<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-P36XLWQ" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

‘The Matildas brand is one of the strongest in the country’: Why Football Australia’s CEO has big goals for the Women’s World Cup

Amid record ticket sales and growing interest in women's soccer, the 2023 Fifa Women's World Cup promises to be another landmark moment in the ongoing development of the sport. Football Australia’s chief executive James Johnson tells SportsPro how the national governing body prepared for the tournament, the thinking behind its ticketing strategy, and how the Matildas became one of the most recognisable sports brands in the country.

21 July 2023 Josh Sim

Getty Images

Hosting the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup may not have come at a better time for Australia.

The Matildas, the country’s national women’s soccer team, are now firmly established as one of the most recognisable sides in Australian sport. Major commercial deals with the likes of Commonwealth Bank and Lego, among others, have seen the team surpass its male counterparts for sponsorship revenue. Football Australia chief executive James Johnson believes few can rival the Matildas in terms of brand recognition, and a strong showing in women’s soccer’s flagship international tournament would provide another boost for their popularity.

“We’ve gone on a journey over the past two and a half years where the Matildas brand is now one of the strongest sporting brands in the country,” says Johnson, speaking to SportsPro in early July.

“It’s just surpassed the Wallabies, our men’s rugby team, which are traditionally a very strong sporting brand. We think that by the end of the Women’s World Cup, one of the legacies will be the Matildas will actually go past [Australian national rugby league team] the Kangaroos in terms of the power of the brand, which is the third biggest sporting brand in the country.”

Indeed, Australia is co-hosting the ongoing Women’s World Cup alongside New Zealand for the first time, which its national soccer body hopes will create a lasting legacy for the women’s game in the country.

Close to 1.4 million tickets had already been sold on the eve of the tournament, including sellouts for the Matildas’ three group stage matches, surpassing the record set in Canada eight years ago. The event is also expected to deliver a significant tourism boost to Australia, which is anticipating more than 55,000 international visitors during the competition, generating an estimated AUS$169 million (US$114.4 million) for the economy.

As well as discussing the strategy underpinning the rise of the Matildas brand, Johnson also tells SportsPro about the organisation’s plans for the future of domestic soccer in Australia and the targets set for successfully delivering women soccer’s flagship international tournament.

How did you devise a ticketing strategy that would economically benefit the host cities?

As a host, it’s important to us that we are filling stadiums. That’s important, that creates the energy in the stadium. The cheaper the ticket sales are, the more families that can go to these matches. We wanted to make sure that not only are the stadiums as full as possible, but also the composition of the stadiums have many families, and that means the price needs to be family friendly.

To watch a Matildas match, or a match on Australian or New Zealand shores, you can pay AUS$22 (US$15) for a ticket for certain seeds. So it’s between AUS$20 (US$13) and AUS$80 (US$54), depending on the category that fans would like to go to. So it is accessible, tickets are selling, there are going to be a lot of families at these matches, and that’s what’s going to be special about this Women’s World Cup.

What targets do you have for the delivery of the tournament?

There are agreed KPIs between the two hosts, which is Football Australia and New Zealand Football, and Fifa. These KPIs largely revolve around matchday attendance, which is 1.5 million ticket sales across the two countries. And then the broadcast figures. The vision is to reach a broadcast audience of two billion across the world. To put that into perspective, France, in 2019, achieved 1.2 billion. So it really is a significant push to get broadcast numbers.

What is unique about this tournament is how those numbers get carved up in the end. That’s what’s really interesting to me, because we’re in a non-traditional football time zone. So normally, the traditional football time zone is somewhere between London and New York. When we hit two billion, what I believe you will find is that we’ll find higher audiences than we’ve ever seen, not just in Australia or New Zealand, but in countries like China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the west coast of the United States.

I think that’s a really interesting point, because it means that we’re showcasing this competition and the world’s best players to a different part of the world. It just happens to be the part of the world that has the population and has big, emerging markets.

The Women’s World Cup will showcase the world’s best players to a different part of the world

How do you plan to ensure the World Cup leaves a strong legacy?

The day after we won the bid in June 2020, we started talking about legacy at Football Australia and we wanted to really define what legacy was, because there’s actually no playbook for legacy – and I can tell you that because I’ve looked for it. So we’ve tried to be very specific and define what Football Australia means by legacy. And we went through a process from June 2020 to January 2021, which is when we released our Legacy 23 strategy.

There were going to be five pillars of our legacy, which were participation, high performance, facilities, tourism and international engagement, and leadership and development. What I can say is that two and a half years later, and even before a ball has been kicked, legacy has already been brought to life in Australia.

We’ve already had north of AUS$300 million (US$204.3 million) that has been invested by the federal, state and local governments. And most of this investment has been into participation programmes on one hand, which helps lift the numbers of our participation base. We’ve already had a ten per cent increase in participation] this year and we’re expecting a further 20 per cent increase in participation post the Women’s World Cup, and we’ve got funding to actually enable that growth.

We’ve seen the majority of that AUS$300 million go into facilities, and in two different parts. One is professional game facilities. In the host cities like Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, each of these stadiums have had major upgrades – up to AUS$50 million (US$34.1 million) in investment. And then there’s investment that’s gone into community facilities. So that means more fields to play, it means more lights, which means that a local club in Bathurst, for example, can play during the day and in the evenings. And it’s also meant investment into changing rooms that are gender neutral. It means that young girls can get changed in girls changing rooms and not boys changing rooms. That’s significant as part of this broader legacy of the tournament.

High performance has also been a legacy that’s been brought to life. The Matildas have had the strongest schedule the programme’s ever had. And earlier this month, we opened a AUS$100 million (US$68.12 million) high performance facility called the Home of the Matildas in Melbourne.

The new ‘Home of the Matildas’ training facility was opened in Melbourne earlier this month

What strategies have helped grow the Matildas brand and how do you plan to strengthen it going forward?

During Covid, I watched The Last Dance docuseries about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. And what became very clear was my whole family, including my young children, who represent the demographic of who we want to market the Matildas brand to, were all engaged in this docuseries, not engaging in the sport. We’re not basketball fans, but we all loved the stories about the athletes and the coach.

So what became very clear is that if we wanted to engage a new group of fans for the Matildas, we had to obviously look after the football fans, but we also had to look after the non-traditional sporting fans. And that meant we had to tell the story a little bit differently to the typical sporting team. Everything we’ve done since that point has really revolved around storytelling, and trying to target a non-traditional football audience.

We partnered with CommBank for the naming rights of the Matildas. They are a very strong brand in Australia and they talk to modern day Australia every day. They tell great stories about how they looked after a community through banking. We did a deal with Disney, for example, because we wanted the world’s best storytellers to tell the story of the Matildas as individuals, and also as a team. We wanted the storytelling not only to be targeted at the Australian audience, but audiences in the United States and in the UK. We had Nike, who are an existing partner, and they’re great storytellers, too. So if you walk down King Street today in Sydney, or if you go to Federation Square in Melbourne, you will see Nike telling the Matildas story.

So that’s played a significant role with where the brand is today. And continually telling stories to a broader audience, not just the football audience, is where the future of the brand lies.

What knock-on impact do you think hosting the Women’s World Cup will have on the domestic game in Australia?

One of the significant changes that we introduced in 2020 was a different structure for the league. Our role at Football Australia moved from an operator to a regulator. That allowed us to continue to control key parts of the league, ranging from refereeing appointment to competition rules to club licensing to the transfer system. But it allowed us to relinquish the operational rights and also the commercial rights associated with the league, which is healthy because it allows the clubs in particular to invest in and feel ownership in their own products. So that was the focus.

For me, what that meant for the broader game was we could focus on rebuilding the Socceroos brand, which at the time, I didn’t believe was visible enough. It also allowed us to build the Matildas brand. But in order for those to be built, we needed a strong collaboration with our clubs and with our top-tier league.

But what changed – and where we’ve got a very good alignment with our clubs – is that the clubs and the league are part of an ecosystem. And their role ultimately is to develop players. That’s important in England and France and Germany and all the big football nations, but I think it’s even more important for Australia to think about the development of players because it’s good for the club, and it’s good for the national team. It’s good because we want to make sure that our clubs are exporting players to markets across the world, to the big leagues and the big clubs. Whereas in the past, under the former administration, the focus was trying to retain the players on our shores.

Where we’ve changed our mentality is that we look at ourselves today as an export country. And that’s okay, because the Netherlands and Belgium and Croatia and Uruguay, they’re all exporting countries. And the more players that we can get into big leagues and clubs around the world makes football in Australia and Australian football as it’s perceived globally, more relevant.

I think that’s what we want to evolve post the Women’s World Cup with our leagues and our clubs, so that the brand of our leagues in Australia are very high.