Is the cost of junior fees the next crisis in Australian football?

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By , Mike Tuckerman is a Roar Expert

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    We hear a lot about the production line of talent to the Socceroos breaking down, but is the problem only going to get worse given how expensive it’s getting for juniors to play the game?

    Reader Tim Malafouris contacted me recently to ask me to write about this topic and share his thoughts on what he called “the biggest problem in Oz football today”.

    Cost, says Malafouris, is one of the main reasons forcing talent to leave the game. He’s not alone in his assessment.

    My friend Jeremy Medina is a passionate supporter of all things Australian football, and two of his sons were recently selected for representative teams in Brisbane.

    “Bill $2700 and that’s cheap,” tweeted Medina. “Football becoming a sport for the rich. Too many talented kids can’t afford this.”

    It’s a sentiment we’re hearing time and time again. And for a country that only recently produced world-class talents like Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, there are worrying signs the well is starting to run dry.

    “So many issues in football yet no one talks about the crippling and inflationary cost of participation,” said Perth Glory chief executive Peter Filopoulos on Twitter during the week. “A major issue which is being ignored.”

    When even A-League clubs are recognising the problem – and it’s worth remembering their connection to grassroots football hasn’t always been apparent – it’s safe to say it’s a concern creeping into the greater consciousness.

    So what’s the problem? Firstly, it’s the fact that average upfront fees for football can be more than double what it costs for juniors to play Aussie rules or rugby league.

    In many cases parents are paying more than $400 just to sign their children up for a junior team, and that’s generally excluding additional costs like team uniforms and match fees.

    Then there’s the raft of clubs at National Premier Leagues level that can charge up to $2000 for kids as young as six to receive elite tutelage from highly-paid coaches.

    Yet the suspicion has long been that some clubs are using junior fees to pay senior players to run around for the first team.

    However, the A-League doesn’t come out of this scenario smelling like roses either.

    The lack of a domestic transfer system means NPL clubs receive barely a few thousand dollars when one of their players moves to the A-League, meaning there’s no incentive to develop players to be on-sold domestically for a profit.

    Little wonder the Association of Australian Football Clubs is hell-bent on creating a national second division.

    The problem, at its core, comes down to misguided governance. The disconnect between Football Federation Australia and clubs further down the chain has never been greater.

    Greg O'Rourke David Gallop press conference

    (Image: Twitter/FFA)

    If the FFA’s remit is to oversee the whole of football in Australia, then they’re guilty of turning a blind eye to the growing range of problems festering underneath the A-League – the cost of junior fees among them.

    That said, some unscrupulous lower-tier clubs are only too happy to rob Peter to pay Paul.

    It’s costing us kids, and as Malafouris pointed out to me, ultimately impacting the amount of talent a coach like Ange Postecoglou has at his disposal.

    Fans who turn up at AAMI Park and tune in to tonight’s blockbuster between Melbourne City and Sydney FC will enjoy watching the likes of Australian-made talents Luke Brattan and Brandon O’Neill go around.

    But how much longer will that be the case if parents can’t afford to let their kids play the game?

    There’s a running joke in Australian football circles that we don’t have enough favelas to fuel a production line of talent.

    But we have enough football fields.

    The problem is, by the time parents get ready to unleash their kids on them, they’re often thousands of dollars out of pocket and already questioning their commitment to the beautiful game.

    Mike Tuckerman
    Mike Tuckerman

    Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he settled in Brisbane, and has been a leading Roar football columnist from December 2008.