AT THE 2023 FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP the Matildas won the hearts of the nation on their way to a best-ever fourth place finish. Every match the team played was sold out, news outlets became dedicated to round-the-clock Matildas updates—notably detailing all the minutiae on Sam Kerr’s calf—and the semi-final against England was the most watched sporting event in Australian history, with 11.2 million tuning in. We get it, you’ve heard this all before. While the Matildas burned bright, their skyrocketing popularity is showing some staying power, and the TV ratings of rival sports’ biggest events are giving further credence to the spectacle that was the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Penrith Panthers’ gripping triumph over the Brisbane Broncos attracted a total national average of 3.52 million viewers, a 28 per cent increase from the NRL’s 2022 deciding game. The AFL grand final went one better, pipping the NRL in ratings with 3.84 million watching the ‘Pies down the Lions. If we ignore the Women’s World Cup—which is an impossible task under these circumstances—the AFL and NRL grand finals would be the first and second most watched television programs of the year, as they are accustomed to being. But of course, we can’t just ignore the revolutionary impact of the Matildas’ World Cup campaign, which shattered viewing records and sparked a wave of sporting fervour not witnessed since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The NRL and AFL’s grand final viewing numbers are a reminder of just how alluring Matildas’ fever was. While the oval-ball codes’ grand final numbers were both an increase on previous years’ showings, they can’t hold a candle to the Matildas’ output. 11.2 million people watched the Matildas’ heart-breaking semi-final loss to England, with millions more tuning in at some point in the tournament. It may have seemed like everyone was watching the AFL and NRL over the weekend, but the audience numbers prove the appeal of the Matildas was far greater.
Is Matildas fever still going?
It was hoped that the Matildas’ historic World Cup campaign would be the start of a sea change in Australian women’s sports. With half the nation tuning in during their fairytale run, you might take it as a given that the Matildas would be firmly entrenched as our most beloved national team from this point on, but sports fans are notoriously fickle in their support, and we don’t blame them. Why bother slogging through all those meaningless friendlies and one-sided qualifiers when a loose commitment means you can still bask in the glory of success when big tournaments come around?
Well, Matildas supporters obviously have no such qualms. The team’s Olympic qualifier against the Philippines next month has been met with such high demand that organisers have moved the fixture from Perth’s 20,000 capacity HBF Park to the nearby Optus Stadium, which can hold an extra 40,000 fans.
The switch was made necessary by soaring demand for tickets, after allocations were quickly exhausted for the Philippines game, as well as two other qualifiers. Football Australia CEO James Johnson spoke of the unprecedented interest in the Matildas, which facilitated the move. “The Matildas are one of the strongest sporting brands in the country, and it has become strongly evident that passionate support for this iconic team continues to grow,” Johnson said. “For the second time in 12 months, because of the popularity of the Matildas, we need to relocate to a venue with a higher capacity to accommodate the demand.”
The Matildas’ clash against the Philippines is the second of three Olympic qualifiers taking place in a window between October 26th and November 1st. The other two matches, against Iran and Chinese Taipei, will still be held at HBF Park.
Western Australia Premier Roger Cook cited the rectangular HBF Park’s superior suitability for football as the motivator behind the decision to not move all three matches to a larger stadium, noting that high demand made a larger capacity necessary for at least one match. “Although the Rectangle Stadium at HBF Park is best suited for football, given all three match days have sold out, on balance it made sense to move one to Optus Stadium, so that as many fans as possible could see the team,” Cook said.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup shattered the notion that women’s sport doesn’t garner considerable interest. Just shy of 2 million total fans attended matches, and the Matildas averaged an attendance of more than 50,000 per game. That interest helped the Matildas’ brand become more valuable than any other Australian national sports team.
Following the World Cup’s success, Mark Crowe, the Managing Director of Brand Finance Australia, said the “Challenge is to maintain that strength beyond the World Cup, a signature event that brings incredible focus and attention for a month.” Let there be no doubts, the Matildas have done exactly that.
After the Matildas bowed out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage, Sam Kerr discussed the legacy left by the team, “Hopefully this is the start of something new,” she said. While a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of bitter rivals England would’ve still been fresh in Kerr’s mind, and our own, the message was clear: this is only the start.
For Kerr, there has never been any doubt that Australians would support women’s sport if given the right opportunity and exposure, “If you bring the product to Australia, we’ll go out there and support it,” she said. The keys to continuing the advancement of women’s football in Australia after the World Cup were apparent. One was increased funding to support grassroots growth, which has been achieved following a $200 million pledge from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Another was expressly stated by Kerr herself, “Hopefully we’ve got a few more fans that will stick around.” With the demand surrounding next month’s qualifiers, it’s clear the hype isn’t settling down. The fans have well and truly stuck around.