A-League salary cap changes highlight faults in policing finances

Janek Speight Columnist

By , Janek Speight is a Roar Expert

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    While the FFA’s changes to the A-League salary cap provide promise moving forward, particularly the marquee, loyalty and mature-age allowances, questions still remain over the cap’s effectiveness.

    At its most basic level the salary cap is designed to ensure an equal competition and save clubs from financial ruin. That is fair enough, but neither has been achieved.

    And when changes to the cap move more towards benefiting the larger clubs and leaving the smaller clubs behind, the system’s effectiveness lessens.

    For all the FFA’s work in creating a level playing field it has had little influence. Only the Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners have been able to break the ruling party of Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar. Their fleeting success can not be directly linked to the implementation of a salary cap, but rather good management and recruitment.

    Even with wage restrictions the bigger clubs in bigger cities remain more likely to be successful. That is not a bad thing, it is just football. Worldwide there are big and small clubs and seeing minnows perform above their calling is part of the sport’s beauty.

    This is not a call to scrap the cap, exactly, but rather to create discussion about its benefits and faults.

    The new changes to the A-League salary cap, despite who they benefit, are thankfully mostly positive.

    The loosening of marquee restrictions, allowing two foreign marquees instead of enforcing at least one Australian marquee, makes perfect sense. Not only have clubs been unable to convince top class Australians to finish their careers at home, but they have also had their hands tied when retaining a winning formula.

    Melbourne Victory’s recent dilemma fitting Fahid Ben Khalfallah, who rightly demanded a pay rise after a stellar debut campaign, and Archie Thompson, a club stalwart who also warranted another season in the A-League, will now be avoided.

    Victory managed to find a solution without the cap changes but Brisbane Roar were not so lucky at the end of the 2013-14 campaign. With Thomas Broich taking up the sole foreign marquee spot the Roar were forced to let go of Besart Berisha, for free.

    Yet this change only really assists the bigger clubs with the bulging bank balances. Not many A-League teams are able to afford one marquee, let alone two, and this initiative, while necessary, is not a win for the minnows. The Mariners have never had an international marquee.

    Financial sustainability is the major argument put forth for maintaining the cap. Though the FFA would better serve football’s growth by identifying and attracting responsible owners – something they have failed to do with Clive Palmer, Nathan Tinkler and most recently the Bakrie Group.

    Implementing a cap but failing to ensure franchise licenses are handed out to appropriate owners defeats the aim of financial sustainability.

    Perth Glory’s rise to A-League premiers and possible champions would have been a fantastic boost for football. Adding another club to the winners’ list could have propelled Western Australian football back to previous heady heights.

    Yet the salary cap only prevented a new champion from emerging. This is not a defence of Perth’s mismanagement, rules are rules, but without a cap we could have another club capable of challenging the status quo. Adelaide United and Wellington Phoenix have shown how to do it within the cap restraints, of course, but letting a club spend big to compete is not necessarily a bad system.

    The increase of the cap floor – with clubs now required to spend a minimum 90 per cent of their wage allocation instead of 85 per cent – is one pitfall from the new changes. It does not really make sense if the FFA are intent on assisting clubs break even.

    If a smaller club like the Mariners wants to save money through wages then why not let them? The club struggles to attract corporate sponsorship and investment, and likely also faces a battle to attract top stars. Forcing them to overpay average players just to appease the salary cap floor seems counterproductive.

    Giving smaller clubs the opportunity to save cash when investment is low and spend more when investment is high makes more sense. The introduction of banking goes some way to giving clubs more flexibility, but probably not enough. The placement of a floor is required to ensure clubs remain competitive and do not tank seasons, but 90 per cent is unnecessarily high.

    The loyalty player and mature-age allowances, however, are fantastic additions from the FFA. The A-League has to continue to strengthen its ties with the National Premier Leagues and giving clubs incentive to recruit from the second tier of Australian football had to happen.

    This will also shift even more attention and relevance towards the FFA Cup, with NPL players pushed further into the shop window while competing in the tournament.

    Similarly, introducing an extra $200,000 to reward loyal players, such as Thompson, will assist clubs maintaining team culture.

    But do these salary cap changes further help turn the A-League into an equal playing field and prevent clubs from heading into the red? Based on the winners’ lists and the history of failed ownerships the answer is an emphatic no.

    Ditching the cap may not be an immediate option but it has to happen eventually, especially if the big A-League clubs are to increase their overall competitiveness in Asia.

    The FFA’s changes are mainly positive, though they will not bring about a more even competition. Forcing clubs to spend, as well as limiting their spending, is not the long-term solution.

    Follow Janek on Twitter, @JanekSpeight

    Janek Speight
    Janek Speight

    Janek is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter, @JanekSpeight