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

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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.

Flawed model:

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.

Adrian Musolino
Adrian Musolino

Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.

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The Crowd Says (122)

  • April 11th 2012 @ 10:07am
    Hbomb@hotmail.com said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:07am | ! Report

    I think you have a draw a line in the sand somewhere and say a club is far too important to collapse. 7 years of built up riviries is too important to slip. Might be Lowys time to step up or step down. If it was Buckleys descion to get Palmer and Tinkler then off course he should be at least partially responsible

  • April 11th 2012 @ 10:17am
    Futbanous said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:17am | ! Report

    John Howard,powerful maybe,political intrigue definitely, knows anything about football,not a carrot.
    Frank Lowy is a football person born & bred. If he gets done over by Sepps Mob,then Johnny would be roasted on a spit.
    Even Kimon couldn’t save him.
    As I see it its a thankless task,whoever gets the job.

    • April 11th 2012 @ 10:36am
      Qantas supports Australian Football said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:36am | ! Report

      John Howard knows more about football than you think? Maybe not as a football player, but the greatest football manager in the world was not a professional football player (Mourinho). Howard is a problem solver and a respected leader that’s what is required at the top end of the pyramid and Kimon is a technical football brain with a business degree… Anyways just demonstrating that there are alternatives out there that could do the job far better than the present incumbents. Time for Lowy and his mouth piece to resign.

      • April 11th 2012 @ 10:51am
        Futbanous said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        If Johnny Howard is the best we can come up with as an alternative to Frank , then we are in deep!

        I’ll give you one thing its a better answer than I’ve got ,because I cant think of anybody.

        • April 11th 2012 @ 11:09am
          Qantas supports Australian Football said | April 11th 2012 @ 11:09am | ! Report

          How about Paul Keeting then if you don’t like John Howard.. He is loved in Asia.. Really, you can do a lot better than old senile Lowy.. Someone has to replace Frank when he dies and that can’t be too far away.?

          • April 11th 2012 @ 12:53pm
            Futbanous said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

            Now Paul Keating you have my ear.

          • April 11th 2012 @ 2:55pm
            Australian Rules said | April 11th 2012 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

            QSAF

            I know you were disappointed to lose your club but your posts are sounding increasingly like desperate, confused mutterings…

            John Howard to run the FFA!!…no?…then how about Paul Keating?? How about someone else?!!

            Slow down mate…are you actually thinking before you write this stuff?

            • April 11th 2012 @ 4:39pm
              Qantas supports Australian Football said | April 11th 2012 @ 4:39pm | ! Report

              Yep… If you take time to think about it whether it’s John Howard or Paul Keating or someone of the same political clout that big business will listen to it’s a good start. I am suggesting that the head piece of the FFA should be the one who will open doors for new business, then the Football technical brains department Kimon Taliadoros will kick in to make it happen. At the moment Frank Lowy opens very few doors now and no Football technical brain behind him (BB) to make anything happen successfully.

  • April 11th 2012 @ 10:20am
    Futbanous said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:20am | ! Report

    If you believe that this country has any football history at all,then the Jets will not collapse.
    If you believe that history counts for nothing, then history tells you that those who ignore it will fail.

    • April 11th 2012 @ 10:27am
      Kasey said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      I’m hearing rumblings of a protest from NJ fans at this weekends Prelim Final at Gosford. I believe that the history of the game is vitally important so I hope their voice is heard inthe corridors of power. Again I firmly believe that the Jets will play next season. Newy is too important a market for FFA to just let it slip away. I regard Newcastle as on par(perhaps slightly ahead) with Adelaide for footballing history and as such as equal to my own team in its level of “vital to the HAL structure”

  • April 11th 2012 @ 10:26am
    Chris said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:26am | ! Report

    I’m still struggling to understand what the FFA has done wrong. For the expansion teams, they set up criteria which were met – therefore those teams were brought into the league. That they quickly failed is hardly the fault of the FFA, rather, the finger of blame should be sheeted home to each club’s administration. The conditions of the licences were breached, therefore the licences were revoked. All pretty normal and acceptable contract behaviour.

    The Newcastle situation is a little different. Just remember that when Tinkler arrived that club was on the verge of going under. So the decision to award the Newcastle licence to him (assuming all the usual criteria were being met) did seem like a no brainer at the time. The fact that the previous administration couldn’t keep the club afloat was their fault, not the FFA.

    The FFA has a contract in place with Tinkler that runs until 2020. Unless any of the conditions of the contract are breached I don’t see how either party can just walk away. What else could the FFA possibly do? There isn’t exactly a long line of viable options for club ownership.

    Probably the one strategic act that the FFA has undertaken that I disagree with is the decision to go ahead with a second team in Sydney, despite there being a whole lot of evidence that it isn’t commercially viable.

    • April 11th 2012 @ 10:39am
      nordster said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:39am | ! Report

      completely agree, for Tinkler especially to suggest he has a problem with the license fee is just laughable and demonstrates negligence on his part. Not surprising from someone who made their wealth from gambling in a commodity price bubble.

      every little negative story to do with football, the more malicious and the sheep among us pile on to FFA. Its a sport in itself…

      i have some issues with the structure of the league, the broader issues though are subjective and time and context sensitive. Not based on “incompetence” as is the narrative some people are attempting to construct.

      • April 11th 2012 @ 10:43am
        Kasey said | April 11th 2012 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        I thought this line from cockerill captured the point well
        “While it’s fashionable, and easy, to blame FFA for the game’s ills, perhaps the salient point to emerge from the Palmer and Tinkler affairs is that while the A-League needs rich benefactors, it needs the right benefactors even more. ”
        Tinkler failed to complete his due-diligence and now he’s calling shenannigans, sorry dude, real world business isn’t like that. I hope FFA lawyer the sh*t out of hinm(enough to run the Jets at least for next year)

        • Roar Rookie

          April 11th 2012 @ 11:35am
          ItsCalled AussieRules said | April 11th 2012 @ 11:35am | ! Report

          If they win the $100M libel case, the FFA will have enough money to cover A-League losses for 5 years.
          With the increased TV money they might be able to add another 10 years.

          The only thing billionaires value after money is a victory in the law courts.

          • April 11th 2012 @ 8:14pm
            Evan Askew said | April 11th 2012 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

            Probably not because any damages awarded in court are to be restorative and not punitive. The idea being that damages are paid by the defeated party to the victorious party to restore them to the position they were in before the breach was commited.

  • April 11th 2012 @ 11:53am
    Gweeds said | April 11th 2012 @ 11:53am | ! Report

    I don’t know about chair, but there is a person who would make a great CEO. And that is Brendan Schwab. He is a football person having being involved with the sport since the old NSL days. I’ve seen him at matches with his kid. He’s also on the was also the vice president of the AFL Richmond, but unlike that other AFL administrator, Buckley who probably had never seen a round ball since he was appointed, Brendan loves football and wants it to succeed. And being involved in the AFL is a plus. Also being at Richmond he would have seen a few crises!

    • April 11th 2012 @ 12:25pm
      Kasey said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

      I have been impressed by Schwab in his dealings with the many crises that are presented to him as the player’s rep. I would support his appointment over BB tomorrow if it were my decision. BB is apparently being kept on to deliver the Media deal. What do we do if he fails?

  • Roar Guru

    April 11th 2012 @ 12:15pm
    Fussball ist unser leben said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:15pm | ! Report

    “… the clubs are really supportive of the new committee structure which came out of the recent owner’s meeting with FFA. We all (HAL club owners) saw this as a big step forward and it has addressed a lot of our concerns. I am positive on the league going forward. Somebody will take on Newcastle for sure – I am absolutely certain of that.”
    Tony Sage, owner of Perth Glory FC

    Unlike the chubby billionaire owners of GCU & NUJ, Tony Sage loves football.

    • April 11th 2012 @ 12:20pm
      Kasey said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

      When and in what medium was that comment made please? Finally some good news for football:) Looks like the doomsayers(Glory next then Heart types) can get back in their box until the inevitable next crisis in footballk kicks off.

      Funny, when the Storm crisis broke in 2010 I don’t remember too many bloggers predicting the end of RL(and the NRL) as we know it despite the tennuous grasp on solvency many of those clubs retain especially based on Poker machines as it is.

      • April 11th 2012 @ 12:21pm
        Tigranes said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

        Kasey

        there were plenty of people who wanted the Storm kicked out the comp in relation to the salary cap scandal – people may not have predicted the end of the NRL, but many were clamouring for the Storm to get booted.

      • Roar Guru

        April 11th 2012 @ 12:53pm
        Fussball ist unser leben said | April 11th 2012 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

        • April 11th 2012 @ 1:07pm
          Kasey said | April 11th 2012 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

          Thank you that certainly is a welcome viewpoint. What now for the “Perth are next then Heart” doomsayers? In today’s Advertiser, AU chairman Rob Gerard has similar to Mr Sage come out in support of the HAL and the way forward pledging his ongoing commitment to the Reds and the fans. wish I could find a link…I read it in the old fashioned way, by holding the newspaper with my hands:)

          oops, spoke too soon:

          Hours after billionaire Nathan Tinkler ‘s Hunter Sports Group company announced it would no longer fund Newcastle Jets and would hand the licence to the A-League, Gerard said his consortium’s stance on keeping the Reds long term was not in any danger.
          “I’m absolutely confident with the game,” said Gerard, who was on an ocean cruise near Dubai yesterday.
          “We have no problems.”
          Looks like many more years of the Cross Border rivalry we both love so much:)
          “Keep Calm and Love United, Hate the Victory” 🙂
          http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/sport/soccer/philanthropist-guarantees-adelaide-uniteds-a-league-future/story-e6frectc-1226323273392

    • April 11th 2012 @ 3:41pm
      whiskeymac said | April 11th 2012 @ 3:41pm | ! Report

      Sage by name, sage by …well you know. He comes across as the most level headed of the mining magnates.
      Seeing as it seems fashionable to nominate names as FFA gen next how about Sage (or Turnbull of CCM – his passion and commitment to the game is unquestionable).

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