Wheelchair football’s Victorian return comes with challenges still to face

Football Victoria’s Wheelchair Football Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Levy admits that the onset of the pandemic was more than a challenge for all abilities football.

Across 2020 and 2021, the wheelchair competition barely played a handful of games. But that didn’t deter Levy or FV, who he says are now more supportive than ever.

Both wheelchair and powerchair football competitions have gotten underway after a very successful All Abilities April. The month saw come and try days held across the country as well as initiatives like Football West’s ‘Football for all’.

More than anything though, the return of wheelchair football in the state meant the most to the players.

“Everyone was frustrated for the past two years, because a lot of our players had other activities cancelled,” Levy told Soccerscene.

“They were just over the moon to be back and life getting back to normal. We had a good turnout and everyone was really rapt to be out.

“The first couple of weeks are always really tough because they’re not in the routine and some of them turned up late, but it’s all good.

“They have to rely on maxi taxis which often pick up more than one person at a time and drop people off on the way and things like that. Something always goes wrong at the last minute, but we’re pretty flexible.”

While the return is a major positive for the competition and inclusive football as a whole, the next stage for the organisers is to continue to grow the competition to a point where it can sustain itself better.

Victoria’s wheelchair football competition is run out of just one location in Keysborough currently, as there isn’t a high enough participation level to justify more.

“It’s a long haul for a lot of our players. One is in Chum Creek, near Healesville, we’ve got some that are out near the airport,” Levy explained.

“They have to come a long way, and that’s not cheap. If we were able to grow the competition, we could have a north and south competition so that people didn’t have so far to travel.”

Initiatives like All Abilities April will give wheelchair football and other inclusive competitions the chance to continue that growth.

“The All Abilities Month is an additional opportunity to get the word out there,” Levy continued.

“FV’s helping us with a marketing campaign, printing out posters that we can put up in leisure centres and things like that.

“It’s been a great initiative for us, and two of our players wrote their stories and that got published by FV as part of their social media campaign. We’re getting the word out there, but we certainly need to do more work to attract more players.”

For the players, who Levy says he’s ‘grown up with’ after being involved with wheelchair football for 17 years, the process provides them with more opportunities as well.

“To be honest for most of the players, it’s not that much about the competition, it’s mostly social,” he said.

“It’s being able to get out and be with people, spending time with them and having fun. Are all of our players diehard sportspeople? No they’re not.

“They want to get out and have some exercise, but most of their enjoyment comes from the social interaction.”

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Caroline Carnegie: “I don’t think there’s a reason why the game shouldn’t be a success”

Season 2023/24 has been crucial for Melbourne Victory as Managing Director Caroline Carnegie is guiding the Club in the right direction.

There was a tricky period for the organisation, but that has not slowed Victory both on and off the park, as the A-League Men’s and Women’s sides have both performed well in their respective campaigns, with the former bouncing back superbly.

Coupled with significant business partnerships and acquisitions, Victory is establishing a gameplan for long-term growth ahead of its 20th year of existence in 2025.

In this interview with Soccerscene, Carnegie discusses the A-Leagues landscape, the partnership deals Victory have made, tackling the infrastructure problem and maintaining the World Cup legacy.

How are things travelling with Melbourne Victory?

Caroline Carnegie: We’re heading in the right direction with both the men’s and women’s team doing very well.

There’s always going to be noise in different sports – with the Australian Professional League’s situation there’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do and room to grow, both from the league and Club.

Part of it is that despite being a world game, it just hasn’t taken off from a professional perspective in comparison to the participation.

That doesn’t happen in 30 seconds, so there’s a lot of work to get where we want to be as a code, and we all have got to contribute.

That includes every stakeholder that sits around it too and I totally understand that can be difficult to do if there’s no agreement in decisions or directions.

Ultimately, our number one to build our Club and code is to fill stadiums week in, week out and we can’t do that without passionate people who want to be part of it.

You say that the A-Leagues is still in its infancy stage, your thoughts?

Caroline Carnegie: We have a lot of work to do, but there’s so much potential.

I know people have heard that a lot and get tired of the same messaging, but there have been numerous phases from a regulation perspective that we all have to grow, adapt and move with.

Next season is our 20th season and that is super exciting, but the Club is still so young in context with what’s happening in other professional sports so that needs to be factored in.

You’ve acquired numerous partnerships in the past few months including Turkish Airlines, ASICS and Lite n’ Easy, your thoughts on acquiring and retaining them?

Caroline Carnegie: We work incredibly hard to retain our partners and proud of the quality and calibre of them such as Turkish Airlines.

We’ve got wonderful partners that have been with us on the journey such as La Ionica, KFC and Checkpoint that have been around for a very long time, among many others.

When we sat in a room and announced the Turkish Airlines deal, Prof. Ahmet Bolat was talking about flying 90-95 million people around the world next year – all of whom will have exposure to their partnerships, which is a massive win for us. It’s also a win for the football code to get exposure as well.

In addition, having 777 Partners as a strategic shareholder is important to us.

We have General Managers across the business who meet regularly to look at leveraging better opportunities across the network. There’s a good analytical group that really supplements what we can do.

It’s still early days with 777 Partners, but still a positive relationship so far.

Turkish Airlines are one of Victory’s major partners.

Infrastructure is an ongoing challenge for all clubs, how is Victory managing it?

Caroline Carnegie: It’s a big challenge. There are so many people that want to play our sport off the back of the men’s and women’s World Cups, but not enough pitches to play at.

It’s a constant challenge but not necessarily unique to us – we want to try and solve the infrastructure problem but the one good take out of it is the number of people wanting to engage in our sport.

There’s work to do for infrastructure and that comes from us as well – these things don’t happen in 30 seconds either.

You need to find the right place, they need to be funded and it’s hard to find green open spaces to the extent that we would like, but it’s an exciting journey with it being better than people not interested in our sport.

We’ve found that people such as in council are happy to work with us, but as we can imagine the number one priority for us may not be the number one problem that those people have to solve as well.

Whenever we have those discussions, there’s a myriad of stakeholders that each party must deal with.

There is an impetus towards football grounds, more so than 5-10 years ago and that’s really pleasing to see because that is what the community is asking for.

Victoria is multicultural and people come together from all different backgrounds, so all of those people have probably played football from where they’ve come from, not so much from domestic sport.

There’s no shortage of appetite to work with people, it’s just a shortage of time for everybody to have their priorities lined up.

Caroline Carnegie speaking with Craig Foster.

You’ve spoken about preventing a ‘sugar hit’ from the World Cups, how do we sustain the momentum?

Caroline Carnegie: I don’t think there’s a reason why the game shouldn’t be a success.

Because we have a lot of different layers when we all work together, all stakeholders and state/national bodies need to help each other build what we aim to do.

The number one factor is people – when they lose interest, then sponsors and broadcasters would do the same and has a massive flow on effect.

We need to work together to ensure that the product going out there is what people want to see. Watching the Socceroos and Matildas was amazing, but we need people to have their heroes from domestic competitions.

The kids that love the game off the back of the World Cup are not able to see their heroes if they don’t follow the A-League every week.

In an ideal world, they love it when they play for their team, but then for the country loving them plus others that galvanise the national sides.

Victory has set up the Female Development Fund, how has that been incorporated?

Caroline Carnegie: For our A-League Women matches, we have not charged patrons for entry this year.

What we did was create the Female Development Fund and what we ask people to do if inclined is to put their money into that for female programs only and for people to apply for grants to help with program development.

It’s a tricky one because it’s not that we don’t value the girls, but it’s because we didn’t want to have any barriers to people not jumping on the women’s game when we had such a successful World Cup tournament.

In the women’s space, it’s those things to make sure that people have greater access to games and that they can watch their heroes and want to aspire to be like them.

No tickets for games is a different approach, but we have a long-term view to keep people involved and engaged with the game, eliminating those barriers.

Caroline Carnegie congratulates goalkeeper Lydia Williams.

How has the move been to The Home of Matildas?

Caroline Carnegie: It has been really well received.

As with any stadium, it’s more convenient for some compared to others, but it’s the elite nature of the facility from both a training and playing perspective has been welcomed by the girls.

A couple of years ago we had a member forum and we had more double headers coming up – there were people concerned around that.

We were clear at the time that we wanted to do the right thing by our members but also for our players, because the more they play the more you want to watch them.

If you speak to any of the girls, the difference in terms of how elite they feel having the home base with the quality it presents is huge. We are really pleased with how it’s turned out.

It’s a mindset shift as well, as our female players are still semi-professional and need to do other things given the nature of how the league is structured.

In your role, what does the future look like?

Caroline Carnegie: Our partners and shareholders are crucial to what we do.

However, our members and fans are number one. We can’t fill stadiums without them, and the players don’t want empty seats.

We had a course that we provided content for around 12 months ago, where the Director of Football, Coach, Chairman and I came and did a presentation.

Somebody asked me what does success look like for you; Success is not one thing, it’s always football first, but we want to be successful across everything we do.

From a membership perspective it is not just numbers – it is engagement, people who want to be part of Victory and us doing the right thing by them; In a tough environment where they decide what to do with their money, we don’t get questioned because they feel that relationship and value.

Commercially, we want partners to feel like they get a lot out of the alignment with Victory through business.

People should say win trophies, but if you do that in an empty stadium then that’s not success.

We are continuing to evolve and having a member working group helps us understand and validate the decisions we make through feedback.

Northern Suburbs and Manly Warringah Football Association representatives discuss NSW’s highest registration numbers

Football NSW has recently disclosed that the 2024 season is recording the highest number of registrations in community grassroots football.

Football NSW reported that registration numbers are up by 10% on the 2023 season with over 230,000 and counting registered members.

An important part of this increase in registration is the overall success and popularity of the Matildas and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia & New Zealand. This has helped spark an 18% increase in female registration, especially within the younger age groups pushing over 23% from 2023.

The Northern Suburbs Football Association (NSFA) CEO Kevin Johnson has supported the impact of the Women’s World Cup.

Johnson has explained that recent Female membership in the 2024 NSFA season is expanding with an 11.6% growth in female player registrations and an 11.4% increase in female team registrations.

The NSFA is one of the few associations with a Female Football Manager in Kristi Murphy.

“Kirsti has been able to coordinate enthusiasm and feedback of all the clubs into key strategies to increase the female game at an association level,” Johnson told Soccerscene.

“This structure and dedication to female development has had a huge impact on the increase of female players.”

These strategies include junior girls under 6 & 7s hubs.

“These have very important in bringing in new young players and retaining old ones, with Female Junior players increasing by 14.5% and Girls MiniRoos by 22.5%,” Johnson said.

The NSFA has focused on the association’s work in building strong connections and investment in grassroots football. The NSFA also had in 2023 an increase of 30% in sponsorship deals.

“Last year NSFA with local councils Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby and North Sydney held Live Site events for people to watch the Matildas World Cup matches with football activations alongside the matches. This project led to an increasing engagement between the community and the NSFA,” Johnson added.

“This has allowed for the development of facilities and football that is helping the 2024 season’s all-round experience.”

Kevin Johnson believes these initiatives have cemented the NSFA well on track with Football Australia’s pillar 1 in the Legacy 23 plan. which is to reach a 50/50 player gender equity in Football for 2027.

The ‘23 plan works in unison with NSFA’s objectives in making the association a successful and progressive representative of the Northern Suburbs community and Football in NSW.

Neighbouring The NSFA in The Manly Warringah Football Association (MWFA) is Karen Parsons – President of Pittwater RSL FC, who has overseen the development on the ground. The club has seen an increase of 175 registrations in 2024 to an overall 1,473 players.

In addition, the diversity of the club’s players has changed positively with females now making 43% of registrations compared to last season’s 36%.

“We knew the Matilda’s popularity would increase interest in football, therefore the club needed new strategies to encourage club engagement,” she told Soccerscene.

“The MWFA has opened up an under-7s girls league where 5 Pittwater teams now play. We also had a successful MiniRoos and MiniTillies program in February.

“Feedback from members also included the request for equal-skill-based teams in juniors. Therefore we included optional grading into the under-8s mixed comp, which on grading day had a 70% turn-out rate and positive reviews from parents.

“An academy program run by our women’s premier league coach has supported coaching and training techniques for the younger years and increased their progress in the game – also allowing promising kids extra training at lower costs.”

“Usually in before seasons there is a drop of teenagers from the 13-18 age group. However this year there has been a complete retention of 13-18-year-old participants, especially in the girl’s divisions.”

There is a solid ethos of supporting the social importance of sport in the community and approaches from all the clubs have been to maintain the engagement and encourage all to play football.

Karen spoke of the cooperation between the clubs at youth levels, making sure if the kids don’t make a team they can go to other clubs. This has retained more kids both girls and boys playing football.

“Keeping people playing football no matter what club, is always the major focus of presidents,” Parsons added.

“Outside the junior levels, the adult divisions also have had an overall jump with more All Age mixed and women’s teams created, showing this increase is not just concentrated in youth.”

The MWFA has had an overall jump of 752 more registrations from the 2023 season, currently at 19,821.

These case studies are prime examples of how all levels in community football associations are actively maintaining and developing engagement in NSW Football.

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