WHEN MARY FOWLER unleashed a thundering strike from her fearsome right boot in the 62nd minute of the Matildas’ Olympic qualifier against a pesky Chinese Taipei in Perth last week, a strange thing occurred. The camera didn’t linger on Fowler and her rejoicing teammates quite as long as it normally would. Instead, it zeroed in on a familiar face in the crowd: Fowler’s new boyfriend, Penrith Panthers’ playmaker Nathan Cleary.
The focus on Cleary irked some fans watching at home on TV. “Fowler needs all the screen time for that goal, not Nathan Cleary, please Channel 10,” someone tweeted.
A fair point. The camera isn’t drawn to the partners of Fowlers’ teammates in quite the same way. Of course, Cleary, at least in NSW and Queensland, is famous. So is Taylor Swift, who the camera seems to be permanently trained on at NFL games right now, as she cheers on her new boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce. Eyeballs and camera lenses are drawn to famous faces.
Cleary’s fame has led to some concerns that the NRL star could overshadow Fowler, robbing her of the limelight she so richly deserves after her dominant performances for the Matildas this year.
These are legitimate concerns and prior to this year’s Women’s World Cup, they held more water. But they’re also rooted in insecurity. The WWC was a gamechanger for women’s football, at least at the national level, making household names of the team’s stars, who are now among the most marketable athletes in the country. That’s altered the calculus in terms of the way we appraise and view women’s sport. The unintended consequence of the rise of the Matildas is that the wider public now care about who the players are dating, particularly if that person is famous.
This has long been the case with male athletes’ partners, collectively dubbed WAGS (wives and girlfriends). The term is regarded as a pejorative, reducing these women to ornamental accoutrements and denying them agency, even though in many cases they have their own businesses, skills, talent and, in the case of the likes of Posh Spice or Gisele Bündchen, for example, fame.
Has the script now been flipped? Are we at a stage where we can call Cleary a ‘HAB’ (husband and boyfriend)? Will Kelce become a HAB when he joins Swift on the Argentine leg of her Eras concert tour later this month?
The answer is probably not. It should be noted that nobody is calling Swift a WAG right now. Her fame, power and influence far outshine Kelce’s. Similarly, you could argue that outside of NSW and Queensland, Fowler is a bigger name than Cleary on a national level. If, next season, she shows up at Penrith Panthers’ games, you can be sure the camera will find her. You can also be sure that no one will fret about her fame overpowering her boyfriend’s.
WAGS was always a problematic label and HABS, which is fun but irredeemably clunky, is no better. In many cases, the way to view pairings like Fowler and Cleary is not to slap either partner with a reductive acronym. Instead, they command the label ‘power couple’. Young, talented, good looking and impossibly marketable, like Posh and Becks or Brady and Bündchen once were, they are stronger together in what could well become a unified mega brand.
With apologies to any remaining romantic purists who might be offended by relationships being coded and commodified in such a gauche manner, the truth is, prior to the WWC, we may not have regarded Fowler and Cleary as a power couple in the truest sense. It’s a testament to the strength of the Matildas’ brand and Fowler’s own star power, that we now find ourselves assessing the relationship not (entirely) through a tabloid lens but through its synergies.
Top five athlete power couples
Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi
Two of the best tennis players of the modern era. This is a love match.
Sam Kerr and Kristie Mewis
Kerr and USWNT midfielder Kristie Mewis confirmed they were dating following the bronze medal match between Australia and the United States at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mitchell Starc and Alyssa Healy
Two greats from the same sport. Starc leads the Australian men’s cricket team’s bowling attack. Healy is a keeper-batter for the Aussie women’s team.
Laird Hamilton And Gabrielle Reece
Hamilton has been one of the most famous big-wave surfers in the world since the 1980s. Reece was a professional volleyball player, who was one of the top players in the Women’s Beach Volleyball League during the 1990s. The pair married in 1997, and have two daughters together.
Simone Biles and Jonathan Owens
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Biles has been in a relationship with Houston Texans safety Owens since 2020. The pair got engaged in February, 2022.