Another week, another A-League club facing extinction. As the A-League finals series plays out in the background, reminding us that yes, in fact, there’s a sporting component to the league, off field matters continue to dominate as we again question the viability of the league.
With Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group (HSG) handing back its licence to run the Newcastle Jets, “unable to resolve a variety of issues with the FFA”, the governing body is faced with bankrolling yet another club to guarantee the 10-team competition it desperately needs for the new television rights deal next season.
Only last week the FFA committed around $15 million to underwrite the new as yet unnamed Western Sydney franchise that will replace the culled Gold Coast United to lock in the much-needed 10 teams. This after FFA head honcho Frank Lowy recently said the FFA was “not a bloody bank”, having dipped into its accounts on numerous occasions to fund clubs, sending the governing body further into the red.
Why Tinkler walked:
Some will pigeonhole Tinkler in the Clive Palmer (Gold Coast United) category – a billionaire who simple lost interest in or patience with the A-League.
The business partners and chums were undoubtedly connected after Palmer, in his tirade against the governing body over his licence, highlighted the discrepancy in the amount Tinkler paid for the Jets relative to other owners for the right to run an A-League club.
Others will point to the growing speculation over Tinkler’s financial situation, which is set to become clearer in the coming days and in the legal proceedings the FFA is launching over his decision to terminate his 10-year contract in only its second year.
Like Palmer on the Gold Coast, some will suggest Tinkler just needed an excuse to cut the Jets from his budget; sick of losing money on a club which seemingly became the poorer, uglier sibling to the Newcastle Knights, the National Rugby League (NRL) HSG acquired soon after it was handed the Jets. After all, Tinkler has other investments that seemingly take precedent over his football interests. And many will point to his recent track record in Australian sport as a sign of his instability when it comes to his sporting interests.
He’s has had a colourful and sometimes controversial background in the racing industry, where he has ploughed a reported $240 million into building his stable; his negotiations to acquire the Knights with the NRL generated plenty of headlines for the right and wrong reasons; his last-minute call to pullout of a deal to buy a half share in the Dick Johnson Racing V8 Supercars team a bitter blow for the outfit; and his recent decision to walk away from the Newcastle Jets seemingly puts to bed his idea of uniting and expanding the region’s sporting clubs into one umbrella organisation.
Others suggest that like his dealings with the NRL over the Knights, he is merely bargaining with the FFA to get the concessions he wants; possibly to get a refund on the controversial $3 million acquisition fee he paid for the Jets.
All are plausible reasons for Tinkler’s walkout. But the FFA cannot continue to scapegoat disgruntled owners for the current malaise around the A-League, which, if Newcastle isn’t saved, could see three clubs perish in two seasons.
Why the FFA is also to blame:
Tinkler and Palmer may have acted irresponsibly in their handling of their licences, with Tinkler seemingly in breach of his 10-year contract with the FFA that, according to reports, could cost him $80 million in damages. But what of the system that allows such owners into the game, holding the fate of the clubs and the young league in their untrustworthy, unsteady and disinterested hands?
“You can’t just walk away from contracts,” said FFA CEO Ben Buckley on Tinkler’s walkout. “You can’t just hand back licences. You have to do the right thing by fans who have supported the team.
“Individuals who take on a licence, who sign contracts, who sign players, who make a commitment to fans, who make a commitment to football communities in their regions, have an absolute obligation to fulfill those obligations and commitments.”
Should the same sentiments also apply to the governing body and the contracts they sign with clubs, the fans who support those teams, and the communities in those regions?
There is a real hypocrisy in culling Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury, stripping licences at will, while insisting HSG under no circumstances can walk away from their deal – a deal both parties agreed to and signed.
How can a code build a loyal supporter base when fans are put through this sort of treatment? Why should they invest their time and emotional support into something that will be taken away from them without a say?
Yet this is the environment the FFA has fostered. In the attempt to cash in on the interest of billionaire investors, it has ignored the very foundations needed to guarantee a club can survive beyond its sugar daddy; protected in the hands of a group of investors or its members.
The A-League now resembles the league it replaced and was meant to improve on, the National Soccer League, where there was a revolving door of clubs entering and leaving; poorly handled clubs replaced by haphazard expansion moves. Sound familiar?
Worrying is the repeated messages from the FFA lambasting the outgoing owners while insisting all’s well with the A-League. The private ownership model is clearly unsustainable.
Clubs such as Perth Glory, Adelaide United, Gold Coast United, Brisbane Roar, North Queensland Fury, New Zealand Knights, Newcastle Jets and Wellington Phoenix have had ownership changes with the majority relying on the governing body to keep them going. Adelaide, Wellington, Brisbane and Newcastle, for example, could very easily have been lost to the league already.
Questions now abound over the Central Coast Mariners’ reported Russian ownership takeover, while new Brisbane Roar owners, led by controversial Indonesian tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, have raised a few eyebrows.
With only nine clubs for next season, should the Jets be left to die, and Western Sydney bankrolled by the governing body, it would only take another walkout to raise serious doubts over the viability of the A-League.
Surely there are now question marks around Perth Glory owner Tony Sage, who has much in common with fellow mining magnates Tinkler and Palmer and also has a hole in his wallet thanks to his A-League club.
Having already scraped the Glory’s women and youth sides from the W-League and National Youth League respectively, only his club’s recent form on the field, which will see a long awaited crack at the Asian Champions League next season, could tempt him to stay.
Nevertheless, like Tinkler and Palmer, he didn’t make his fortune by holding onto investments that consistently lose money. And when you start factoring in the number of potential investors, sponsors and more put off by the ongoing off-field soap opera that is the A-League, untold damage is being inflicted on the league at such a critical juncture.
Where to from here?:
The FFA’s greatest test is thus to stop the bleeding immediately. In the coming months the future of the Jets must be decided, the foundations built for the new club in Western Sydney with only six months until their debut, the next television rights deal negotiations must be stepped up irrespective of the gloomy climate, and other club owners persuaded to keep faith.
The recently created Joint A-League Strategic Committee (JALSC) between FFA and clubs to address policy and strategic matters affecting the national competition is a step in the right direction. But is a bi-monthly meeting between the parties enough to unite and help the clubs have their say, or is it a toothless tiger?
Relations between club owners and FFA must be strengthened for positive reform to take place. They showed faith in the Lowy leadership when they didn’t back another candidate for the role of chairman of the FFA last year. They know there is no alternative to the FFA, certainly not Palmer’s disgruntled Football Australia body, whatever purpose it hopes to serve.
Those immense challenges await a governing body that has overseen a disastrous expansion phase with two new clubs killed off with seemingly no sign it has learned from those mistakes given the lack of changes in key personnel.
The FFA must immediately guarantee the future of the Jets, a different proposition to North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United. It’s a foundation A-League club with history, pedigree and success.
Newcastle had the third highest crowd average in the 2011-12 season, ahead of the likes of Sydney FC, Central Coast Mariners, Perth Glory and Adelaide United; improving by 4000 on the previous season thanks to family-friendly membership packages, investment in junior development and other community engagement initiatives by HSG.
Worryingly it seems the FFA is putting the onus on running the Jets solely on HSG. A matter for the courts undoubtedly, there still needs to be a guarantee that the FFA will field a Jets team next season, if the FFA “bank” can afford to run two clubs, that is.
But at what point does the FFA stop blaming club owners and accepts that very real change is required to stop the rot? How many more clubs must die? There could be nothing left to save if Newcastle isn’t saved.
The next six months are, therefore, decisive for the league. At best, the Jets survive, Western Sydney is born and the A-League stabilises at 10 teams with the governing body reforming the structure of the league to ensure its survival. At worst, the Jets fold, Western Sydney follows the path of Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury and the A-League becomes unsustainable.
The FFA should remember the A-League is Australian football’s second chance after the demise of the National Soccer League. It shouldn’t bank on a third chance if it can’t make the A-League work.