How do you pinpoint western Sydney? From the west of the central business district to beyond the Blue Mountains and everything in between, it seems.
That sprawling landmass, which continues to grow as Sydney overspills, is, based on recent trends, fertile land for Australian sporting codes.
Rugby league and round ball football’s supposed heartland, the region will welcome the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants next season – what many describe as the final frontier for AFL expansion, in a region the NRL dominates.
As the two most popular codes go at it in a western shootout, round ball football is conspicuous by its absence.
But, according to Simon Hill over at Fox Sports, “Former Perth Glory owner Nick Tana and ex-Soccer Australia chairman Remo Nogarotto are being lined up for a sensational return to football as the front men for a new Western Sydney franchise.”
The “old soccer” stalwarts could be charged with doing what the failed Western Sydney Rovers bid never managed; give the A-League a presence in the game’s heartland and the league a justified second team in Sydney, based on population size. And, according to Hill, the project is being fast-tracked by the governing body.
But, as Hill points out and the Rovers discovered, talk is cheap and the reality is much more expensive.
“The sticking point – as is normally the case with football franchises in Australia – is where the rest of the money will come from,” Hill writes.
“Tana is understood to be willing to be a significant investor, but others will be required.”
A minimum of $6 million is allegedly required for an A-League license with much more needed to build a competitive club. And with the next big injection of funds, the next television deal, still to be figured out, how this new bid can squeeze enough money out of a still timid economy remains to be seen; particularly in a market that the AFL will ambush and the NRL will defend rigorously, when the A-League economic model is still yet to convince of its strength.
Tana and Nogarotto may have the personal fortunes to come up with the $6 million-plus, but as the A-League’s short history will attest, proper football clubs cannot be built on just one or two individuals.
The timing of all this is interesting. Only recently the Smith Review, which examined the state of the game, suggested no further expansion of the A-League beyond the current 10 teams until “the competition is financially strong, or a tangible financial benefit can be achieved by expansion”, while Frank Lowy recently said the league would not expand till 2015 at the earliest, unless finances can be found.
So what’s changed? Has the urgency to get into western Sydney before the AFL’s billions turns football’s heartland into a Kevin Sheedy-worshipping Aussie Rules love-in, finally spurred the FFA into action?
Perhaps it’s as simple as Tana and Nogarotto overcoming any anti-“new football” agendas and wanting back into the game, with the FFA marrying their renewed interest into its western Sydney goal.
Either way, there seems to be some positive momentum here.
Expansion may have failed in North Queensland and, to a certain extent, on the Gold Coast, but while the Smith Review talked it down, it also talked up connecting with the grassroots of the game, which, on sheer numbers, has no bigger home than western Sydney. Expansion could be seen as a necessity in western Sydney, not a luxury.
But the code cannot afford another Rovers-type failure to launch – not again. This new club, let’s call it Western Sydney FC, must not only navigate its way through the challenge of finding the necessary funds, but must also find an identity that resonates with western Sydney.
If western Sydney’s geographical sparseness tempts sporting codes in terms of numbers, it should also frighten with the difficulty of pinpointing an exact centre from where to base – Parramatta, Blacktown, Bankstown, Penrith or elsewhere?
As Sydney sporting crowd averages in all codes will prove, the cities sprawling ‘burbs and the resulting traffic nightmares does more to keep fans away than any other factor.
It’s too easy and simplistic to say, therefore, because there’s a football heritage and supporter base in the region, that the new club will immediately have a sustainable number of members and fans.
You see, in addition to those complications, western Sydney football fans are already catered for with football. Over 10,000 of them attended the NSW Premier League grand final between Sydney Olympic and Sydney United this year – more than Sydney FC’s crowd average last season.
The heartland of football is the heartland because of the strength of the clubs in the area, from Olympic and United to Marconi Stallions, West Sydney Berries, Bonnyrigg White Eagles, Blacktown City FC and more – with strong numbers of registered players, clubs with a direct connection to the grassroots, previous successes at national level, and, in most cases, sustainable operations that are run successfully.
As the A-League highlights, supporters of those clubs cannot be expected to shift their allegiances to a new, generic club, even if it represents their hometown – and that is complicated by the difficulty of pinpointing a western Sydney identity that resonates with all surrounding suburbs.
Tana and Nogarotto must find a way to connect their club with the clubs already operating in the region, for that is the heartland that is providing the impetus for Western Sydney FC. And it cannot be a token recognition. It needs to be real otherwise the new club will relinquish its strongest asset.
It’s fitting that the renewed talk of a western Sydney franchise should kick-off in derby week in Melbourne, where Melbourne Victory and Heart’s rivalry is thriving despite the lack of geographical differentiation. After all, it proves two clubs can work in places as big as Melbourne and Sydney.
Whereas Heart’s arrival cut out a chunk of the Victory’s supporter base, Western Sydney FC and Sydney FC can have different geographical bases, identities and personas. If Sydney FC represents “new football”, Western Sydney FC, if built properly, could represent the game’s heritage and the region’s current clubs.
Western Sydney FC could work for these reasons; it has the population and football heritage to build on.
But more than just the financial question mark is that same old dilemma; how to marry “old soccer” and “new football”, for an A-League club based in western Sydney cannot ignore the region’s “old soccer” roots.
Western Sydney FC, or whatever it’ll be called, needs to build on that heritage, rather than ignore it and build adjacent to it. That’s its greatest test.