BUCKLEY: Exciting times ahead for football in Australia

Ben Buckley Columnist

By , 27 Mar 2012

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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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