On the 28th February this year a significant event took place at FFA headquarters in Sydney.
It was the first meeting of the National Second Division Working Group. The meeting was said to be enthusiastic.
Indeed the group’s Chair, Remo Nogarotto, was quoted as saying “There was a real sense of energy and unity of purpose from those in the room.”
Among topics discussed were financial viability and promotion and relegation.
If nothing else, the proponents of the second division are keen. They are adamant they can start the competition in October 2020, the same time the A-League expands to twelve clubs.
I’ll admit to being a second division sceptic. My argument is that if our top tier national league is doing it tough financially, then how could a lower tier national league survive?
One of the strongest counter arguments to my position is that when promotion and relegation is brought in, the interest created will boost both leagues and could be the saviour of the A-League itself.
A working group from the meeting was given the job of producing a white paper on the second division.
I have come up with a list of questions that the working group may consider and of course added some of my own opinions.
What would you like to see?
How many teams should there be?
Twelve teams for a 22-week season or 14 teams for a 26-week season seem practical choices. As the A-League has shown, supporters respond to derbies so I think we need two teams in each of Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane for a total of six teams.
This would leave only six places for Melbourne and Sydney clubs in a twelve-team competition. For this reason I think the second division should aim to start with 14 teams.
How should the teams be distributed?
Taking 14 teams as an example, I would have two clubs in Perth, Adelaide and the Greater Brisbane area (including Ipswich), three from Victoria, four from the state (not Federation) of New South Wales with one spot for either a fourth Victorian club or a regional team such as Canberra or Tasmania.
Should new entities be allowed in?
If it adds to the financial viability of the league I would say yes. The South-East Melbourne bid for the A-League has suggested they might be interested. New entities in Canberra and Tasmania should also be considered as existing club sides from these areas would struggle to compete.
What is the optimal size for the A-League before full promotion and relegation begins?
My pick is 16 for a 30-match league playing home and away. With each club playing at least one FFA Cup tie this gives a minimum of 31 matches in a season, probably the minimum amount to develop professional footballers.
Should new A-League clubs come from the national second division?
Yes. In 2020-21 there will be 12 A-League clubs. Once the second division is running smoothly, a series of promotions without relegation can occur to bring the A-League up to the desired number of teams.
This would free up spots in the second division for ambitious clubs from the third tier. Once the second division is established cashed up investors wanting to buy into the league should be do it through an existing club.
At what stage should automatic promotion and relegation occur?
1. When the second division is proven to be financially viable.
2. When the A-League is up to the required amount of clubs
3. All teams in the second division have the required infrastructure.
What about infrastructure?
In the early discussions around the second division there was talk of clubs requiring to play out of boutique stadiums with a capacity of at least 3,000.
What this means would need to be qualified down the track. Spectator comfort, lighting, media and player facilities would need to be considered. Playing surfaces are another thorny issue.
Many Sydney clubs play on artificial pitches, would they need to be ripped up?
What I wouldn’t like to see is a team eligible for promotion to the A-League be knocked back because they don’t have the required facilities.
This would make a mockery of the automatic promotion/relegation system. This is the reason for my point three above: have the facilities in place before automatic promotion and relegation begins.
How many clubs should be promoted/relegated and should playoffs be part of it?
Assuming a 16-team top tier, I would say two teams up and two teams down.
Two from 16 is 12.5 per cent of clubs. This is light compared to the English Premier League: three clubs from 20 = 15 per cent and Bundesliga: 2.5 clubs from 18 = 15.4 per cent.
Playoffs for promotion are very popular and are worth having. I would have the top club from the second division automatically promoted and teams 2-5 playing off for the remaining promotion spot.
Should the National Second Division be “closed” and what happens to the third tier?
This is an intriguing question and one that probably doesn’t need to be considered for a while.
Should clubs playing in the second division be protected from further relegation?
My view is that they should until such time as the second division is stable and promotion/relegation is occurring into the top tier.
I could see there being a massive gulf in standards and facilities between the second tier and the nine state and territory leagues at the third tier.
For this reason I would suggest a semi-closed system like England had for many years where the clubs at the bottom of the professional system apply for re-election to the league.
In the England example, only a very few clubs lost their league status this way. In an Australian context I think only the bottom club of the second division would need to apply for re-election.
Of course there will be many other things to consider including player development and women’s football and my questions are the tip of the iceberg.
Is the second division just a pie in the sky?
Organisers believe they can make it happen and soon. Time will tell. If it does happen it will be an exciting time for the sport, a truly “unite the tribes” moment.