With all the hype surrounding the growth of women’s team sport in Australia this year, it’s been super exciting to see some real success from one in particular.
The Matildas have struck a chord off the field – and unless it just happens to be a pure alignment of the planets, that’s had an impact on it as well.
Three wins back-to-back against Brazil, the benchmark and glamour team of the women’s world game, has been great, but nothing compared to the hearts that have been won across the country.
The word was that the game in Newcastle this week attracted the second-biggest crowd for a women’s sporting event in Australia after the basketball gold medal match at the Sydney Olympics.
Who knows whether that’s actually correct or not – women’s athletics conducted some well-attended stand-alone meets in the 1950s and 60s when it had a fair swag of the globe’s best in track and field. But such analysis is academic really.
For it’s clear at least for the moment that Australians are prepared to rock up and pay to watch their national women’s soccer team do their stuff. That’s meat on the bone among a fair bit of glitz and high-end promotional activity from its rival codes.
Perhaps most tellingly is that the Matildas are delivering up players with whom the country can relate. Sam Kerr is an excitement machine, but she value adds both on and off the pitch.
It will be no surprise if the sale of number 20 Aussie jerseys goes through the roof, nor that the emergence of Kerr might inspire a stack of Australian teenage girls to take up or, perhaps just as importantly, stay in the sport.
And such a phenomenon could not come at a better time both for Australian soccer and society.
If it emerges that recent events have enabled soccer to steal the momentum from netball, AFL, cricket, rugby league and rugby union in the battle for the hearts and minds of the broader population and in increased participation of females in their game, it might be a critical moment.
The inherent advantage that soccer has over the other five codes is that it is truly the world game. Two of its rivals are essentially domestic and the other three limited in their global reach.
If soccer can ice that cake in a permanently-attractive way, it may end up streets ahead of the pack. The other real possibility is that the sport’s women’s team could, sooner rather than later, be recognised as more successful - which it already is, but also more widely-embraced, than its male equivalent.
The unique situation of netball aside, it’s hard to imagine that ever happening in the other games.
But there’s much more in its armoury, because as a low-injury and easy-to-organise game, soccer could be the juggernaut that makes some really serious inroads into increasing the health, fitness and general well-being of Australian women.
Report after report highlights the enormous challenges facing an increasingly-obese Australia. Right now nothing seems to be getting the general population active, so maybe the Matildas will inspire Australia’s women to leave its men behind in getting fitter and healthier.
And it might be just the hook to value add to any pitch to sponsors looking to get on board with our latest national heroes.
Where that leaves the other contenders for the attention of the Australian women’s sport’s fan and participant will be fascinating to watch and assess.
Among team sports that includes hockey and basketball alongside the six that have most recently been most active in the expansion game.
Both, like netball, have been hugely popular long term in terms of grass root participation, while at the top end delivering plenty of international glory.
But the market-place is now immediately over-crowded and points of difference may end up being far more important than gold medals, tradition and loyalty.
Right now, Sam Kerr and her Matilda mates are delivering best.