When it comes to promotion and relegation in the A-League, it is of my belief that this season has affirmed to us that the question is no longer if we should create a second division but rather how it might work.
It is no secret that the A-League has become particularly dull for fans of teams that have no chance of making the top six. At the time of writing, there is an eight-point gap between Wellington and Newcastle with ten rounds still to play.
For clubs like Newcastle, Brisbane, Western Sydney and Central Coast, playing for pride does get exhausting and demoralising.
Out of curiosity when writing this article, I began brainstorming how a potential second division may work. There where multiple problems that I discovered when thinking about how a model might exist.
The most obvious problem that came to my mind was funding. The A-League is struggling for cash as it is right now, to ask the FFA to fund travel fees, hotel rooms and that kind of stuff would be excessive and restrict the funds in the league as it is already.
The influence of travel fees cannot be underestimated. The reason why lower divisions in countries such as England are so successful can of course be accumulated to other reasons (such as talent and interest), but for the most part, teams in this leagues very rarely pay for expensive charter flights and five star hotels.
It can be considered from an administrative perspective at least, that it is cheaper to create lower divisions in countries with smaller geography than places such as Australia.
On a further issue of investment, concerns where raised over how the A-League clubs would react over concern that their license fees for first division football may be placed in jeopardy. The A-League clubs are very powerful bodies within Australian football. If we lose investment in the top end of the game, then we can say goodbye to investment into the lower leagues.
What about competitiveness? If the league was started by brand new franchises, then this might not be an issue. But even though interest in A-League expansion slots have never been higher (supported by more than ten bids from parties for licenses over the past year), they were for first division places. Except for a few bids, how can we say for certain that the new clubs would be willing to form a second division?
And even if they did form a second division, will the audience figures and ratings even be able to justify it? At the moment, creating a second division seems like a situation where there is a high amount of investment, but for very little financial gain. Yes, money should not be the reason why a second division is established. But it is also impossible to create without the right funds.
But today, I believe I can suggest a simplistic model that would solve these issues, at least for the short term. I am proposing that we look to the National Premier Leagues (NPL) in order to create a second division. At the completion of the NPL Finals series, the winner of the series should be allowed to enter a play off game against the bottom placed A-League club. The winner of this game will be promoted to the A-League, and the loser shall be relegated back to the NPL of their state.
I am proposing that it stays a play off game for at least a few seasons. The is because that despite NPL clubs greatly improving their operations over the past few years, as highlighted by strong performances against A-League clubs in the FFA Cup, there is still a gap in class between the two leagues. Having a play off game shows that NPL clubs must be able to prove that they can hold their weight in the league by winning this game.
In future, once we can ascertain that the quality in state leagues can rival that of the A-League and this can be measured by checking the performance of the recently promoted NPL club, then we can consider making the bottom placed club automatically relegated, while the second place enters the play off game. This removes dead rubber games, and gives A-League clubs hope to escape relegation.
I am not saying that we should not be looking to create a more “traditional” promotion and relegation style, with a national second division. But geographically wise Australia is quite unique. It would not make sense to have a national second division when already the national first division is lacking funds.
So why do I think that this model could work? Because it solves all of the problems that I identified earlier in this article.
In terms of travel, there is no need for expensive charter flights in the NPL as it all exists on a state level. The NPL already has a single elimination knock out tournament for winners of the state division, and the travel allowances that are used for the relegated A-League club would simply be transferred onto the promoted club because there would be no reason for the relegated A-League club to need them.
Theoretically, there would be no additional travel costs required for the creation of a second division.
When addressing concerns over crowd numbers, I look the FFA Cup to support this model. Whenever an NPL club plays against an A-League side, there is always a sold-out crowd. Yes, these crowds are not typically large, but then again so are the A-League club’s crowds.
Furthermore, NPL clubs in their boutique stadiums create such better atmospheres in these games, and this is ultimately what is attractive to broadcasters.
Within the NPL Finals and state leagues, I will acknowledge that the crowds are not typically large either, but they attract a different kind of crowd. There is more of a community focus in these games, but when you consider that there is suddenly a much larger prize up for grabs, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that these crowds would improve.
I was in the Avondale area when Sydney FC where due to play Avondale FC in the FFA Cup last year. You could feel the community in the area getting excited over the chance of them to play against one of the biggest clubs in the country.
I could see billboards allover local shopping strips, arguably more advertisement for this game than that for Melbourne City or Victory. So, it is clear that in these smaller communities, there is a deep passion for the NPL Clubs.
However, for all the passion NPL games can bring, they can be similarly guilty of being dead rudder games as well. Most players dream of playing at the top, but the NPL currently does not give them this opportunity, save for a few FFA Cup games. Having this model attracts significant attention from the rest of the community as there is hope.
In terms of negative backlash from A-League club owners to having their first division license placed in jeopardy, the use of a playoff game significantly helps in this regard as a compromise.
It is used as a measure to check whether the owner is interested in bettering the team. If they are placed into that position in the first place, then questions should be asked over the entire club, and we are right to condemn.
Furthermore, all A-League owners agree that the A-League is in danger of stagnation. This is the way to remove this stagnation. By having challenges and battles throughout the entire league.
Some owners may also complain that if they where to be relegated to a second division, they will see their crowds decline. I doubt this claim strongly. A-League clubs already have small crowds, and the people watching the A-League at the moment are not casual observers, it is a passionate few. These people will still go to games.
In terms of finance for these new clubs, I see a situation like clubs in Europe and their second divisions, where investors will purchase clubs and begin to transform them with hope to make the A-League.
There is already precedent for this model of buying clubs in lower divisions to make the top division. Bundesliga club RB Leipzig for example where initially a fifth division club in 2009 before being bought out by Red Bull. Whether or not you approve of the rapid rise by this method, this will ultimately be where the money comes from for the rest of the Australian football pyramid.
Demand already exists for A-League licenses, as we can see from the last expansion race. This option allows investors to buy NPL Clubs on the cheap and transform them into juggernauts.
Once we have a few clubs within the NPL that routinely make the finals series, have been promoted and relegated and have the support from wealthy investors, then we can begin to make the formations for a more traditional second division. This will ultimately make their investment more worthwhile in future, given that their club will stand out from others in the NPL and make them front runners for the traditional second division.
But until then, with the A-League struggling for mainstream attention, maybe it is time to embrace the smaller football communities throughout the country and get them far more involved in the game. We have already seen in the FFA Cup the passion and talent that exists in the NPL, why is it that we chose to continue to ignore their participation by giving them an opportunity when it is financially viable?