On 25th May 2023, Women Onside hosted the Women in Football Leadership Conference. This transformative event ignited a powerful dialogue about women’s football’s immense potential and untapped opportunities. With a theme of “Level Up!" the conference celebrated the remarkable achievements of women leaders while emphasising the need for further investment and a fresh approach to marketing women’s football.
“Football is a sleeping giant in Australia ... women will wake Aussies up.” In her speech to open the conference, Federal Minister for Sport, Anika Wells passionate declaration fuelled a sense of purpose, highlighting the immense potential of women’s football to shake the nation awake.
One notable discussion centred on the tremendous opportunity awaiting investors in women’s football. The success story of Angel City FC, co-founded by Kara Nortman and Julie Urhman, captivated the audience. This groundbreaking team epitomised the power of strategic investment, showcasing how a “women-led, women-owned” initiative could capture the imagination and support of fans and sponsors alike. It was a testament to the fact that women’s football held a sleeping giant within, ready to awaken.
Moreover, the conference highlighted the importance of marketing women’s football differently. Traditional approaches rooted in men’s football do not fully capture women fans' unique appeal and engagement. Experts like Bex Sowden, co-founder of ‘Correct the Internet’ emphasised the need to tailor marketing strategies to cater to women's distinctive interests and aspirations and the specific attributes that make women’s football captivating. "Women's football fans are more loyal, more engaged ... there is a huge opportunity [for investment and sponsorship]." These words echoed the sentiment shared by many, underscoring the untapped potential of women's football and the vast opportunities for growth and development.
The conference sparked a collective recognition of women's football fans' immense loyalty and engagement. Attendees concurred that investing in women’s football was not merely a pursuit of trophies or profits but an investment in a vibrant community that had proven its unwavering dedication to the sport. "We're not just here to win a piece of metal." Moya Dodd's, former vice-captain of the Matildas, powerful statement challenged conventional notions of success, emphasising that women's football goes beyond trophies, emphasising the profound impact it can have on individuals and communities.
As discussions unfolded, it became evident that investing in women’s football was investing in the game's future—a chance to shape the landscape and elevate the sport to new heights.
The Women in Football Leadership Conference 2023 also highlighted the role of leadership in driving change. Esteemed thought leaders such as Ebru Köksal CFA, Dr Johanna Wood, and Jo Fernandes shared their invaluable insights and experiences, emphasising the significance of authenticity, empowerment, and shared values in effective leadership.
"I was trying to fit in, not trying to belong … you need to put your real thoughts out there … be bold and bring your whole self." These resonant words from Ebru served as a call to authenticity, urging participants to shed any pretences and embrace their true selves as leaders.
Echoed by Jo Fernandes in "Be authentic in your leadership." words which reverberated, urging participants to lead with integrity and genuine purpose, emphasising the power of staying true to oneself.
Their wisdom inspired participants to step into their roles as trailblazers, fostering an environment where women’s football thrived.
Jackie Lee-Joe, Director of Football Australia and Global Marketing Lead at Cash App, captivated the audience with her insights on digital fan engagement and the remarkable potential of connected fandom. Her powerful statement, "Shared values turned into activism... mobilised through a connected fandom," underscored the profound impact a united and passionate community could have in driving positive change.
Jackie's presentation shed light on the transformative power of leveraging shared values to mobilise fans into a force for activism and social progress. In an era of digital connectivity, where fans could connect and engage across borders and time zones, the potential for collective action was unprecedented.
She emphasised the importance of understanding women's football fans' unique characteristics and motivations, acknowledging that marketing strategies must be tailored to their specific interests and aspirations. By recognising and catering to the distinct attributes that make women's football captivating, Jackie emphasised the potential to build a passionate and loyal fan base that extended far beyond the realm of traditional fandom.
Another prominent figure was Kate Jacewicz, a highly respected FIFA referee. Kate's journey in officiating at the highest levels of the game was a testament to her dedication, expertise, and unwavering resolve.
As a pioneer in the refereeing world, Kate shattered gender barriers and proved that women could excel in traditionally male-dominated roles. Her path was paved with countless challenges and obstacles, but she persevered, demonstrating that mistakes were stepping stones to success. Kate firmly believed that every misstep was an opportunity to grow, learn, and improve—one that ultimately led her to the pinnacle of her career.
Kate's presence at the conference shed light on referees' significant role in the game and the need for gender diversity in this domain. Her experiences and insights resonated with participants, inspiring them to challenge preconceived notions and embrace opportunities in refereeing, coaching, and other leadership positions.
Participants were fortunate to hear from Rae Dower, the Football Australia Technical Director for Women's Football and the Head Coach of the Junior Matildas (U17's), sharing her coaching journey, a powerful source of inspiration for aspiring leaders in women's football.
Throughout her career, Rae Dower has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to nurturing young talent and pushing the boundaries of the game. Her journey as a coach encompassed countless hours spent on the training ground, shaping the skills and character of future stars. Her dedication went beyond winning matches; it was about providing a positive experience for young people and instilling values of teamwork, resilience, and empowerment. "It's not just about what you do as a leader; it's about what you can empower others to do."
Rae's emphasis on empowering others highlighted the essence of true leadership—fostering an environment where individuals could thrive and reach their full potential.
Rae Dower's coaching journey and Kate Jacewicz's rise as a top-level referee were remarkable examples of women breaking barriers, defying stereotypes, and making a lasting impact in the football world.
As the conference drew to a close, it was clear that the ripple effects of this transformative gathering would continue to shape the future of women’s football. The discussions and connections made during the event were just the beginning of an exciting journey toward gender equality and greater recognition for the women’s game. The Women in Football Leadership Conference 2023 set a new standard, igniting a passion and determination to propel women’s football to unprecedented heights.
With the FIFA Women’s World Cup on the horizon, this historic year marks a turning point for Australian women’s football. The conference became a pivotal moment for participants to embrace their roles as game-changers, recognising the vast opportunities for growth, investment, and progress in women’s football.
"Investing in women's football is investing in football for good." Kerry Harris, Chair of Women Onside and conference host, resolutely highlighting the transformative impact that investing in women's football could have on the sport and society.
Attendees were reluctant to leave the virtual halls as informal discussions continued. Still, when they did, they carried with them a renewed sense of purpose and the collective resolve to redefine the future of the beautiful game—ensuring that the conference's legacy would resonate far beyond its digital borders.