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Expansion has arrived, and we have some questions

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13th December, 2018
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Western Melbourne are set to join the A-League next season, playing initially in Kardinia Park in Geelong, then eventually – in theory – in a purpose-built stadium in Tarneit.

In the 2020-21 season, the Macarthur/South-West Sydney team will enter the fray, playing out of Campbelltown Sports Stadium. These candidates were deemed by the new FFA board on Thursday to have been the most worthy of franchise licenses. Yes, as you’ve probably noticed, both have either ‘Sydney’ or ‘Melbourne’ in their names. 

South-West Sydney (SWS) are well-placed, in an area of the city large enough to be considered – by the FFA at least – demographically viable, but far enough away from Western Sydney and Sydney FC so as not to egregiously cannibalise their fan bases.

They have a ground, a rectangular stadium, and are loosely attached to a council plan to build a centre of sporting excellence nearby, which might serve as their HQ. That they won’t enter until 20-21 was explained in part by the FFA:

“We always said we had to take into account the impact on our existing clubs,” David Gallop said at the announcement press conference.

“We’ve got two clubs in Sydney that have dislocated from the venues that they ultimately want to play in, and we felt therefore that was a factor that should lead to toward the Sydney club coming in as the second one, the West Melbourne one asthe first.” 

David Gallop speaks during an FFA press conference.

(Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

As for Western Melbourne, well, it’s true that that region is a growing area, with a theoretical reservoir of new fans waiting to be tapped. They have committed funding for their own stadium, although the site – Tarneit, and in a fairly empty, pastoral part of Tarneit too – is worth questioning.

There seems to now be talk of the need to build a train station near the venue, something the council have indicated they may help with, or indeed a gargantuan carpark.

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I’ve never been to Tarneit, but I don’t anticipate the town’s sheep paddocks are all that nice a place to enjoy a pre-match drink. Gallop said the FFA’s expectation for the completion of their stadium was that it would be done in time for the 2022-23 season, so there they have three years to address these concerns.

Kardinia Park – where Western Melbourne will spend those three interim years – is an AFL ground, one the Victory have a played a few games at.

It is not designed for football, and for all of the board’s urgings that the successful bids offered up adequate plans to present A-League games at an acceptable standard “from day one”, this does seem like a ground out of which atmosphere will immediately float, a cavernous bowl. 

FFA chairman Chris Nikou, at the expansion announcement, said both chosen teams give the A-League “a wonderful footprint into growth corridors in the Australian marketplace.”

He also mentioned that the board were very much keen to keep the expansion issue on the agenda, that these teams would not represent the end of the marinating process, and that the creation of a second division working group, also announced, was “intertwined” with expansion.

This seemed to imply that some of the unsuccessful bids may be considered as new second division clubs, if and when a lower-level league is established. 

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Of the NSW-based bids, South-West Sydney was probably the most viable. Southern Expansion was hoping to succeed in lashing together that southern region – Sutherland, St George, and the South Coast – and were planning on playing out of three different stadiums in their first season.

Their fan-catchment area already contains a strong Sydney FC presence, and there has been a public and slightly petulant war of words between them and the Sky Blue premiers.

They planned on building their own stadium, but South-West already have one, and the tangible is always more convincing than the hypothetical, no matter how guaranteed.

Team 11 can feel rather hard done by. Dandenong seems a highly logical place for the A-League to install a rhizome node, and the site of their proposed stadium was encouraging.

Unfortunately, their funding was rather less assured – it seemed dependant on the success of the bid, and evidently, outside of the stadium, was too tenuous for the board, at least for now.

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Additionally, the question of where they would play in the interim, while the stadium was built in Casey, was not adequately answered.

South Melbourne, of course, was the other Victorian bid, but according to reports was never in the running, as many assumed.

Yes, they have the infrastructure. Yes, many of their fans don’t support the Victory or City out of pure spite alone, a factor at least posing some intrigue when assessing the question of fan dilution in the Melbourne area.

But it was all just too messy, to steeped – rightly or wrongly – in fears of old sokkah, and of all the bids, it sat in the closest quarters to the already established A-League clubs.

Then there’s Canberra. For all the questions around that bid’s ability to attract pleasingly-sized crowds, there is still a throbbing desire to have the country’s capital represented in the national league – we have New Zealand’s capital represented, after all – especially when the city already has a W-League team with a pedigree of competitiveness. O’Rourke emphasised at the announcement that this process “had nothing to do with the W-League.”

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As far as W-League expansion goes, by the way, O’Rourke said that existing A-League clubs without W-League teams – i.e.: Central Coast – would be “the first port of call to go to” for W-League expansion. It seems that continuity between the leagues works as a convincing factor in one direction, but not the other. 

On Canberra, Gallop said that “Canberra is definitely one we’re interested in continuing to talk to, but we felt that on the plusses and minuses, the Sydney and Melbourne bids came out ahead of Canberra at this stage.”

We have a Sydney Derby coming up on Saturday night, one that for the first time in a while seems poised on the axis of competitiveness. Nothing whets the appetite more than a derby that might tilt either way, with both teams, bolstered by thoughts of likely victory, coming out as a result teeming with attacking ambition. 

Of course, this is the second Sydney Derby of the season. There will be another one in April next year. In the wake of the expansion announcement, the word “derbies” was used probably two-dozen times by Fox Sports News talking heads, giddy like children on their fourth tube of sherbet.

The broadcaster will certainly be happy mocking up new graphic-heavy montages to run before these newly contrived derbies, all while dreaming lustfully about viewer metrics and Sydney and Melbourne’s swelling populations.

O’Rourke literally said that a main reasoning factor during this process was “the ability to have more derbies.”

As for how an 11-team season will work next year, Mr O’Rourke said this:

“The first option is there’ll be a bye; there’ll be the same amount of matches each weekend, the five A-League matches, with the 11th team having a bye.

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“It’s not a perfect outcome by any means… ultimately one of our goals is to go to fourteen teams, and then you have a much more balanced full home-and-away potential.

“There are many sports, including some here in Australia which do not have a full home and away, so we believe it’s a transitional step; we’ll go home and away, plus some other metric to make up what we decide is the end of the rounds, as we transition, hopefully and ultimately, to a fourteen team competition.” 

It’s possible that the “other metric” referred to there will mean derbies and other match-ups deemed ‘marquee’ will be given priority. Naturally, Fox Sports will likely be the most powerful entity to partake in these discussions. 

Action in the Melbourne derby

(AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

When asked if the A-League was at risk of becoming too Sydney/Melbourne-centric, Mr Nikou replied “No, I don’t think so.

“I think experience has told you that when we’ve added teams in big cities, it’s given a boost to the A-League; we expect the same this time.

“These are big cities, four or five million people so, that’s not to say that other cities and other pockets in the fullness of time won’t get a guernsey, but at this point in time, we think it’s the right call.”

The scent of money perfumed every answer given at the FFA presser. Mr Gallop was asked a number of times about license fees, and how heavily they were weighted in the decision-making process; could this process be seen, as SBS’s Adrian Arciuli eloquently put it, as simply a matter of rewarding whoever fronted up with the most money?

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“I think we made it clear from day one that there was a [license fee] number we needed to achieve to make sure that this was affordable,” Mr Gallop said. “We’ve achieved that number, and that has been part of the snakes and ladders movements of the past week or so.”

Make of that what you will.

What about marquees? Well, Western Melbourne have publicly stated their desire to snag Scott Brown from Celtic. SWS also made clear, in their press conference on Thursday, that Mile Jedinak was their dream marquee, as well as confirming their conviction to hire an Australian coach who was local to their area.

Of course, for SWS, the year’s delay makes thoughts about their playing roster a little premature.

Mile Jedinak

(Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

This staggered process was not the expansion splash many people wanted, and these teams are not the bids around which most people were gathering most passionately.

But expansion is finally here; the fact the Southern Expansion bid was originally figure-headed and announced by the late Les Murray is evidence enough of how protracted this journey has been.

It feels good. It’s exciting to think of a new team to come next season. The questions lingering in the future will be answered, some more satisfactorily than others, but, for now, a lot of the apathy that has filled the gaps in our A-League desires has been blown away by these fresh airs.

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