Like any parent, Helen Tyrikos doesn’t want her daughter to face any obstacles in life due to her gender.
But when it comes to sport, the Head of Women’s Football at Melbourne powerhouse Heidelberg United FC knows there is a long way to go before that’s a reality.
While the Matildas have made incredible strides for women’s football, many sub-elite and community clubs are still struggling to achieve equity.
Boys and men can often still be prioritised when it comes to allocation of pitches and facilities, training and game scheduling, coaching and overall investment.
Ms Tyrikos has long been campaigning to change that, and now she’s looking to a small semi-professional club based in rural south-east England for inspiration.
The ‘Equality FC’ model
“How do you tell your daughter that even if she shows the same skills, the same commitment, trains just as hard and cares just as much, she’s always going to be valued less than her little brother?”
This was the question posed by Lewes FC as it embarked on a historic yet simple mission it called “Equality FC”.
In 2017, the Rooks declared they were the first football club in the world to pay their men’s and women’s teams equally and, three years later, they still appear to be the only one.
“It’s a decision that we took because we believe that the future of football needs to be more inclusive,” said Maggie Murphy, the General Manager of Lewes’ women’s team.
“It needs to have opportunities for girls and for boys, and we need to be in a place where we can realise the ambition of both.
The Rooks’ philosophy extends beyond pay to include parity across all areas including access to facilities, support staff, junior pathways and marketing budgets, and the results have followed.
Both teams have earned promotion, their junior playing numbers have grown, they have more sponsors and, despite increasing ticket prices for women’s games by 160 per cent, crowds have quadrupled.
“So now roughly the attendances are about equal between the men’s team and the women’s team,” Ms Murphy said.
Why can’t Australia follow suit?
Ms Tyrikos, who is also part of the national advocacy network Women Onside, would love to see Heidelberg United adopt a similar approach but it isn’t straightforward.
The senior men’s team is dominant in the semi-professional NPL Victoria, having won the past three premierships.
But the Bergers women’s team, which competes in the state’s NPLW competition, hasn’t enjoyed the same success and has a budget of just 9 per cent of the men’s.
“We’ve got a lot of issues, we’ve got a lot of constraints.
“It would take a lot of time to get to a point where we’re like a Lewes FC,” Mrs Tyrikos said.
She has been lobbying Football Victoria to change some of those constraints, which include the fact the NPLW is amateur, meaning clubs can only reimburse players’ expenses incurred up to $100 a week and they can’t charge admission fees for games.
The passionate administrator, who was formerly Heidelberg’s general manager, has also been frustrated by resistance from figures who continue to operate the club like they did in its heyday in the now-defunct National Soccer League.
“It becomes a monster and keeps growing and growing, and you’re spending so much money on (men’s) wages, and you look back after 10 years and you go, that money could have been invested in the facilities, in growing the game for the juniors,” she said.
“It’s about changing perception and it’s our opportunity to reset and go, ‘hey, why are we spending (10 times more) a year on senior men when we’re getting 800 people to a game, when years ago we used to get 15,000 people?’
Beach huts and Prosecco: Lewes leads way
Changing rusted-on mindsets is hard, especially for long-established, traditional clubs which often have wealthy owners.
That’s not something Lewes has to contend with as a community-owned club.
Instead of stuffy corporate boxes at its home ground there are beach huts, and it has unusual food and drink offerings including Prosecco on tap.
“We don’t have to follow the same rules that have been set down by a men’s club that has always done things in the same way for decades,” Ms Murphy said.
“We’re just able to test and pilot and see what works and as a result, I think our offering is quite unique and people keep on coming back.”
The Rooks also have a reputation for their unique marketing strategies, including quirky posters, which have given Ms Tyrikos something to consider.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to create a funny flyer that’s really cool, that gets people engaged and interested.
“I have an opportunity here to maybe not let the men run our media because they just produce exactly the same template for the girls.
“Maybe we need to now start doing something different to attract a different audience.”
Creating change at higher levels
While plenty of lessons can be learned from Lewes FC, the Australian Women in Sport Advisory Group (AWiSAG) has created its own blueprint called “no boundaries for women and girls in sport and physical activity”.
“This roadmap provides some key areas to assist grassroots through to elite-level sport on what they can do to create a more inclusive environment straightaway,” said AWiSAG chair, Professor Clare Hanlon.
The strategy urges organisations to track progress across areas like leadership, participation, pathways, investment and practical actions, with the aim of achieving gender equality by 2025.
“(If) we leave it for a later date it will happen gradually, we can’t afford for that to happen,” Professor Hanlon said.
“There’s too much at risk for the health and mental well-being of our community, and in particular where girls and women are participating less in sport, as well as being leaders in sports, we need to move that at a quicker pace.”
Helen Tyrikos was previously Football Victoria’s program development manager of women and girls and wants governments and governing bodies to step up in the equality quest.
“I’d like to see authorising brands like Sport and Recreation Victoria, the ones that are handing out the funding dollars and putting things in place, force the clubs to spend a certain amount of money, a bit like Title IX in the US, for every dollar spent on men’s athletes a dollar needs to be spent on female athletes.”
Prizemoney is seen as another area where gains could be made quickly.
“The FA Cup prizemoney at the moment, in the final the women win 0.69 per cent of what the men earn,” said Ms Murphy.
“Now, if that prizemoney was more equal, then the clubs would have more of an incentive to fund and support their women’s teams. So it’s not just down to the clubs, it’s also down to our governing body, the FA, to even things up to change the incentives a little bit.”
Coronavirus chance to start fresh
Whether sports like it or not, the coronavirus-induced shutdown has forced them to re-evaluate their operations.
But with women largely absent from key leadership positions, Professor Hanlon has warned them not to make the same mistakes of the past.
“After COVID-19, we’re going to be at the stage of saying, well, things need to change, we need to restructure our systems, our programs, but where’s the voice of women in that?” she asked.
Ms Murphy, who is also co-founder of the Equal Playing Field initiative, agrees.
“We need that diversity not only in the governing bodies, not only in the Football Associations but in sponsors, in marketing companies, also in the broadcasters who make decisions about what they put on television. I’m hoping that we, in five years’ time, will become much more diverse in all of those areas.
“There’s actually lots of opportunities that we have right now to look at, first of all, protecting women’s football, allowing us to survive and then allowing us to thrive.”
And if that happens, it would mean no parent will ever need to have that uncomfortable conversation with their daughter, questioning her value.