A-League clubs’ war of independence getting ugly
Gold Coast United's coach Miron Bleiberg. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
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Battlelines are being drawn as A-League club owners unite in taking up arms against the game’s governing body, Football Federation Australia (FFA).
Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer’s appointment of 17-year-old debutant Mitch Cooper as captain, which led to the departure of coach Miron Bleiberg, has created a snowball effect that’s somehow led to talk of a breakaway league, such is the animosity coming from certain club owners.
Following Palmer’s Monday night tirade, it didn’t take long for Newcastle Jets owner Nathan Tinkler to pick up on Palmer’s suggestion that he paid up to 10 times more than the FFA charged other owners for an A-League licence, with the Jets considering legal action.
Owner angst has now manifested itself in the notion that they could create a breakaway league to divorce themselves from the FFA, or, more likely, in an attempt to wrestle A-League power away from the governing body.
Former A-League boss Archie Fraser discussed the contention on SEN Radio in Melbourne earlier in the week; what he called Palmer’s “campaign to do a breakaway league”.
“Some of his antics of the last few days really suggest he is positioning himself and a group to break away from the FFA, which could be the right outcome because the FFA structure is holding back the league,” he said.
Whether this is Palmer deflecting blame for the failings of Gold Coast United onto the FFA or a genuine attempt to take control of the A-League is debatable. The timing is certainly interesting given the events on the Gold Coast. But nevertheless it’s a threat.
Palmer, Tinkler, Tony Sage at Perth Glory and co are crucial to the survival of the A-League. Without their personal fortunes, clubs wouldn’t exist, plain and simple. If Sage, Tinkler, Palmer and co decide to go spend their money in rugby league or elsewhere, the A-League would be in serious trouble as there are very few millionaires willing to bankroll a football club at a heavy loss, so ignore them at your peril.
“I had recent discussions with Clive and he did suggest the idea of a competition replacing the A-League and being run independently of FFA,” Sage said to The World Game.
“I explained to him how that would put Australia outside the umbrella of FIFA and that you wouldn’t be able to sign FIFA-registered players and play in FIFA-sanctioned competitions and he understood that.
“There’s no way it could happen here, unlike in rugby league where of course it did a number of years back. So the idea got knocked on the head pretty quickly.”
Backing up Sage’s point, Adelaide United chairman Greg Griffin told The Advertiser that a complete break from the FFA was not a possibility.
“That process has to involve the FFA. We are not ever going to countenance to be rebels and we have to work with the FFA.
“We have to build a bridge and we want to sit down and do it with all the clubs. We want to see change but in a balanced and orderly way.
“Clive’s comments, while I don’t endorse a range of them, it’s created a reason for them (FFA) to sit down and talk.”
Sage and Griffin’s comments seem to conflict Fraser’s extreme viewpoint: “The prospect of a breakaway A-League competition managed and run by the owners of the existing clubs is not as fanciful as the FFA might think.”
Let’s get one thing straight; the possibility of a rebel league should be taken with a grain of salt. It is merely a bargaining ploy. To setup a rival league to an FFA-sanctioned competition would be tantamount to suicide for the game – and those pedaling those thoughts should realise that.
The A-League is Australian football’s second chance – the clean slate to move on and learn from the failings of the National Soccer League. Any notion that the game can afford a third chance via a breakaway league led by Palmer, of all people, is ridiculous.
And if there is to be a rebel league or even the threat of one, the owners should not unite behind Palmer, who, despite his deflecting, has made a mess of Gold Coast United.
He has well and truly lost a large chunk of what remained of the supporters of his club, as witnessed by the public support he garnered midweek, when, after his insistence that all was well with Gold Coast United, a crowd of just 1141 came out to support the beleaguered club – an all-time club low and the second worst crowd in A-League history.
Working with the FFA is the only tenable solution to issues that can be solved within the current setup of the game, not binning the A-League foundation that, despite the financial and structural model needing reworking, is a relatively strong one.
But club owners, who are collectively losing between $25 and $28 million a year, deserve a say in how the league is governed and which direction it goes in, but not, as Sage said, having “the animals running the zoo”.
He continued: “The guys who have funded the A-League to the tune of $40-50 million since its inception and deserve a say in the running of the game and how their money is spent.
“What Clive is saying is that all they want is somebody on the board promoting their viewpoints. We all support him in that ambition.
“It’s about time all of the owners have a greater say in how the money is spent because, in the end, it’s our money that’s propping up the game.
“If I didn’t do it, there’d be no Perth Glory; if Clive didn’t do it, there’d be no Gold Coast team; and if Nathan didn’t do it, there’d be no Jets team.”
The Crawford Report long ago demanded that the A-League should be run independently of the FFA and, crucially, collaborate to collectively exploit the game’s key commercial assets, backed up by the more recent Smith Report. But this is where direct comparisons with the AFL and NRL’s independent commissions are difficult and the FFA needs to retain an element of control.
The AFL and NRL don’t have multiple national teams playing in major senior, junior competitions across both sexes. The A-League needs to be married to the Socceroos to some extent to feed off their commercial success – to a far greater extent than in England where the English Premier League can stand on its own independently given its financial might relative to the A-League.
Only the FFA can help do that and provide some middle ground between the national team and league, so club owners, who require some representation and meaningful role in A-League governance, are not left totally to their own devices yet can feed off the game’s most valuable asset – its national team.
The FFA has an immense amount on its plate; consumed with all facets of the game from the Socceroos to junior development. So it needs help in addressing issues that club owners and directors deal with on a daily basis in their respective markets, which the FFA could be dismissive of or ignorant to given their total control.
A prime example comes from Sage regarding the league’s archaic sponsorship restrictions that prevent clubs from signing sponsors who conflict with the FFA’s backers.
“The AFL has Toyota as the major sponsor and Ford is allowed to sponsor Geelong,” Sage told The World Game. “In the A-League you have Hyundai as an exclusive backer and no club is currently able to find a car company to support it, or a telco for that matter.
“That needs to change when existing deals come up for renewal.”
Think of the avenues of sponsorship closed to clubs at a time when they are bleeding financially, in a challenging economic climate, when even Sydney FC, one of the biggest clubs in the league, is without a shirt sponsor.
This is one issue where the FFA could be conflicted given its dual role with the A-League and Socceroos. Who benefits most from an exclusive telco deal with Optus, for example? So it’s a clear case where A-League club owners need a say in the decision-making process to wrestle some control away from the FFA.
But these are the types of issues the club owners need to address with the FFA, not separate of the FFA, for the betterment of the game.
With Palmer, Tinkler and co squaring off against the FFA in full public view over the governance of the game, don’t be surprised if there is significant collateral damage in their war for independence. A lot is at stake.
Crowds, memberships and television ratings may be up this season, but the failings of Gold Coast United and Palmer so spectacularly exposing the financial burden on club owners will only perpetuate the notion that the game cannot run itself successfully to wider Australia.
Remember, this is happening at a time when the next television deal, vital to addressing some of the financial concerns of the owners, is being negotiated in a challenging marketplace with the likes of the NRL and V8 Supercars also out there fighting for their own slab of the market share.
“It looks like two sides have gone to their corners and have come out fighting,” Sage said. “It’s not good to see our dirty laundry aired in public. I don’t think it’s the way to do it.”
Australian football’s ability to tear itself to shreds is only matched by the Australian Labor Party at present.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.