BUCKLEY: Exciting times ahead for football in Australia

Ben Buckley Columnist

By Ben Buckley,

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    Football Federation of Australia CEO Ben Buckley holds a media press conference. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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    The Roar exclusive:When the FFA unveiled the findings of the Strategic Review of the Hyundai A-League almost a year ago, there was one, clear mission – put more bums on seats.

    I’m delighted to report that the changes have ultimately proved to be successful. This week the numbers show that more Australians and New Zealanders have attended the Hyundai A-League than ever before.

    The new aggregate attendance record was set for the 2011/12 regular season. The cumulative total of 1,416,157 fans for the season bettered the previous season-high total of 1,393,933 in Season 6 (2010/11).

    The match average of 10,490 was a healthy 24% jump on the previous season. But we know there’s much more work to do.

    Although the negatives sometimes get more coverage than the positives, there have been plenty of other good news stories to celebrate across the Hyundai A-League 2011/12 season.

    TV audience average is up 48 percent. Club membership is up 20 percent.

    The successful schedule change to run the season from October to April allowed the league to launch in clear air and obtain greater coverage and support. Opening the season with marquee matches also helped.

    Rivalry Round produced the all-time high aggregate attendance for a Hyundai A-League round.

    There was the implementation of standard kick off times – for fans in stadiums and at home on TV, tailored for specific markets. Mid-week rounds were fewer, but strategically placed in the festive season.

    The Community Round took our competition to new markets in Morwell (Regional Victoria), Dunedin (NZ), Campbelltown (Western Sydney), Launceston (Tasmania) and Bathurst (Western NSW).

    And the world-first Hyundai A-League Marathon on 4 January 2012 saw five matches back-to-back with over 12 hours of broadcast.

    Our new digital partnership with Optus has also been a great success for the Hyundai A-League and our National Teams.

    Since launching, our web traffic has increased by 20 percent, Twitter and Facebook followers are up 15 percent to over 610,000, and we have recorded over 200,000 downloads for our Qantas Socceroos and Hyundai A-League mobile applications. Our digital presence has become an integral part of our communications strategy, with exclusive content now giving fans the information they desire.

    In addition to the successes of the Hyundai A-League, another important moment in the history of the sport occurred in December last year at our Annual General Meeting when our Chairman, Mr Frank Lowy AC, was elected unopposed for another four-year term by the membership.

    This provides stability for the game and its many stakeholders. Having worked closely with Frank for the past five and a half years, I can say that football is fortunate to have a man of his business knowledge, experience and passion for the sport at the helm.

    On the same day the FFA also published the FFA five-year strategic plan for 2011-2015.

    I have spoken at length regarding the details of this plan in the past, but in summary our long-term vision for the future is to stabilise Australia as one of the top ten football nations in the world.

    This will require developing a football culture ingrained with unique Australian characteristics; producing gifted Australian players from an elite player pathway that equals the world’s best; building a Hyundai A-League that rivals the best in Asia; and making football a sporting and social powerhouse in Australia.

    It is well known that football has a very high participation rate of 1.7 million boys, girls, men and women nationwide from all walks of life, according to the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

    Our mission and the greatest challenge that we face is to create value for and convert mass participation to active support of our senior national teams (Qantas Socceroos and Westfield Matildas) and national domestic competitions (Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League).

    With our vision stated and our mission set, the FFA Strategic Plan has four pillars.

    One is ensuring the excellence of our national teams and elite player development. Two is ensuring a sustainable and vibrant Hyundai A-League. Three is a greater connection with football’s grassroots. Four is delivering a successful 2015 AFC Asian Cup that leaves a beneficial legacy for our game.

    As far as the first pillar goes, the Qantas Socceroos are currently ranked 20th in the FIFA World Rankings and are the top-ranked Men’s team in Asia. Since being appointed coach of the Qantas Socceroos, Holger Osieck has successfully assembled a group of players that has the right balance of youth and experience that we believe will take the Qantas Socceroos through to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

    There were plenty of doubters when Holger was announced, but we believe that we found the perfect candidate who understood the unique nature of being head coach of the Qantas Socceroos. This was best evidenced by our appearance at the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011, where we narrowly lost to Japan in the final. Our current FIFA ranking also has a lot to do with Holger’s results of 15 wins and 4 draws from his 22 matches in charge.

    In the women’s national team program, we aim to see the Westfield Matildas successfully defend the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, once again qualify for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and continue to hold a top-10 ranking. We are currently 10th in the world and third team in Asia.

    But it’s not just the senior men’s and women’s teams that we are focused on. The production line below our national teams is equally important.

    To deliver world-class players, we need to have world-class coaches to develop these players from a young age. Our new coach education programs have received international praise and we are providing more education and coaching opportunities than ever before from the grassroots to the professional level.

    Our National Curriculum, under the supervision of National Technical Director Han Berger, is currently being rolled out from the grassroots to the elite levels of the game. This ambitious project has completely changed the way we look at our sport, and the benefits will be seen in the next five to ten years.

    Our second strategic pillar is the Hyundai A-League and the sustainability of the competition.

    There has been much said about our recent issues with Gold Coast United’s previous ownership which I will not discuss further here, due to ongoing litigation, suffice to say that it has been a unnecessary distraction for the game.

    But instead, what does need to be remembered is that over the past 12 months, there has been significant new investment for the Newcastle Jets, Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar and Wellington Phoenix clubs which shows that our competition is vibrant, credible and viable – and attractive to new investors.

    The overall health of the Hyundai A-League is directly related to the number of fans following the clubs.

    In short, as I mentioned before, it’s about getting bums on seats and eyeballs on screens.

    To do this, we have to give the fans what they want – a high-quality, exciting competition and an active engagement with their clubs.

    • Last May we set out with the very clear insight of what had to be done, based on our strategic review and consultations.
    • Improve Hyundai A-League club community engagement to increase fan-base – focus on increasing attendances.
    • Improve Hyundai A-League reputation and brand image through better marketing and media relations.
    • Ensure season timing and structure maximises attendances.
    • Improve club business results through a services unit – our plans are taking shape and will be a focus of the second year of the strategic plan in 2012.
    • Ensure Hyundai A-League clubs are integrated into the elite player pathway system.
    • Deliver better financial arrangements in stadia and more efficient event management.
    • We are constantly in dialogue with all stakeholders, from the owners of the clubs through to the club season ticket holders, about how things can be improved for each season, and that is not going to change moving forward. Many of the issues raised have been addressed to the benefit of the competition. The key to improvement is through cooperative dialogue and discussions.

    Our goal in the initial years of the Strategic Plan timeframe is still to have 10 stable clubs and a sustainable economic model for the Hyundai A-League.

    There is a natural public debate around expansion, usually around Western Sydney, which is the heartland of the game, and also Canberra and Tasmania.

    However, in the Strategic Plan period to 2015 expansion will only occur when those economic pre-conditions of stability and sustainability exist.

    The third pillar of our strategic plan is all about connecting with the grassroots. As I stated earlier in our mission it’s all about conversion of participant to fan. But we recognise that this conversion can only occur if we build loyalty with our grassroots community and provide them with support or benefits that are valued.

    Our Strategic Plan includes the biggest online registration roll out ever seen in Australian sport.

    MyFootballClub.com.au is a national database that will, for the first time in the game’s history, bring everyone together and allow us to share and collaborate much more effectively. It’s provided free of charge to clubs and associations.

    We will deliver benefits to all tiers. Players will be part of a virtual community with the benefits of our numbers: ticket offers for Qantas Socceroos matches, discounts on playing equipment, information on coaching and healthy lifestyles.

    Clubs and associations will have lower IT costs and greater ability to organise and service players.

    The professional tier (National Teams and A-League clubs) will gave a real connection to the grassroots and an efficient and sophisticated way to communicate in this digital age.

    The strategic plan target for the MyFootballClub.com.au database is to have half a million registrations by June 2012 and one million by 2015.

    Once we achieve this target Australian football will be in an unprecedented position to connect and convert our numbers.

    This project is the game changer for Australian football.

    Our fourth pillar involves the hosting of the AFC Asian Cup in 2015.

    This is the biggest sporting event in Asia, with an estimated cumulative viewing audience of around 2.5 billion, and will be the biggest sporting event to be hosted in Australia since the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

    Of course on the field, we want to Qantas Socceroos to go one better than 2011 and win the tournament, but the off-field opportunities are just as important.

    A tournament budget surplus would ensure a financial legacy for Australian football. We would have sold out Qantas Socceroos matches and sold out finals matches.

    It would leverage the business and commercial connection of Australian football with Asia. It would leverage and convert awareness and support for football into increased participation and Hyundai A-League attendances.

    As a first step, we will develop the AFC Asian Cup Strategic Plan and establish a Local Organising Committee supported by highly skilled and experienced people. This first milestone has already been reached with the appointment of the highly respected sports administrator Michael Brown as the CEO of the Local Organising Committee for the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015.

    Over the coming months Michael will assemble his management team and we are very confident that his team will be able to deliver a fantastic tournament.

    Michael and his team are already in the process of formulating engagement plans with Hyundai A-League clubs, public/private sectors, Australian governments, the Australian football community and the media.

    Our goal is to not only ensure we run a world-class event, but that Australian football accrues a lasting legacy benefit as a result.

    To achieve the ambitious targets that we have set ourselves in the Strategic Plan, we need capital to invest.

    Our next TV rights agreement is the opportunity to secure the financial footing of the game.

    We are saying to the free-to-air, pay TV and digital networks that football has the potential to provide the biggest reach of any sport in Australia – across social class, gender, ethnicity and age demographics – and it’s a truly national footprint.

    Football has more participants than all the other codes combined and as mentioned is the fastest-growing sport among women and girls.

    Importantly, our demographic skew towards youth means we are a growth story, particularly in this digital age.

    The next four years are truly exciting times for the football in Australia, and with the cooperation and support of all our stakeholders there will be plenty more positives to be proud of for future generations of our football family.

    The Roar’s CEO Series: In this series of articles, John O’Neill (Australian Rugby Union), James Sutherland (Cricket Australia), David Gallop (NRL), Andrew Demetriou (AFL), and Ben Buckley (FFA) all share with The Roar their thoughts on the year that was, or will be, for their respective codes.

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    The Crowd Says (132)

    • March 27th 2012 @ 9:21am
      Hbomb@hotmail.com said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      Lots of positives for the game this year I agree, however we simply can’t have a top 6 finals for a 9 team compmi will stop watching !
      Must look at having a more expansion despite buckleys mistakes.
      Auckland and west Sydney would provide perfect derbies and create interst! Canberra can sustain a team as well as Tassie in next 10 years

      • Roar Guru

        March 27th 2012 @ 9:32am
        The Cattery said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        I agree that it would be hard to run with a top 6 with only 9 teams – might have to scale it back to a top 4 or 5 and then perhaps go back to a top 6 when the league gets to 12 teams – the current trend is to have half the teams qualify for finals.

        • Roar Rookie

          March 27th 2012 @ 12:29pm
          Trust Me said | March 27th 2012 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

          That’s a fair comment, but the interest generated in the Sydney v Newcastle game was great and didn’t thay play like it was their own final.

          Hopefully we get the 10th team sorted and we keep the finals series as it is – gives more fans and teams an extra game or two to watch.

          In a couple of weeks we’ll all start to miss the A-League and look forward to the start of the new season.

          • Roar Guru

            March 27th 2012 @ 1:23pm
            The Cattery said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

            No doubt – the Sydney v Jets game and the reaction of Lavicka shows that it has been worthwhile running with a top 6, but you wouldn’t do it with 9 teams (if that’s what ends up happening)

        • March 27th 2012 @ 2:27pm
          Nathan of Perth said | March 27th 2012 @ 2:27pm | ! Report

          It helps keep late-season interest at the bottom of the ladder in the absence of a relegation battle.

    • March 27th 2012 @ 9:51am
      Futbanous said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      Compared with past administrations & searching for a major difference, it could only be one thing for me ,its called a plan.

      Glad to see that the FFA have one. Cant always foresee the hiccups & teething problems along the way when you set out the future.

      However as long as you learn from the mistakes & improve the plan moving forward thats what counts.

      Agree with most comments so far,but would add another, for me an integral part of connecting with the overall football community.

      Whilst grassroots to professional football is a no brainer,what also is a no brainer is connecting to the already existing & often overlooked,unmentioned sector the overseas football fan.

      About 12 years ago I remember a breakdown poll of support for the NSL & Overseas football.

      It went along the lines support for NSL only 10% support for NSL & Overseas football 30% Support for Overseas football only 60%.

      How much has changed today?

      I don’t know ,but its a question that needs to be answered.

      Not only answered but something done about it in a practical manner.

      No other sport in Australia would tolerate such a large percentage of followers looking elsewhere than Australia for a fix of their favourite sport.

      How to fix? Well there is no instant fix available until the programs put in place to improve the standard of football in the A-League come to fruition.

      What you see on the park is what you get & in Football we always know what we get because theres already dozens of well established, traditional cashed up leagues across the planet that we have followed across generations.

      In the meantime the FFA needs to get these overseas fans to attend an A-League match.

      If they can & that fan sees that the quality is whats acceptable as professional, not park football then they may turn up again.

      Let me just add that many of them did initially culminating in season threes record average attendance, but the reality was that park outweighed professional & they saw that & didn’t come back.

      But how do you get them there in the first place?

      Well there is already an FFA allowance in place, the Overseas Marquee player.

      Sure we have as I understand it an Aussie marquee ,but in the mind of the football savvy overseas fan only 2 Aussie players cut the mustard in terms of bums on seats & one Harry Kewell has performed this season,the other Mark Viduka has retired.

      This is the irony of the situation then after season Seven. The pendulum is now swinging away from park to professional football,yet less people attend than when it swung towards Park.

      Now is the time to get them back to have another look & the only way initially is to provide a little bit of that overseas football they have followed, by A-League clubs recruiting genuine bums on seats marquees.

      I know its expensive,but its not called the World game for nothing & that includes competing for the Worlds best players.

      If the long term plan is to be one of the top ten football nations then we need to start thinking that way now.

      IMO utilising the marquee player ruling to maximum effect should be part of that plan & money needs to be found to finance it.

      Engaging the “Overseas mob” IMO is a vital part of achieving that Top Ten Football Nation status & genuine marquees play a massive part of that engagement.

    • March 27th 2012 @ 11:06am
      Futbanous said | March 27th 2012 @ 11:06am | ! Report

      Just another thought regarding different football markets.
      If we observe Overseas football markets & their leagues, the evolution is generally one where the bigger cities provide the biggest clubs. So even if you trawl down through the divisions you see the bigger city clubs still pulling decent crowds in lower divisions than the EPL.
      Yet in Australia we are restricting Sydney, Melbourne to be the same level by a stringent salary cap as Central Coast & Newcastle.
      In other words Sydney,Melbourne & to a lesser extent Brisbane,Adelaide & Perth can be no bigger or better than the football markets of Central Coast or Newcastle.
      Does anybody believe given no salary cap that they couldn’t be bigger & better.
      Highly unlikely.
      But we don’t have the luxury of a big population spread across a small island with varying sized cities & towns,therefore the ability to spread the game down several divisions.
      The game has settled over time therefore into its own natural order, In Europe generally.
      The only way I see this problem being fixed in Australia is to bring the standard of Central Coast,Newcastle etc up to the level of the expectations of the bigger city football markets.
      That means attracting the overseas marquee player mentioned above & a better quality overseas player generally across the board.
      Maybe a new category of 2 marquee’s outside the salary cap paid in the $500,000 to 1 million mark.
      Costs money I know,but I don’t see the goal of a top ten football nation being realistic unless we can compete financially with the giants of World Football.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 1:51pm
        nordster said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:51pm | ! Report

        i’m all for letting big clubs be big clubs, small be small. The salary cap isn’t too stringent just now so its an OK balance. But adding extra optional marquees should be looked at. Just as importantly perhaps is at the bottom … reduce the minimum 80 odd pc cap spend down to 50 or 60?

        Not a fan of contriving too close a system myself. Use the cap as a way of containing costs rather than to try and make the clubs all of a similar size.

      • March 28th 2012 @ 12:23am
        Paul said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:23am | ! Report

        It would be too disastrous to give Australia a football league dominated by teams from Sydney and Melbourne. Some balance needs to be achieved. There’s nothing wrong with a team like Central Coast winning the Premiers’ Plate on merit rather than its bank balance, a la EPL.

    • March 27th 2012 @ 11:28am
      Ben of Phnom Penh said | March 27th 2012 @ 11:28am | ! Report

      Thanks for the overview, BB.

    • Roar Guru

      March 27th 2012 @ 11:29am
      Fussball ist unser leben said | March 27th 2012 @ 11:29am | ! Report

      Nice work, Ben and I’m glad the FFA has realised, in the 21st century, messages are best disseminated by engaging directly with football fans and bypasing traditional media, who have a history of explicit or tacit contempt for our Game.

      Whilst I’m excited by all the points you’ve raised the thing that really grabbed my attention was: “… we have recorded over 200,000 downloads for our Qantas Socceroos and Hyundai A-League mobile applications.”

      BINGO!

      It’s been obvious to me that the huge acceptance of digital media will be “the game changer” – figuratively & literally – in Australia’s sporting landscape.

      Digital platforms already give football fans in Australia unprecedented access to football content from every corner of the planet with live games, live news stories & interaction with our favourite players & clubs … all at the click of a button. No longer do we have to hope & pray that Ch 7, 9 or 10 will show us snippets of games on the nightly news. Football fans will have seen highlights of any football match, anywhere on the planet, well before the 6:00 pm. FTA news bulletin.

      The next step will be for the FFA to use digital platforms to give football fans in Australia access to LIVE HAL … for a nominal fee.

      Thanks for your efforts, ignore the naysayers & remain focused – the football landscape in Australia has never been so good in my 40 years living in this country.

    • March 27th 2012 @ 12:07pm
      Raghu said | March 27th 2012 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

      Ben,

      What is happening with the FFA cup? I don’t think it will happen this year, but is it still on FFA’s agenda?

      • March 27th 2012 @ 1:30pm
        PeterK said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

        Yes please, Ben! Just include in your plans when you might think it could begin.

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