But as the sporting world reckons with the economic fallout from COVID-19, fee-free football clubs like Balga face increased pressure due to their dependence on local businesses and events to raise funds.
“That’s our fear now: when we start up again, businesses are going to be so affected that they’re not going to have any money available to support clubs like ours,” Mr Shorto said.
“We had to shut down the whole place and had no income whatsoever, but still had outgoings. The federation is still asking for their money from registrations … we’ve still got a lot of stuff in the club that needs to be maintained, make sure everything’s still working.
“What we’re doing now is using that time to get together and make plans.
“We’re obviously aware that sponsorship may not be as big in the future, but I like to be positive and think the associations will come through and reduce their fees for a year or two to help people get back.”
Football may need to share Mr Shorto’s optimism going forward, with the coronavirus pandemic offering the game an opportunity to reassess its financial foundations and build a more equitable and sustainable future.
Fee-free models are just one way to reduce the many barriers to entry for players from minority communities, and football’s ability to flourish after the pandemic is over could depend on more clubs and leagues adopting similarly innovative approaches.
Samantha Lewis is a freelance women’s football writer based in Sydney.