On the day of the W-League Grand Final, just a few months after the Matildas went on strike, 42 W-League players met in a quiet room at AAMI Park in Melbourne. Leading the meeting, along with former Matildas and senior player advocates, was Kate Gill, the newly appointed player relations executive for Professional Footballers Australia.
At one point, the players were asked who needed to work a day job to make ends meet. Nearly everyone raised their hand. “Most of them are still living at home, some of them are still at school or studying or working part-time,” says Gill. “So although they self-identify as professional footballers in terms of commitment and hours, they’re definitely not being remunerated for that.”
Gill is behind the push for W-League players to collectively organise for better wages and conditions. By the start of the next season, Gill hopes to replicate the A-League model and have full W-League membership to the PFA. This, she says, will allow the women to lobby for a set of minimum standards.
To the football community, Gill, 31, is a familiar face — three Asian Cups, one World Cup, the first Australian woman to win Asian player of the year, twice winner of the W-League Golden Boot, and to this day the leading Australian goalscorer.
It’s like having Tim Cahill on your staff
For the players association, Gill is a significant recruit. As one football administrator put it, “it’s like having Tim Cahill on your staff.” For the W-League players, Gill is someone who has been there and done that. Perhaps not the life of the party in team camps, as a player she was respected not only for her talent but for her professionalism.
By joining an organisation which prides itself as being by the players, for the players, Gill is following in a path well-traveled by Australian footballers. Since its establishment in 1993, however, Gill is the first woman to become part of the executive. Her appointment heralds a new drive and focus on the women’s game.
We might look back on 2015 as a pivotal year for women’s football in Australia. The Matildas created history twice: first by sealing a first-ever knockout stage victory at a World Cup in June, and then in September by becoming the first national team to go on strike.
Ultimately they got what they bargained for: wall-to-wall media scrutiny and the minimum wage. Beginning on Monday, their qualifying matches will be aired live on Channel 7, which FFA chief executive David Gallop called “a breakthrough moment for women’s football.”
Meanwhile, football for the first time surpassed netball as the number one sport for girls, and in their inaugural W-League season Melbourne City went undefeated to win both Grand Final and premiership. According to Gill, the introduction of City is “the best thing that’s happened to the W-League”. It is no secret that City offered better pay than the other W-League clubs, but most importantly they offered a professional environment for their players. That’s raised the bar, and the expectation.
Set against these achievements, however, was the success of cricket’s Women’s Big Bash League, and the plans for a women’s AFL competition by 2017. The WBBL out-rated the A-League in its first weekend, while the AFL Players Association is also seeking to sign up female members. The increased professionalism in both sports is potentially damaging to football — Ellyse Perry, for example, plays far more WBBL than she does W-League, while Melbourne City goalkeeper Brianna Davey will play AFL this winter.
"We’ll either lose it to other codes who are developing a career path and a way forward, or girls will just become disillusioned, and realise they can earn more having a regular job"
“I think it’s going to make it hard to retain talent,” says Gill. “We’ll either lose it to other codes who are developing a career path and a way forward, or girls will just become disillusioned, and realise they can earn more having a regular job.”
Kate Gill didn’t get a “fairytale ending” to her playing career. In April 2014, the former Matildas coach Hesterine De Reus was sacked after the PFA raised concerns over “worrying workplace practices.” Almost immediately following the appointment of Alen Stajcic, Gill was on the outer.
Despite being the leading Australian goalscorer at the time, winning a premiership with Perth Glory that season as well as the Golden Boot award, she was left out of the 2015 World Cup squad. Although Gill hasn’t officially retired, she hasn’t played since.
The irony, of course, was that Gill was at the centre of De Reus’ sacking. As a member of the Matildas leadership committee, she was one of the people that took the players concerns to the PFA. Unwittingly, she helped engineer her own demise as a national team player.
“I had total respect for Hesterine,” explains Gill. “She made some tremendous changes within the group. But if you’re put in a leadership role you have to respond to the players and make sure you’re looking out for them. I did feel torn, like I was the meat in the sandwich, but I felt I had to do what was best for the group. If I have to advocate for them, that’s the position I need to take.”
It’s always been about leaving the game behind in a better position
If leaders are forged out of tough times, for Gill this was a significant moment of transition. “I’ve always been a big picture person,” she says, “it’s always been about leaving the game behind in a better position.”
For someone still adjusting to life after football, Gill’s goal is very ambitious, and it will be an immediate test of her leadership ability.
The average W-League player is very young, and not necessarily thinking of their own long-term future, let alone the long-term futures of the next generation.
The complexities and importance of industrial action and collective bargaining remain fairly abstract. Gill, however, has confidence in the players, and will enlist the help of senior members within each club to drive membership.
In the short-term the PFA want to close the gap between the lowest and the highest paid W-League players, and abolish the salary cap. With most clubs choosing to spend less than half of their $150,000 cap, Gill instead wants a minimum salary cap to be put in place. On top of this, she wants help FFA market the league and raise revenue, and to improve the “little things” like relocation costs, travel and playing conditions.
If I do my knee and I’m a teacher, I can’t teach for three months — who is covering my loss of income?
“All the girls are on short-term contracts,” says Gill. “Every year I played in the W-League I signed a different contract. It’s ridiculous, there’s no contract security in that. Also, there’s no insurance protection on their away time from work. If I do my knee and I’m a teacher, I can’t teach for three months — who is covering my loss of income?”
By the start of next season she hopes to have a memorandum of understanding between the PFA and the Football Federation of Australia to lobby for what would be the first ever W-League Central Bargaining Agreement. A W-League CBA, she hopes, will arrive by season ten of the W-League in 2017-18. Before any of this can happen, however, the W-League players to organise collectively.
“The girls aren’t asking to be paid as an A-League player,” says Gill. “But they should be guaranteed these minimum standards regardless of which club you go to. The first thing we need is for the players to recognise that change has to happen. They have to drive it. I can stand on my soapbox and campaign, but if I don’t have the group behind me there’s no point.
“When I got involved with the PFA as a player, I believed in what they were doing and how much we could improve the women’s game. I think this is a role that can help me advocate for women’s sport, not just football. I want to champion women’s sport.”