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An independent A-League: Who will the casualties be?

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Expert
2nd July, 2019
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3180 Reads

The announcement of the in principle agreement to grant the A-League independence from the FFA has been met with a variety of sentiments.

While many who have championed the cause for some time now claim to see rays of hope on the horizon, there are others with grave fears for the league. Particularly when the practicalities of the new arrangement eventually become reality.

In essence, the A-League needed guidance and child minding at birth. Very few would question that. However, as time passed it become apparent that the competition was very much attached to the apron strings of the FFA and heading nowhere.

That is not to say that the standard of A-League football played was not of a respectful and watchable standard, far from the case. However, the rate of improvement in it compared to the substantial and sustained growth occurring in other Asian Confederation nations would eventually necessitate the formation of the New Leagues Working Group (NLWG).

Thus began the grapple of dialogue between the new body and FFA, as both sought to achieve an advantageous outcome.

With A-League franchises desperate for a loosening of the purse strings and self-determination within the domestic setting, the clubs now appear to have received that assurance.

Melbourne City fans

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The commercial reality of the agreement is a potentially significantly increased piece of the financial pie for the A-League clubs, as well as full and perpetual control over their intellectual property.

While the FFA maintains its overarching governance role and continues to administrate national teams and grassroots football via its portion of revenue from the game, the agreement announcement used a key and decisive phrase when it came to the newly created distance between the FFA and an independent A-League.

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Unimpeded control.

It is a poignant choice of words and one that could eliminate many of the restrictions that have hampered Australian football over the last decade.

The idea of the A, W and Y-Leagues advancing unfettered is both an appealing and scary proposition.

No doubt, clubs will find themselves in a somewhat conflicted space and take a self-serving approach to the upcoming negotiations, as the finer details of the agreement are decided.

They would indeed be mad if they did not, however the broader and structural changes required to improve Australian football as a whole will also be forefront in their minds.

The implementation of transfer fees, removal of the salary cap and an eventual move to full promotion and relegation are easy things to support and champion. However, when push comes to proverbial shove, there will be undoubted financial winners and losers when the new structures are put in place.

The notion of an A-League club agreeing to moves that in fact weaken its position and long-term viability in the competition is an unlikely one. The natural by-product of that will be rigorous debate and those clubs bullish about independence will attempt to persuade the more conservative members to come along for the ride.

That bullishness proving profitable to all is a best-case scenario for the league, yet perhaps idealistic at the same time. The diametrically opposed doomsday narrative sees another A-League club (or two) on the scrapheap at some stage in the future.

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If that scrap heap becomes a second tier of professional competition then perhaps natural attrition will be used to validate the fall and maybe that is exactly what is required.

The ruthlessness of professional sport appears shortly to arrive in Australian football and casualties are likely to emerge. However, it is time for the A-League to let go of mummy’s hand and take a shot at existence without restrictive captivity.

There is no doubt that the playing field will be vastly different across the A-League clubs. The eternal questions around the survival of the Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix will remain.

The challenges for both Western United and Macarthur FC as new franchises will also be considerable, as they attempt to attract a following and build an identity in their local communities.

All the while the so-called big clubs will attract suspicion and concern, with many certain of the fact that the benefits of access to a broader corporate dollar in a big city will undoubtedly see them flourish at the expense of smaller clubs.

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And maybe that is exactly what Australian football needs; a competition more closely aligned with leagues around the world. Leagues where success breeds a growth that leads to further achievement, where teams tumble and fall and others excel.

The coming month of detailed decision making will determine just who those clubs will be as the new independent league takes shape. It will make for some heated debate, with some clubs anticipating a boon and others fearful of disaster.