The Matildas have inspired record sign-ups for women and girls, but where will clubs fit them?

With the 2024 winter football season kicking off this weekend, clubs across Australia have experienced a record influx of registrations in the afterglow of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

By the end of March, Football NSW alone had over 25,000 more player registrations than the same time last year, with a significant chunk of that being women and girls inspired by the Matildas.

In fact, registrations of women and girls across the state have increased 18 per cent per from last season, with the biggest boost coming in the junior girls age bracket (23 per cent), followed by senior women (15 per cent) and youth girls (9 per cent).

In total, women and girls now make up just over a quarter (26 per cent) of all NSW football participants spread across over 580 community clubs, with eight associations already surpassing last year’s player registration records, with more associations very close behind.

A group of women in yellow soccer shirts celebrate wildly.

The Matildas inspired record numbers of women and girls to sign up for their local clubs this year.(AAP Image: Darren England)

This unprecedented number of sign-ups for the winter season comes off the back of a boost to small-sided summer football registrations, too, which grew 34 per cent on last year’s numbers thanks to being the only competitions available in the months immediately following the World Cup.

Increasing the participation of women and girls in football was a major pillar of Football Australia’s “Legacy 23” program, in addition to ticking several boxes in the federal and state governments’ respective sporting participation plans.

However, now that the winter season is underway, clubs and competitions are having to reckon with a long-standing issue for Australian football: not having enough fields for everybody to train and play on.

Paul Avery is the President of the Balmain and District Football Club, one of the biggest community football clubs in the country with over 3,000 registered players from under-5s all the way to over-50s age brackets.

Avery says the club has experienced “an overwhelming influx” of women and girls joining the club, starting with their holiday camps and clinics — which they ran for the first time ever in anticipation of the World Cup bump — with so many extra players signing up for the winter season that they had to add nine more teams.

A team of soccer players wearing orange and black uniforms stand in a circle as a man in a yellow vest talks

Balmain and District Football Club has added over 100 extra women and girls to their teams in the wake of the Women’s World Cup.(Supplied: Balmain and District Football Club)

“We’ve seen big growth in the juniors and younger age groups: the under-6s and 7s, and the under-9s have had really big growth,” Avery told ABC Sport.

“These are the young girls who are so enthusiastic and supportive of the Matildas who are now going: ‘I want to be a Matilda, I want to play, I want to be part of that.'”

However, space in Sydney’s Inner West, where the club is based, was already at a premium before this wave of new registrations, with Balmain having to play their “home” games out of seven different grounds scattered across surrounding suburbs.

According to the Inner West Council, there are 36 natural turf sports fields located across 26 different locations in the local government area. Three of those are all-weather synthetic pitches, while two of them — Leichhardt Oval and Henson Park — are used for elite sports events.

Avery says his club’s long-standing problem of finding fields has gotten even worse with the wave of new registrations this season.

“It’s an enormous issue for us; it’s the single greatest factor affecting our capacity to actually provide space for girls and women,” he said.

“We are turning players away across many different age groups because we just can’t accommodate them, we can’t add even one more extra team.

“You need space for teams to train and to play. This is an issue we’ve faced as a club for a decade, and unfortunately it’s just not getting any better because there’s no extra fields… there just hasn’t been enough fields being built in the past few years.

“Girls and women want to play football. They’re choosing that sport. But there’s just nowhere for them to play.”

According to Football NSW, there are currently 1,649 full-sized fields used by 232,400 registered players for training and playing purposes across the state.

As such, many of the available fields must be shared by multiple clubs and teams (sometimes other sports and competitions), accelerating the wear-and-tear of surfaces and making the time slots available for training and games even slimmer.

Players from the Kahibah Football Club Girls Under 13s team training.

Australian clubs have experienced a record number of women and girls registering, but many are struggling to find space to put them.(ABC News: Anthony Scully)

“One of the things we struggle with the most is Sunday fields,” Avery said.

“We share all our fields with other codes, and there’s a lot of legacy and history in our area with sports who may have been here for a century or more, but they just don’t have those participation numbers.

“What we find is that on Sundays, which is when women and girls play within our association, it’s really, really hard to get space for games on those days. So a lot of our teams have to play away from home, as far away as Roselands or Belmore.

“That’s a real frustration: not having those local fields for local players.”

So what is the process of actually getting new football fields built? Where does it start, who is responsible for its various parts, how is it funded, and how long does it take?

And, perhaps most pressing of all, will enough extra fields be built in time so that this wave of new, enthusiastic players don’t drift away from the sport before they’re given the space to play it?

“There’s a number of factors that go into getting new fields built,” Football NSW CEO John Tsatsimas told ABC Sport.

A man in a suit with a beard stands on a soccer pitch and smiles into the camera.

Football NSW CEO John Tsatsimas says the game has been struggling for space for years.(ABC News: Jessica Rendall.)

“If you’re talking about new sites, there’s challenges in terms of not just the availability but also accommodating the reinvigoration of current sites, matters of funding, and whatnot.

“There is a lack of facilities, and what with the property prices in Sydney for accommodation and residential, let alone having to have sporting facilities, it’s a real challenge.

“We’ve lobbied extensively to make sure that local councils are cognisant of the needs of their constituents, and we work closely with [our] associations in lobbying in terms of making applications for funding, we advise in terms of what grant funding opportunities are available, which come and go in terms of what rates are available government by government, area by area.

“So there’s a lot of factors that go into it, but we’ve got a NSW Strategic Plan and pillar that is supporting community football, and we need to keep doing that and evolving with the needs of the constituency.

“But it’s not an easy task. There’s a lot of people that go towards trying to organise appropriate funding and facilitating appropriate amenities, drainage, lighting, and surfaces for the people who are playing.”

From the perspective of the Inner West Council, one of the most densely-populated areas in NSW, they are a small cog in a larger machine that involves the various levels of community, government, and sport having to pull in the same direction over a long period of time.

The local council’s role in this bigger process includes identifying potential new open space areas, assessing the community need for a new sporting ground, engage the local community on their potential support or opposition, and assess the different housing, environmental, and other impacts of providing such a facility, in addition to how to fund and maintain it all.

On top of all of that, there is, as always, politics involved.

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