BUCKLEY: Exciting times ahead for football in Australia

Ben Buckley Columnist

By Ben Buckley,

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    Football Federation of Australia CEO Ben Buckley holds a media press conference. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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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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    The Crowd Says (132)

    • March 27th 2012 @ 6:56am
      Kasey said | March 27th 2012 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      I firmly believe there are enough football fans in this country to even further grow the A-League, however quite a few of these fans refuse to engage with the A-League having developed a sense of alienation stemming from some poor decision making and word choices in the past. Yes, I’m talking about the New Football/Old Soccer divide.
      What strategy if any does FFA have to re-engage these fans?
      I feel it would really help if FFA would go out of their way to make references to the fact that football didn’t just start in 2005. Sometimes the impression is given that the FFA has a “if it didn’t happen on our watch(from 2005 onwards), then its not important” attitude.

      Example 1a, record keeping: A simple step forward would be to consider the A-League as a follow on tier 1 domestic League from the NSL and recognize that the Champion of Australia was first determined in 1977. Perth Glory are already 2 times champions of Australia and even thought the NSL was shut down in 2004 and there was an 8 month gap between the leagues, the memories are still alive for Glory fans. They are yet to win a Championship in the A-League era, but is there anything wrong with recognizing the history of the game in this manner?

      Example 1b: recently Shane Smeltz scored his 62nd goal to become the highest scorer in the A-League era, No mention was given to the Great Damien Mori who scored 240 goals at national league level between 1989-2007. Obviously the NSL and the A-League are different, but with our rich history, is there really a valid reason not to include it in our narratives?
      This would be a far simpler and cheaper extension of the metaphoric olive branch to Old Soccer than the FFA cup, which I gather has been put on hold for the time being until FFA has solidified its funding model. Given the demographic of football fans and their switched on attitude to technology, People are surely smart enough to be able to distinguish between the “NSL Era” and the “HAL era” in reading the history of our game.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 7:24am
        Lucan said | March 27th 2012 @ 7:24am | ! Report

        Good call, Kasey.
        Could you imagine Mr Buckley having the balls to walk up to Eddie McGuire at Collingwood in 2010 and say “Congrats on your 2nd premiership”, because their first 13 were under the VFL banner and are no longer relevant?

        Makes no sense that past records are ignored. Liam Reddy even made mentioned of it in a FourFourTwo article a few months back, that he’s disappointed his NSL career stats have been expunged.

        • March 27th 2012 @ 8:28am
          Chris said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

          THat’s not exactly a fair or accurate comparison – the VFL grew organically into the AFL. THe NSL was closed down, and an entirely new competition was formed with the A League. The majority of the A League clubs were new entities that had no relationship with the NSL.

          Having said that, if the FFA can come up with some strategies to bring in ‘old soccer’ fans into the fold that would be great. However I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those people much prefer sitting on the sidelines criticising the current setup.

          • March 27th 2012 @ 8:38am
            Kasey said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:38am | ! Report

            I tend to agree with you Chris, the bitter ‘Old Soccer’ types are a ‘noisy minority’ who gain satisfaction from pointing out the failures in the new structure, justified by the wrongs they feel done against them when they were the top dogs. But boy wouldn’t it help if that small population was working with us rather than campaigning against us? We are not at the stage where we can turn away fans. If nothing is done we are in exactly the same situation as before. It can’t hurt to try to heal the divide. Obviously the NSL and the HAL are different entities, but top flight football has a history longer than just 7 years. I maintain that the fans are smart enough to distinguish between eras in football.

            • March 27th 2012 @ 11:53am
              jugo bonito said | March 27th 2012 @ 11:53am | ! Report

              excellent idea Kasey…

          • March 27th 2012 @ 8:40am
            Australian Rules said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:40am | ! Report

            Eaxctly Chris.

            An equivalent would be acknowledging or combining the old VFA records (1877-1986) with the VFL/AFL (1897-)…the earlier period is not included. And those 2 periods involve the same teams.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 10:57am
        Nathan of Perth said | March 27th 2012 @ 10:57am | ! Report


      • Roar Rookie

        March 27th 2012 @ 12:37pm
        Trust Me said | March 27th 2012 @ 12:37pm | ! Report

        Not just Old Soccer – what about the Euro Snobs.
        That market is huge and I would guess 90% of people who follow or play football in this country have never been to an A-League game.

        Ben, you have the greatest potential to increase your following of the A-League – start with free tickets for junior registrations, then move on to an FFA Cup for the old Soccer and A-League games at old NSL grounds, then target the Euro Snobs with joint promotions with EPL, Seria A etc and competitons with A-League game ticket prizes etc in conjunction with Euro competitions.

        Build on the Asian Cup and Asian Champions League as a sister comp to the Euro Champions League and do some cross promotion deals.

        The opportunities are endless if you have the energy to invest in it.

        • March 27th 2012 @ 12:49pm
          Kasey said | March 27th 2012 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

          The problem I have with Euro snobs is they watched season 1 if they watched A-League football at all and since then their opinion has been made up that the HAL is crap despite the obvious strides forward in playing level in 7 years. Trying to convince people that watch Euro football that the A-League is worth watching has to be done on a basis of: “extremely skilful moves occur in both arenas”, BUT “the sensation of excitement generated in football is heightened by experiencing it live in the stadium and being emotionally invested in a team from your home city taking on a rival from nearby” [or Wellington if you are Perth;)]rather than trying to defeat an idea based on a straight out comparison of a vague concept of ‘its just better in Europe’ In a straight out comparison, the local product is likely to come off second best, not only in playing style and level, but in the years of tradition invested in the intense rivalries of some European leagues.But I agree with the basic premise of your point, that there are enough people already partial to the World Game thru Euro football in this country to not need to worry so much about ‘converting’ people that have been raised on a diet of Soccer is crap, its boring and its for big girls anyway!

    • March 27th 2012 @ 7:06am
      nearpost said | March 27th 2012 @ 7:06am | ! Report

      Good one Ben

      I like the Asia Cup vision, I’m very interested in the development and opportunities around the national database to grow the game and connect/offer to the grassroots.. Expansion policy has been a disaster.

      The database could assist growth of the game over the next ten years more than any marketing/advertising pitch. Finally the grassroots will be connected – if the FFA can get benefits to the members – get a free whatever if you buy an A-League membership increased conversions could/should increase.

      Once we have a million players locked in it can’t be that hard to entice, persuade sponsors or participants to increase their awareness of football and the A-League – W-League.

      Big big fail. Expansion. Getting teams into the A-League, watching them go under has been the FFA’s biggest disaster. In Canberra they talk of us coming in again. We know they jest.

      But instead of harnessing the Bid team from a few years ago. They simply said no, get lost and that after messing us around for a couple of years.

      They were right to say no, but they should have been able to harness that community bid and give it further aims and goals to meet and a date to aim for. Real hope. What could that group in Canberra have done over a three year period. How strong would they be now.

      Expansion policy is undoing all the good work. You couldn’t make it up. No vision.

      We will have a team in Canberra one day – but why not say in 2015 if all criteria are met Canberra are in. We’ll meet with you each year to see if you are progressing on your goals. Builds on the Asia Cup “legacy.” A real legacy!

      As opposed to the 2000 Olympics legacy – now the Olympics are over let’s kick Canberra out.

      Makes sense, gives hope and if the bid meets the goals – they’d be growing the game and interest along the way – then football and the franchise would be much stronger. Builds anticipation etc etc.


      Watched the age and gender balance of the Cover on Sunday after the game – very interesting to see the mix and age range all singing their hearts out. Great stuff, a demographers dream as well.

      Digital age. How to avoid Channel 7 – this I like:)

      • March 27th 2012 @ 12:45pm
        PeterK said | March 27th 2012 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

        nearpost, your comments on expansion are pertinent — now how can “we” (the football community which INCLUDES FFA) ensure that future expansion is better managed?

        Is there somewhere (on the web?) where anyone can find what is needed in order to submit an entry for inclusion in the HAL? And please don’t give me the vagueness of “a sustainable business plan”.

        What I’m looking for are some guidelines on what that business plan needs to be based on, according to FFA.

        In the same vein, can anyone tell me what is the size of the average budgeted costs of current clubs? In round millions how might that be broken down into how big is the fee to FFA, and what might be the playing costs (players’ wages, playing staff’s wages, equipment — strips, balls, first aid, etc, — stadium costs, and whatever other playing costs), admin costs (including advertising and promotion), and any other costs — what have I overlooked?

        I guess the income sources would vary greatly among clubs, but what might be the average for game day income (including season tickets and catering and merchandising), for sponsorships (highly variable?), and for memberships (as distinct from season tickets) — and what have I ignored?

    • March 27th 2012 @ 7:26am
      nordster said | March 27th 2012 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      BB: re expansion … any chance of opening up the NYL to new regions as a lower cost testing ground for them to build from … thinking Canberra and Tassie, even GC if required … also acts as a de facto second division for the time being.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 1:01pm
        PeterK said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:01pm | ! Report

        nordster, the idea of a cheaper “training league” is a great one.

        Ways of making it cheaper would include what?

        Perhaps cheaper stadiums (because they don’t need to be of a TV standard)? Then I suppose that clubs in this “training league” would not be entitled to access TV money.

        Perhaps less travel costs — at least for the first half (or so) of the season — by having regions, meaning less distance to travel? Could the regions be simply North and East (NZ, Qld, NNSW, NSW) and South and West (ACT, Vic, Tas, SA and WA), and if so where might NT be fitted in? Or should there be even more regions (ie, basically the States separately)?

        What other ways might be used to reduce costs?

        In this thread too, we ought to consider what would be the method of getting “promotion” to full HAL status. Can anyone tell me what are the criteria used in Pommieland to get promotion to the bottom tier — is it the fourth tier?

        • March 27th 2012 @ 1:40pm
          nordster said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:40pm | ! Report

          i guess the obvious one is player wages, use semi pro squads … orientated toward youth.

          Also minimal paid managers running the clubs … apologies to sports management grads lol … but make more use of enthusiastic local volunteers. Lots of small sports run on the smell of an oily rag as they say. I’m all for professional standards at the top. But many of these potential second tier clubs already operate. Use what is there as a base. It seems like the main additional cost to add is the travel. If thats the main obstacle then its not insurmountable.

          Not sure about breaking it down by regions. We have those leagues already. And makes it messy to link it in to the first division one day. I think for existing A-L div 1 clubs many of them would prefer to return their youth sides to regional/state leagues over time. At least if an A2/NYL roster fills with new entrants.

    • March 27th 2012 @ 8:22am
      jamesb said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:22am | ! Report

      Hey Ben

      If GCU acquire $3 million out of the $5 million required, would you allow them a bit more time.?

      Also why isn’t their a plan B in place in case a wealthy owner leaves an A-League club.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 9:06am
        mahony said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:06am | ! Report

        There is – withdrawal of licence and ‘administration’ into a diversified ownership model or direct foriegn investment. Has worked at Adelaide, New Zealand, Brisbane and Central Coast. But no end of planning could account for the madness of Clive Palmer and his vindictive, abrasive and ignorant manner. Nothing!

      • March 27th 2012 @ 2:15pm
        B.A Sports said | March 27th 2012 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

        For any sport entering into private ownership you need more people wanting a franchise than there are franchises.

    • Roar Guru

      March 27th 2012 @ 8:32am
      The Cattery said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:32am | ! Report

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts BB, a comprehensive account of where things are at with the FFA and A-League, good luck with the next stage of the A-League’s development.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 9:01am
        mahony said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:01am | ! Report


    • March 27th 2012 @ 8:44am
      agga78 said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Ben Buckley you need to be more visible than you are, I see Gallop and Demetriou nearly every week on tv either announcing something or defending their sport, I didn’t even know you were still alive until Palmer went nuts, you have had plenty of positives to talk about this season but it took till Palmer and the GCU nightmare for you and FFA to start spruking how good the league has gone this season.

      I often hear the AFL leaders speak about average income of 200k for AFL players yet FFA never speak about the real benefits in a career in football. Football gives players the opportunity not only to play for Australia but to play at the two biggest sporting events in the world, the world cup and as young players the Olympics.

      What about the opportunity to play professional here at club level ior nternationally not just the EPL or Europe but Asia, South or North America and even Africa the whole world is your oyster if you choose to play football, but we hear nothing on all the benfits playing football has compared to the local codes who really have only one local competition to strive for where there maybe 50 professional leagues to strive for in football.

      Start getting the message out there Ben as you are the face of football in this country Kewell and Co maybe the face on the pitch but we need a strong visible leader, not one you only appears when something terrible has happened.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 8:59am
        Gibbo said | March 27th 2012 @ 8:59am | ! Report

        Agga78, Buckley, Gorman and Patterson have been in the media (TV and websites – including their own) regularly this season, preaching the above and defending the game.

        • March 27th 2012 @ 9:06am
          mahony said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:06am | ! Report

          True! Although I agree with the general sentiments of the original post.

          • March 27th 2012 @ 1:08pm
            PeterK said | March 27th 2012 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

            Agree, mahony.

      • March 27th 2012 @ 9:42am
        pete4 said | March 27th 2012 @ 9:42am | ! Report

        I agree the silence from FFA HQ is defening at times and this needs to change especially if both products in the A-League, Socceroos are only shown on Fox Sports.

      • March 28th 2012 @ 12:25am
        Brendon said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:25am | ! Report

        Most Euro snobs aren’t real football fans but rather fat world of warcraft nerds who got picked on at school by Aussie Rules/League/Union players and think they’re being sophisticated and superior by liking the European football.

        • March 28th 2012 @ 9:41am
          Damiano said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:41am | ! Report

          Bendon, I don’t agree with this. Many so called Euro snobs have formed a strong emotional connection with the clubs of their forefathers. They either haven’t been able to form an emotional connection with a local team, or find that incompatible with supporting their traditional team.
          Its incumbant upon the FFA to engage these supporters in the local product. You can continue to support your traditional team, and make a new tradition, especially for those who are second or third generation migrants.

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