I’ve had mixed feelings about the degree to which the A-League is currently being ‘raided’ by overseas clubs – mainly Asian, but with a couple of notable European signings in there, as well.
On the one hand, the demand for our players signals that the football world has their eyes on our league, and that at times they think what they see to be valuable.
What better indication that we are getting to J-League, K-League and second-tier European league standards than by having a regular flow of demand for players coming from those leagues. And in many cases, such movement will also increase the skill and experience base from which future Socceroo squads can benefit.
On the other hand, the A-League needs to function as its own product, its own league. And this is where I have concerns.
The league as a whole needs to continue to win hearts and minds, needs to continue to deliver bums on seats and ratings for Foxtel, and needs to continue to grow in quality as well as quantity. This is a real challenge if, each year, the cream is skimmed off the top of the league as we are seeing happen now.
The fix surely is in an innovative look at the salary cap and player conditions. Now many of you will think this is about to be a repeat of one of my calls to abolish the cap entirely, and its not. However, as much of a free marketeer I am, I also know that A-League clubs are not yet financially stable enough to allow a major relaxation.
One good example of the overall state of play we are facing is that a couple of the notable poaching targets (North and Griffiths) have been marquee players and therefore exempt from the strict salary cap restrictions. Nevertheless, A-League clubs have not been able to match the offers which have seen these players consider, and take up, overseas offers.
On SBS today, Gold Coast United coach Miron Bleiberg puts the view that the ‘burrowing into’ A-League playing stocks will continue if there are not wholesale changes.
“We have assembled a very good squad above expectation within the confines of the ($2.5 million) salary cap,” said Bleiberg.
“It’s no surprise people will want some of our players.
“Asia is a big threat because there is more money there and no salary cap, so that gives clubs in Japan, Korea and China a big advantage.
“We need to look at abolishing the salary cap, or increase it by a large amount to give us a chance of holding on to players.
“Or maybe the FFA could adopt the plan of Clive Palmer to give Socceroos players wanting to come home a $10,000 salary cap exemption for each cap they have.
“The reality is any player who excels with us is likely to be poached at the end of his contract. It’s a question of supply and demand.”
While I agree with his general concern, I do not agree with the simplicity of his answer.
The A-League clubs at this point cannot absorb the quantum of salary increase – if implemented in a ‘simple’ manner – which would stem the flow. So what is required is a change in salary cap philosophy.
Perhaps, just as a starting point, a look at loyalty-based bonuses might be more feasible – perhaps akin to the NBA’s “Larry Bird exemption” – or perhaps a more diluted measure such as the counting of only 50% of a player’s wage within the cap once he has been with a club for a minimum of two years.
I also would not like to see Clive Palmer’s sugestion implemented as, with respect, if more money is found and is to be dedicated specifically to Australian players, surely this should favour the development of young players (like the excellent youth marquee initiative already does) rather than the ease into retirement of older ones.
The existing marquee system is fine for hiring returning Socceroos, and I prefer it as it does not give them specific preferential treatment over other potential marquees from other nations.
Bottom line is that as we face the end of our fourth season, and the threshold of the A-League’s second phase of development, it is time to have a proper strategic review of the salary cap. No one structure within the league is so important in building the product’s quality, and the feeling of loyalty that comes from having clubs with core squads of players who remain for three, four, five or more years.
And no one structure will more govern the fate of A-League clubs in Asia – a vital part of building the credibility of the league to the broader public. The time for considered analysis and change is now.