The “Matildas Effect”: Will the FIFA Women’s World Cup Generate a Legacy in Australia?

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Ding Ding Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, Australia
Charles Perkins Center, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia

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Katherine Owen Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, Australia
Charles Perkins Center, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia

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Adrian E. Bauman Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, Australia
Charles Perkins Center, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia

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Gregore I. Mielke School of Public Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia

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Klaus Gebel School of Public Health, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, Australia

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In July and August, Australia and New Zealand co-hosted the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As football fans living in Australia, we enjoyed the excellent performances of our beloved national team “the Matildas.” Alongside 25 million Australians, we lived and breathed “Matildas Fever.” Record-breaking ticket sales, unprecedented TV ratings (eg, the semifinal against England was the most-watched TV event ever in Australia),1 nonstop media coverage … the Matildas captivated and united a nation in ways unseen before, by any men’s or women’s sporting team in Australia.

The Matildas’ journey was truly a Cinderella story. Less than 2 decades ago, like many women footballers, they played in front of nearly empty small venues with almost no media coverage, while being paid wages that were below the poverty line.2 However, in recent years, the Matildas’ increasing success has paralleled their rising popularity, visibility, and progress in gender equality in sport, including achieving equal pay (in terms of the proportion of the total price money) with the men’s national football team, “the Socceroos” in 2019.

Over the years, we have monitored the effects of major sporting events on population-level physical activity participation. Despite the optimistic outcomes event organizers tend to promise, we found little evidence for a lasting legacy. For example, our analyses of major Olympic events in the last 30 years found very little support for an “Olympic Legacy” in terms of physical activity or community sport participation, despite the spike in public interest during the Olympic Games.3 There was evidence of an increase in motivation and intention following the 2000 Sydney Olympic games, but very few examples of subsequent increases in population physical activity participation.4 However, as both physical activity researchers and football fans, we cannot help but ask the question “Can co-hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup create a positive legacy for community sport and population-level physical activity participation in Australia?”

There are reasons for optimism. First, the “Matildas Fever” seems to have lasted beyond the World Cup. While the players are widely adored by the nation, their careers, whether in Australia or overseas, continue to be followed by their Australian fans. While we are writing this commentary, all Matildas matches in the 2024 Paris Olympic Qualifiers were again completely sold out. Second, the Matildas’ legacy reaches beyond football or sport. Hosting the FIFA World Cup has exposed a nation to the pinnacle of women’s sport and to the athleticism, skills, and bravery of our women footballers, many of whom are from the LGBTQI+ community. Therefore, this World Cup has included social issues, including gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights. As journalists wrote, “Women’s football is bigger than a game.”5 Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Matildas’ success has apparently changed Australians’ perception of women’s sport, and inspired everyone, not just girls and women, but also boys and men, to participate in, respectively, support of women’s sport. Some of the Matildas players, now in their 20s and 30s, confessed that they grew up playing on boys’ teams and idolizing male football stars because there were few role models for girls. Within their career, they have led a cultural change around women’s football and have themselves become the role models for many girls and women today. In fact, female participation in football is expected to soar in Australia with some communities already observing the “Matildas Effect.”6

Evaluating the Women’s World Cup legacy requires population-level monitoring, with the initial effects likely within 12 months. We acknowledge the obstacles and challenges that could stand in the way between the “Matildas Fever” and sustainable societal-level changes. First, despite the breakthroughs achieved by the Matildas, not all women’s sport has received equal attention and sport-related media coverage continues to be dominated by men’s sport.7 Other aspects of gender inequality, such as those related to scheduling and pay, continue to be experienced by many sportswomen in Australia and around the world.8 However, the visibility of the Matildas should be used as an exemplar to motivate changes in other sporting areas and to advocate for other underserved groups in sports, such as people with disabilities. In November 2023, Australia will host the first women’s International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football Asia-Oceania Championships (Para Asian Cup). The Para Cup has run since 2010, but only included a men’s competition. Unfortunately, this event has low community recognition, despite the 2 Australian Para Asia Cup teams representing 4.4 million Australians living with a disability. This event, in the wake of the “Matilda Fever” has the potential to continue to promote equality and inclusion through sports, making football “More than a game.” Second, while the Matildas may inspire young girls to start to play sports, maintaining sport participation has been a substantial challenge in Australia, particularly among adolescent girls.9 In Australia in 2022, 53% of adolescent boys played sport regularly, compared with only 47% of girls. Moreover, sport participation continues to be disproportionately low among socially disadvantaged girls.10 Finally, it is important not to equate progress in elite sport with that in population-level physical activity participation. The latter requires much more than just role models and inspiration and needs coordinated cross-sectoral planning, and sustained investment in structural, socioeconomic, and environmental facilitators of activity across society.

In conclusion, we are optimistic about the positive trends in women’s sport in Australia, spearheaded by the Matildas, but data on participation in the next few years will determine if the current enthusiasm translates into increased governmental support and community participation. The popularity of the Matildas should be used as a catalyst for increasing investments in community sport, active leisure and physical activity for girls and women throughout Australia, across diverse socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, gender identity, and sexual orientation backgrounds. We look forward to observing the most important “Matildas Effect”: more Australian girls and women engaging in physical activity and sports for years to come.

References

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    Snape J. Matildas ‘rewrite history books’ as semi-final smashes TV ratings records. The Guardian. August 17, 2023.

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    Crawford F. From handing out their own flyers, to sell-out games: how the Matildas won over a nation. The Conversation. August 11, 2023.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • 3.

    Bauman AE, Kamada M, Reis RS, et al. An evidence-based assessment of the impact of the Olympic Games on population levels of physical activity. Lancet. 2021;398(10298):456464. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01165-X

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    Bauman A, Bellew B, Craig CL. Did the 2000 Sydney Olympics increase physical activity among adult Australians? Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(4):243247. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-093149

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    Dodd M. Rise of the Matildas shows why women’s football is bigger than a game. Sydney Morning Herald. August 15, 2023.

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    Culpitt A. Womens, girls sport sees increase in players following Women’s World Cup. ABC News. October 17, 2023.

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    Symons K, Schnioffsky B. Australia just won the netball world cup. Why isn’t there room for multiple women’s world cups in our sports media? The Conversation. August 11, 2023.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 8.

    Gebel K, Mutrie N, Ding D. Another step towards gender equality: a call for ending structural sexism in the scheduling of sports events. Br J Sports Med. 2022;56(21):12051206. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-105379

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    Eime R, Harvey J, Charity M, et al. Longitudinal trends in sport participation and retention of women and girls. Front Sports Act Living. 2020;2:39. doi:10.3389/fspor.2020.00039

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    Owen KB, Nau T, Reece LJ, et al. Fair play? Participation equity in organised sport and physical activity among children and adolescents in high income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2022;19(1):113. doi:10.1186/s12966-022-01263-7

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FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, particularly the performance of the Australian Women’s National Team, the Matildas, have sent Australia into a “women’s football fever.” Media coverage of and public interest in women’s football are at all-time high.

We think the Matildas could inspire and mobilize more girls and women to participate in sport and physical activity. However, population-level improvement requires coordinated and sustained investment in structural, socioeconomic, and environmental facilitators of activity across sectors.

  • Collapse
  • Expand
  • 1.

    Snape J. Matildas ‘rewrite history books’ as semi-final smashes TV ratings records. The Guardian. August 17, 2023.

  • 2.

    Crawford F. From handing out their own flyers, to sell-out games: how the Matildas won over a nation. The Conversation. August 11, 2023.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Bauman AE, Kamada M, Reis RS, et al. An evidence-based assessment of the impact of the Olympic Games on population levels of physical activity. Lancet. 2021;398(10298):456464. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01165-X

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Bauman A, Bellew B, Craig CL. Did the 2000 Sydney Olympics increase physical activity among adult Australians? Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(4):243247. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-093149

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Dodd M. Rise of the Matildas shows why women’s football is bigger than a game. Sydney Morning Herald. August 15, 2023.

  • 6.

    Culpitt A. Womens, girls sport sees increase in players following Women’s World Cup. ABC News. October 17, 2023.

  • 7.

    Symons K, Schnioffsky B. Australia just won the netball world cup. Why isn’t there room for multiple women’s world cups in our sports media? The Conversation. August 11, 2023.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 8.

    Gebel K, Mutrie N, Ding D. Another step towards gender equality: a call for ending structural sexism in the scheduling of sports events. Br J Sports Med. 2022;56(21):12051206. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-105379

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Eime R, Harvey J, Charity M, et al. Longitudinal trends in sport participation and retention of women and girls. Front Sports Act Living. 2020;2:39. doi:10.3389/fspor.2020.00039

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Owen KB, Nau T, Reece LJ, et al. Fair play? Participation equity in organised sport and physical activity among children and adolescents in high income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2022;19(1):113. doi:10.1186/s12966-022-01263-7

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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