Recent commentary seems to suggest that promotion and relegation at the top-tier of Australian football is a fait accompli.
That it has the potential to do more harm than good has escaped many observers.
Mike Cockerill recently wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that, “the pressure for a second-tier is building to fever pitch, both internally and externally, and the FFA can’t keep sticking their head in the sand hoping it will go away.”
The external pressures supposedly are from the FIFA/AFC delegation currently in town. Why the FFA, which has overseen the most successful domestic football competition in the country’s history, should do anything other than be polite hosts to organisations with their own credibility issues, seems a bit rich.
The internal pressures, which are much more valid, are worthy of consideration, but is satisfying the more fanciful desires of our semi-professional clubs the best way forward for the whole of football?
To suggest that just because pro/rel works in other countries means it is going to work here, shows a shallow understanding of our sporting culture.
Even our most successful professional sporting bodies, the AFL and the NRL, have never had enough clubs to warrant more than one division.
Demographics also count against having promotion and relegation in the top-tier. Australia’s population is heavily centralised around a handful of cities. In fact outside of Australia’s state and territory capitals, it would be a struggle to come up with even ten distinct population centres.
Europe has a myriad of urban centres capable of supporting football clubs. How many Brightons, Nottinghams, Sheffields, Lilles, Palermos and Hoffenheims are there in Australia crying out for a football team?
Plus there is the cold hard fact that the further you go from the state capitals, the less support there is for the sport of football. Would a team like Bathurst or Coffs Harbour get an average of more than 1,000 for top-flight football? And what grounds are they going to play on?
Maybe they could take over the soon to be defunct greyhound tracks.
What would happen, is the ranks of the top-tier would fill up with suburban clubs mainly based in Sydney and Melbourne.
Cast your thoughts forward ten years or so. It would not be out of the realms of possibility that a strong football region like western Sydney might have four or five top-tier clubs.
Teams like Blacktown, Sydney United and Marconi might draw perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 through the gates.
With a glut of clubs to choose from. would the Western Sydney Wanderers still be relevant? I would suspect the Wanderers would re-badge themselves as Parramatta and move to a smaller ground, more fitting their status.
The whole point of having clubs like the Wanderers is to concentrate fans from across the football spectrum, a sporting version of economies of scale, allowing domestic football to draw average crowds upwards of 15,000.
The fact that domestic Australian football may this year draw a derby crowd of 60,000 or more for the first time ever, shows that this system works. And it looks good on TV.
But these kinds of crowds would no longer be possible if promotion and relegation to the top tier was introduced. Perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 would be the most you would ever get. Such a competition would be on the nose for any current or potential broadcaster.
In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the next TV contract specifically precluded having promotion and relegation at the top level.
Then there is the suggestion that promotion and relegation is somehow vital for the future of football in Australia. This is nonsense.
How would the introduction of a second tier, by definition a lower standard of football than the A-League, suddenly have fans deflating their Sherrins or taking to their NRL jerseys with scissors?
What free-to-air network is going to rush out and televise it considering that no free-to-air network is even televising the top-tier competition?
Rather than concentrating on a national second division with promotion and relegation, the highest priority regarding league structure should be on expanding the current A-League to 16 or 18 clubs. Considering it has taken over ten years to expand by two clubs, I would expect it would take at least 30 years to get to this point.
It would be awesome to think your local club could advance all the way to the top-tier of professional football. It’s something most hardcore fans fantasise about. But that’s where it should remain – a fantasy. A slow but sure expansion of the A-League needs to take priority.
Promotion and relegation can wait.