Former Liverpool, Newcastle United and England player Peter Beardsley has been stood down and suspended from all football-related employment after a series of racist comments directed towards black players were made public earlier this year.
The latest instalment of the A-League produced a snore-fest of declining interest culminating in what had to be one of the most boring grand finals in the history of the league.
Make no mistake: the league’s future is at stake. The FFA is terrified its dollars from Foxtel will dry up after it declared that minor sports funding may be at risk, and the league’s tanking ratings are not helping its cause.
So I write today not as a journalist – I am far from that – but in my capacity as a fan and to humbly offer a blueprint for the future.
Very briefly, my entire professional career has been about establishing new company divisions or turning around ailing ones and creating profitable dynamic divisions within a company. It involves understanding a company’s unique value proposition, its weaknesses, the market and how we can grow. So with this I ran my eye over the A-League, and I am sure many fans will echo my sentiments. Some are more obvious than others.
This has done almost irreparable damage to the game, bringing it to its knees. This brawl between the clubs and the FFA needs to end. We are getting there, but we need to get there faster. People need to leave their egos at the door and clubs need to be incentivised to invest in the game. Clubs are already on record saying that unless there is a clear strategic direction they will not invest further. We have officials both within the FFA and in club management who are clearly not up to the task.
Understanding of the game and its unique value proposition.
We have a board who are more concerned about making football into a second-rate version of the Big Bash than understanding the game’s strengths. Football is about change, equality, dynamism and being part of a global family. We were the first to have a national competition. The first to have the Australian national anthem played at an international. The only international team to send a national team to Vietnam. We learn from others but we shouldn’t follow. We should lead.
Active fans and atmosphere
The FFA have, as Simon Hill put it, slain the golden goose. This was what bought fans to the game. Heavy-handed security has destroyed the passion, and football dies without passion. Fix active support, re-engage fans.
Have a manager or team dedicated to managing the fan game-day experience. What is the blueprint for a family on game day from the moment they leave their home to the moment they come home? Recognise fans are fans; they aren’t customers. Once you treat your fans like customers, they will treat you like a product. If the product isn’t good, why turn up? Create loyalty beyond results. Use technology and understand people today have more options. In the future we will be competing against such things as augmented reality.
This is the principle whereby a company’s measure becomes the target. This, in short, is bad. Rather than build a strong, dynamic league that will attract investment – of which TV money is a measure of success – the TV money has become the target. As a minor sport compared to AFL and NRL we have got ourselves into a catch 22. We need Foxtel’s money to survive, but the broadcaster’s limited reach means we cannot effectively grow and compete with the big boys. We need to redefine the strategy and have a broader approach.
Let’s face it. The two new teams are a desperate cash grab for the FFA. Again TV money is driving strategy. In the long term this is bad. We have the vaguely named Western United, who will be playing in a sparsely populated area, and a team from South West Sydney – or, as fans call it, The Team That No-one Wanted FC. Bad strategy leads to bad decisions. These teams will struggle to survive. But we are stuck with them now. Strategies need to be drawn up to maximise their success and the FFA must now not bail on them, as they did with the Northern Fury and Gold Coast United, teams that were also the result of poor due diligence.
A second division
Important, yes. Realistic, no. We are so far away from a sustainable second division it’s not funny. First we need direction and strong foundations, otherwise adding a second division will be another shaky pillar in a house about to collapse. A second division, if done right, is exactly what the game needs, but it must be done right. It will also make for better decision-making as clubs who find themselves rooted to the bottom of the table will now know they have something to lose.
Lifting or totally scrapping the salary cap
This is contentious, I know, but the simple fact is the A-League cannot rise to new heights and reach its potential in terms of quality of football if it is rooted and anchored to the bottom team and trying to keep it competitive. We need vision. We need to incentivise clubs to manage themselves better and lift the standard, not punish them when they attempt to do so and reward mediocrity. Of course we can complement this with incentives and breaks for smaller teams, but ultimately a rising tide lifts all boats.
Our youth system
Sorry, but it’s broken. Key elements of defensive play and a rigid system has led to severely deficient players, as has this whole youth academy proliferation that fleeces parents of their money for little gain. We also need to connect the grassroots to the rest of the game. Haven’t you heard this argument for the past 40 years?
Create a system where players can drift in and out of football and futsal, providing them with skills and vision desperately needed. I was in talks with an A-League team about setting up a profitable futsal competition and they were all for the idea – until management changed. This is a big wasted opportunity.
Incentive clubs to have their own stadiums and revenue streams
This is an area where people immediately say that it can’t be done. Well, if you have that attitude, it will never be done. Credit to Western United for making this happen. Like in the US, you can lobby the government to encourage investment from Asia to build new stadiums in exchange for citizenship. These are high-value investors. People are afraid of Asian investors buying houses and agricultural land. They may not be too concerned if there is an investment in stadiums.
Again, this is based on having a clear strategy that will make A-League owners want to invest in the right marquees, confident that they aren’t throwing their money away. One thing feeds off the other.
A football lobby
This is something we are terrible at. Create relationships with business and community groups and leverage this to influence the government. We need access to the upper echelons in the corridors of power.
Finally, remember that people are drawn to football because it is a community and a family. That primitive tribal instinct is still strong in all of us. Utilise it to make our great game grow. Fan ownership of clubs – as a certain percentage – should be considered in the medium and long term.
This is the way forward. But to do this the reality is the game first needs a huge clean-out before a football-centric model – as opposed to a business-centric model – can be implemented. Get the football right and surround it with proper strategy and all else will fall into place.