Right now is the best time there’s ever been for women’s sport.
We’re flooded with headlines telling us about record attendances across A-League Women, WBBL, AFLW and NRLW matches across Australia.
But while this newfound popularity is encouraging there is still quite a long way to go when it comes to improving grassroots participation in female sport.
New research conducted by us at Year13 in partnership with Visa has revealed that age 15 is Australia’s peak age for girls dropping out of sport with a lack of role models, body confidence and conflict with study all playing a role.
The research revealed the importance of visible role models as 60% of young female respondents said they didn’t have a female sports star they looked up to. One in five (20%) girls also said they’ve never seen or can’t remember the last time they saw women’s sport highlights in the media. However, real and relatable role models were shown to be more important than ever with almost a third (31%) of young girls who do not play sport dropping out due to body image issues.
So we spoke with professional women’s footballers Ellie Carpenter from Australia and Claudia Bunge from New Zealand about how grassroots support, role models and their communities were key players in helping them achieve their success.
YEAR13: When you first realised that football was your passion and you wanted to pursue a career playing sport, did you get a lot of support with that decision from the people around you?
ELLIE: Yeah, I was obviously very young. I think I’d just finished Year 9 and I was barely at school. I was always away overseas and I think it was just time for me to leave because there weren’t many opportunities left in Australia. So, I went overseas, and I think a lot of people didn’t agree with me leaving at such a young age and not finishing school. But that was my choice and I wanted to follow my dream.
And my family was always behind me. It’s ironic because both of my parents are teachers and they didn’t really care that I didn’t finish school, they just supported me and were behind me the whole way and said, “Go and have a shot at it overseas,” and it paid off.
CLAUDIA: I always wanted to play sport. I always wanted to make a National team. When I was growing up, I was playing every sport I could. I love being active and plus I usually got the day off school, so I was signing up for everything. Then through high school obviously I continued with football, and I was also playing quite a bit of tennis. But I think the factor that kept me in football was the fact it’s a team sport and I’m quite a social person, so that’s kind of where my love for the game started. Around 14 or 15, I made the decision to pursue football and I had a few setbacks. I didn’t make teams and things like that, but I kept playing and then the success kind of followed
YEAR13: Speaking on those setbacks, there seems to be an idea that people get really fixated on success, especially when it comes to sport. So there’s this idea that if you’re not good at it by a certain age, then there’s no point playing at all. Obviously, you’re both professional athletes, so I wanted to ask, do you find yourself mostly motivated by success, or do you also find enjoyment in the process of improving?
CLAUDIA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think growing up you kind of get caught up in making teams and you still do at this level. But over the last few years and after playing professionally in Melbourne, I’ve started to appreciate the hard times and like you said, the process is massive because it’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would be playing professionally. So it’s kind of about taking the highs and the lows as they come and trying not to get too fixated on the results. Or if you have a bad performance, you have to move on quickly and remember that it’s part of the journey. It’d be a bit boring if you just went all the way to the top instantly, and I don’t think anyone’s ever done that. There’s a lot of beauty in the hardship of it all as well.
ELLIE: I don’t define my success by what I’ve achieved. Obviously, I did start young but there’s a common feeling that if you don’t make your debut by 15 on a national team you’re never going to play professionally. I think maybe some people can get fixated on that. But there are a lot of teammates that I have in the Matildas that didn’t make their first Matildas cap until 25, 26. So it’s not unheard of coming in late to the team or even joining the sport late.
So every journey is different. And for me to keep going in football, it’s not just because I want to win, it’s more the enjoyment and the passion I get from it. Obviously, the end result is fantastic. But being in love with the process is so important. If you don’t really love it then you’re not going to give your 100% anyway. And if you’re just there for the money or the awards at the end, then you’re not really going to get to your full potential.
YEAR13: Have you noticed any key differences between playing in front of Australian crowds compared to European or overseas crowds? And do you think there’s anything that’s working well in Europe that you think could be implemented in women’s sports here in Australia or even the other way around?
CLAUDIA: With Melbourne Victory, we brought in a couple of big crowds recently, especially for the final’s games. I think the past two grand finals we had a few thousand so that was really cool and Australian fans are really passionate so that’s really awesome.
But yeah, it’s similar to playing overseas in front of international fans. It depends on what you’re playing. Every crowd and every country is a little bit different, but I feel like football fans are usually all pretty similar. They’re very passionate and get a few chants going. So yeah, there’s definitely similarities. But I guess with international matches you’re up against the best of the best, so stakes are a little bit higher, so hopefully we can see the Ferns bring in some big crowds like they have been in the Euros and other places around the world.
ELLIE: Yeah, I think it’s always going to be a bit different in Europe because Europe live and breathe football. It’s like, they wake up and they watch football. But England winning the Women’s Euros last year made such a massive impact. Now every game of the league is full, and they’ll have 90,000 people at the Cup final this weekend. So, I think you can see what could possibly happen to Australia after we host the FIFA Women’s World CupTM, seeing how that happened.
But honestly, the crowd in Australia, I think it’s one of my favourites. I feel like Aussies are crazy for sport. I’m just really excited that we can play in front of them at the FIFA Women’s World CupTM , I think it will be amazing.
YEAR13: What do you think the future holds for women’s sports in Australia and what are the main things that you reckon would help move things forward?
CLAUDIA: Just having people like myself and other players across Australia and New Zealand more visible to the public. Being able to see someone like Sam Kerr in the media all the time doing amazing things in England. For girls, to see someone like that who looks like them, I think that’s really powerful. And if they can see it, they can be it. So, representation is huge and that goes for Indigenous communities as well. Seeing Indigenous players and Māori players across both Australia and New Zealand is also really important.
YEAR13: Do you think at the moment we’re at the best time for women’s sport in Australia and New Zealand so far? There’s been a lot of interest in women’s football and AFLW? And as a casual viewer, it definitely feels like there’s such a growing hype around it. Does it feel that way from your side as well?
CLAUDIA: Yeah, definitely. I think playing in Australia with the AFLW coming through and the improvements that that league’s made. Also, the NRLW and then recently with the Super Rugby as well. I feel like it’s a really cool time for sports in Australia and New Zealand for football and other codes. I think the timing of this FIFA Women’s World CupTM is really great. And also, just having the Rugby World Cup last year and then the Cricket World Cup as well, it’s really cool that all these sports are coming to New Zealand and Australia.
So hopefully we can just feed off each other even though we’re playing completely different sports, every female athlete goes through similar struggles, you know, not getting paid enough and not getting the same resources as guys do. So, we’re all on the same page. And I think the timing of all the different World Cups is really cool.
ELLIE: And imagine all those girls sitting at home or in the stands or watching on TV and seeing us play and thinking, “Oh, that’s so cool, I want to be that” or, “Wow! You can be a footballer, that can be your job. You can do that full-time.” I think that can really make a switch in someone’s head and can help them choose another path or go and join a local team, whether it be amateur or professional.
By 2027 the FFA has a goal for new participants in soccer in Australia to be 50% women and 50% men. And I think we can achieve that by hosting the FIFA Women’s World CupTM and hopefully inspiring the next generation.
If you’d like some more tips on how you can encourage your student or child to get involved in sport, check out the rest of our content in the Visa PlayOn hub.