The Australian Professional Leagues (APL) will revise their heat policy and potentially reconsider 3pm kick-offs ahead of next season after an A-League Women’s match was forced to go ahead in extreme conditions last weekend.

Canberra United hosted ladder-leaders Western United on January 28 with ambient temperatures close to 35 degrees Celsius, prompting the match commissioner, in consultation with the two team doctors, to implement two drinks breaks per each 45-minute half.

Despite this, as well as the provision of ice towels and extra water, multiple players reportedly experienced symptoms of heat strain afterwards, with one player from Western United having to be attended to by ambulance officers at McKellar Park.

A soccer player wearing white, black and green holds her hands on her head and looks at the ground during a game
At least five players from both Canberra and Western were attended to by medical staff after the match.(Getty Images: Mark Nolan)

No shelter was provided by Canberra United for either of the substitute benches, with players and club staff forced to sit in the direct sun for the duration of the match. One player told the ABC they experienced dizziness and nausea, and could not remember playing the final 10 minutes, while two other players — one from each team — who were substituted onto the field at half-time had to be substituted back out before the end of the game after reporting symptoms of heat strain.

According to the APL’s current heat policy, which they describe as “conservative” (due to Australia’s warmer climate) compared with FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, multiple factors are considered when assessing whether A-League games can go ahead in hot conditions.

Single-number ambient temperature readings, which are measured in the shade, are combined with a more complex “Wet Bulb Globe Temperature” (WBGT) reading, which takes into account wind speed, solar/thermal radiation, and humidity. The time of day and cloud cover is also considered in the final determination.

Under the APL’s rules, if the ambient temperature exceeds 31 degrees Celsius and the WBGT is between 26 and 28 degrees, cooling breaks must be implemented. If ambient temperatures are forecasted to be “closer to 40 degrees Celsius” and the WBGT is above 28, officials will consider whether to postpone the match.

A soccer player wearing blue squirts water from a bottle into her mouth before a game
A-League Women games have been disproportionately affected by the heat due to earlier-than-average kick-off times.(Getty Images: Tracey Nearmy)

This was taken into account the previous round when an ALW game between Western Sydney Wanderers and Newcastle Jets, which was scheduled to kick off at 3pm in Blacktown, was postponed by two hours after forecasts showed ambient temperatures of between 33-34 degrees Celsius and a WBGT of between 27 and 28.

ABC understands that two WBGT devices at Canberra’s McKellar Park recorded ambient and WBG temperatures reaching the upper threshold of the heat policy.

However, these devices were not officially distributed or calibrated by the APL, so their readings were averaged out with other data taken from weather forecast services UBIMET and the Bureau of Meteorology, which the APL regularly uses to decide ahead of time whether to postpone games. According to those services, temperatures at the Canberra v Western game were safe enough to kick off at 3pm.

In the days afterwards, players on both teams publicly criticised the decision-making that led to the game going ahead. It’s believed at least five players, in addition to match officials, were attended to by medical staff after full-time, with complaints made to both the players’ and referees’ unions.

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“I think it is very unreasonable, especially on Saturday, that we had to play in those conditions,” Canberra United goalkeeper Chloe Lincoln said.

“It was, I think, borderline unsafe for players and fans. It’s definitely something, looking forward, that potentially needs reviewing: the kick-off times, especially in Australian summer heat.

“I’m just thankful I’m not out there running 10kms a game.”

It is not the first time this season that complaints have been made following games that have kicked off in sapping conditions. In December, head coaches from Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory said the heat was contributing to player fatigue and affecting the quality of play. Coaches in the A-League Men’s competition have expressed similar concerns.

“It (the heat) is the main factor in the game, to be honest,” Victory boss Jeff Hopkins said after their round 3 match against Wellington Phoenix.

“We had to change the way that we played in terms of the way that we pressured and pressed — I’m sure they (Wellington) did as well.

“If we want to have better quality games, maybe it’s something to think about. We maybe need to push things back a little bit.

“Especially if we’re at stand-alone venues as well, I don’t see why we can’t do that.”

Questions raised over APL’s heat policy

The fact that multiple players, staff members, and match officials experienced symptoms of heat strain suggests the APL’s heat policy threshold remains too high, with some experts questioning its parameters and the scientific basis of its measurements.

Professor Ollie Jay is the Director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator at the University of Sydney and helped create Sports Medicine Australia’s Extreme Heat Policy, which the APL’s policy borrows elements from. He said a number of studies have found inconsistencies in both the devices that are commercially available to professional sports leagues in Australia, as well as the weather services often used for forecasting games.

“The trouble with the WBGT index is that it’s used for a variety of purposes for which it wasn’t developed,” Jay told ABC.

“The index comes from work that was done in the late 1950s, early 1960s and used by the US military to protect recruits who are training sessions in very hot, humid environments. They developed this index to protect them.

“So, the only way you can use that to protect people is that you have certain WBGT values, and those thresholds will change depending on who the person is, what they’re wearing, whether you think they’re acclimatised, whether they’re fit or not. The thresholds used for different sports, to the best of my knowledge, are not particularly well-based on a lot of evidence.

“The trouble with the WBGT index is that it was developed for hot, humid environments. But in lots of parts of Australia, they have very high ambient temperatures, but very low humidity. In which case, you have a relatively low WBGT value, but the heat stress risk is actually still high.

“A lot of these devices … don’t measure natural wet bulb temperature, which is 70 per cent of the WBGT value. You’re not measuring it — you’re estimating it — so that’s a bit of an issue. Additionally, you might have a device, but the type of device and the way it’s being used, the duration of the measurements being taken, how stable they are, is absolutely essential.

“What we’ve found is that you could put a [WBGT device] there, and you can have it there for 15 minutes, even on a tripod, and the values will just fluctuate up and down depending on whether there’s a breeze or not.

“It’s not because the temperature is going up and down, it’s just that the measurement is influenced by the wind, so what you find is that it’s gone up and down by two or three degrees in a matter of minutes. And the question is, what value do you use? Do you use the peak or or the bottom one? Do you use the average? Over what period of time?

“You can have the best heat policy in the world, but if you’ve got junk going in, you’ll have junk come out.”

A white device with a black sphere on top showing various numbers on a screen
An example of a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature device.(Google Images)

Jay also questioned the over-reliance on services such as the Bureau of Meteorology in making forecasts, emphasising the generalised nature of those measurements and the need to combine it with more accurate data on the ground before making decisions.

“The Bureau of Meteorology, obviously they’re not located directly where the play is taking place,” he said.

“The BOM does not measure WBGT; they give an estimated WBGT based on certain assumptions, and they give two values: one in the shade and one in the sun. The question is, which one are they using? And how representative are those WBGT values that are estimated by the BOM to the actual location of play?

“If you’re taking the WBGT value from the BOM estimates, then the wind estimates still wouldn’t be captured, a whole host of things wouldn’t be captured. That demonstrates why it’s so important to measure these conditions in place.”

APL’s juggling-act in revising its heat policy

Given long-term climate change forecasts predict that Australian summers will become more extreme from next year, the need for the APL to update its heat policy is becoming more urgent. As Jay said: “It’s a problem now, and the problem is going to be getting bigger, so developing policies and tools and strategies now that enable us to thrive in a warmer future is really important.”

However, simply pushing games back later in the day is not so simple. Logistically, the availability of stadiums — particularly bigger stadiums with better surfaces and facilities — will be impacted if a policy is introduced that requires all ALW games to kick off no earlier than 5pm, with ALW clubs likely having to play in smaller suburban stadiums with lower-quality facilities more often.

A soccer player wearing orange and black lays on her back in the grass as a doctor wearing rubber gloves attends to her
Brisbane Roar forward Shea Connors had to be treated for suspected symptoms of heat strain during an ALW match last year.(Getty Images: Albert Perez)

Further, playing women’s games later in the day means there will be more overlap with the games played in the men’s league, likely eating into the same target market. The APL’s approach since taking control of the A-Leagues has been to try and create a calendar whereby men’s fans can attend women’s games and vice-versa, but overlapping games will force fans of one club to potentially choose between attending a men’s or women’s game.

This principle has also shaped the ALW’s broadcasting, with “DubZone” — a digital Goal Rush-style show featuring a panel discussion that throws to live highlights of multiple games happening simultaneously — scheduled in a “free air” timeslot of 3pm on Saturdays as they try to appeal to casual sports fans. If women’s games are delayed across the board, resources would likely be spread thinner as men’s games take broadcast priority.

One suggestion put forward to the APL is the implementation of a window — between mid-December and late February, for example — where no games can kick off before 5pm, when Australia’s summer temperatures are at their peak. Another idea is that 3pm kick-offs are banned in particular states for certain parts of the season depending on forecasts.

A third is that double-header games, which often see ALW games played earlier in the day before the ALM, are removed entirely, meaning ALW games take place in separate, smaller stadiums but at later times. 

A soccer player wearing a gold shirt squirts a water bottle over her shoulders during a hot game
A number of measures have been proposed to the APL in updating its heat policy, including further educating players about pre and post-match cooling.(Getty Images: Matt Blyth)

Additional player safety protocols can also be introduced for games that are forecast to be above a certain temperature, including extra hydration preparation and recovery, as well as renovations to stadiums to provide more cooling elements like air-conditioning and better ventilation.

Finally, instead of relying on single numbers or simply reducing the current threshold, the APL’s policy could be updated according to emerging research, such as that produced by Jay and his colleagues, who have developed a ‘heat stress’ scale to replace WBGT readings. This scale expresses the risk of athletes developing heat strain on a sliding scale of 1-5 instead of setting arbitrary numbers as safety thresholds.

“The Australian Open heat stress scale gives players and organisers a better sense of how the risk is escalating,” he said.

“We also have certain thresholds that, once you cross from a one to a two, or a two to a three, a four to a five, there are certain associated heat stress mitigation recommendations associated with that level. So it takes the ‘units’ out of what people are seeing, and creates less confusion.

“The reason we did this is because we found that the devices that were on the market simply weren’t fit for purpose, because they would fluctuate wildly, had really low stability. There was a lot of room there for, effectively, human interpretation, which I wasn’t comfortable with when you’re making recommendations regarding player safety.”

Following meetings with the PFA this week, it is expected that the APL will announce revisions to its heat policy, as well as scheduling, before the start of the 2023/24 season, though the exact form of those revisions is yet to be determined.

“The players have been clear and consistent about the negative impact of heat on their wellbeing and performances,” PFA Co-Chief executive Kathryn Gill said.

“The APL have been provided with the players’ consistent feedback that both match quality and player well-being has been negatively impacted more often for matches that kick off at 3pm.

“APL have advised the PFA that they will implement additional measures to reduce the impact of heat on players. Whilst these are welcome, and the APL has been responsive to rescheduling matches, the PFA will continue to strongly advocate for later kick-offs to reduce the potential of heat impacted matches where player health and match quality suffers.”

22 more A-League Women matches are currently scheduled to kick off at or before 3pm for the remainder of the 2022/23 season, including five of Canberra’s remaining eight games.