When Sam Kerr poked a reluctant toe at her first football at the age of 12, having been forced by her parents to abandon her first love – Australian rules – after coming home from a boys’ match with a black eye, few could have predicted the frustrated forward would sign for one of the biggest clubs in the world just over a decade later.
Rumours have swirled for months about Kerr’s European destination, particularly after Greg O’Rourke, the head of the W-League, confirmed she would not be returning to her home-town club Perth Glory for the 2019-20 season.
It’s the kind of transfer speculation usually reserved for fans and journalists of the men’s game, keeping themselves occupied during their various off-seasons. But never has there been so much hype around a single female player’s next career move, particularly not an Australian; nor has a move like this ever happened at such a time for women’s football.
Since returning from a debilitating foot injury in 2016, Kerr’s meteoric rise has paralleled the growth of women’s football more widely. Her own strides on the field, measured by an increasingly-cluttered trophy cabinet and consecutive goalscoring records, have been matched by an unprecedented global interest in the women’s game, most recently highlighted by over one billion people tuning in to watch the 2019 World Cup.
Naturally, the leaps that both Kerr and the game itself have experienced recently is now being reflected in the wider financial ecosystem. The amount of money Kerr is expected to earn at Chelsea, on top of her new national team salary with the Matildas and her Nike sponsorship, will make her one of the game’s richest players. Likewise, as clubs, leagues and federations around the world begin to invest in their women’s programs, top players are finally reaping the financial rewards for years of dedication and contribution to a sport that has rarely returned the favour.
Within the global context of the women’s game, her destination makes perfect sense. While many different clubs were vying for her signature, that it was Chelsea – consistently a top-three club in the only full-time professional women’s league in the region – to secure it speaks not only to the moves England is making in the women’s space, but also to what Kerr herself wants to achieve during her time there.
Not only do Chelsea offer Kerr the almost-guaranteed opportunity of Champions League football, but the club is also a consistent title contender in the Women’s Super League – team titles that have been mostly elusive for Kerr between the W-League and NWSL. She will be pushed to improve by virtue of her environment alone: consistently challenged by international-quality team-mates like Ji So-Yun, Fran Kirby, Maren Mjelde, Erin Cuthbert, and Magdalena Eriksson, and coached by one of the greats of the game in Emma Hayes.
As Europe continues to improve on the international stage, to have Australia’s deadliest striker working with and against the best can only benefit the Matildas both now and into the future as younger generations of Australian players follow in her wake.
Kerr’s move, however, should be framed not as an end-point, but rather as the start of what should become the new normal for women’s football – a push towards further investment by clubs and leagues, so that Kerr’s reported $1m price tag is no longer something to celebrate, but rather just part of the every-day business of football.
Big clubs can afford it; Kerr’s move is barely a drop in the vast ocean that is football’s global economy. According to a recent study, the top 32 European clubs are worth a combined $35.6bn, while Fifa itself, a supposedly non-profit organisation, made $6.4bn between 2014 and 2018, with $2.75bn remaining in reserve – money it could easily invest into women’s football if it chose to do so.
It’s exciting that Europe is coming to the table, but they’re still only contributing a bowl of peanuts. Indeed, the excitement around Kerr’s pay-packet should not distract from how little the rest of the women’s industry earns in comparison.
Within the Matildas alone, despite their new collective bargaining agreement, players on the lowest tier of contract still only earn $40,000 a year; hardly enough to live and work comfortably as a professional player. In the WSL, top non-international players still earn less than $66,000 a year.
As women’s football grows, so too does the gap between the top and the bottom. The ripple-effect in Europe’s women’s leagues have already been seen as clusters of rich clubs begin to dominate their domestic competitions in what is becoming a mirror image of the men’s game.
This is great for the select few players lucky and talented enough to be noticed by these clubs, as Kerr as been, but women’s football cannot grow from the top. Chelsea’s signing of Kerr should be widely regarded as a watershed moment for women’s football, but the bigger picture should not be overlooked: investment is needed across all levels of the game if it is to hit the heights it is capable of reaching.