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Professional league independence brings excitement and challenges

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Expert
3rd July, 2019
4

The independence of the A-League, W-League and Y-League will mean the beginning of an exciting new era for professional football in Australia.

It means the franchises must transform themselves into clubs and become much more future-focused, while the FFA must refocus on the grassroots.

At the Australian Association of Football Clubs’ Football Federation Australia board nominees forum in November last year, former federal Labor senator Stephen Conroy stated, “an independent A-League provides a catalyst and opportunity for our federations and stakeholders because those negotiations must deliver a guaranteed minimum level of funding for grassroots football.”

Conroy may have been unsuccessful in his nomination for a spot on the FFA board, but his statement was one of the few that cut directly to the heart of one of the biggest issues facing the game on that particular evening.

While the fine print of the separation, or rather the ‘commercial self-determination’, of the professional leagues from the FFA is still to be finalised, the announcement made by the New Leagues Working Group (NLWG) on Monday suggests all parties have achieved the desired outcomes.

The professional leagues will now enjoy autonomy over the commercial A-League, W-League and Y-League brands, creating a much more attractive environment for continued investment from club owners, while the terms of separation ensure the FFA will continue to receive yields from the professional game and refocus its attention on national teams and grassroots football.

As a football fan I hope the independence of the leagues encourages clubs to be much more innovative across all fronts, from on-field recruitment and player development to off-field infrastructure and development, as well as coaching and analytical structures right through to marketing and presence in the media landscape.

For too long, in the interests of equalisation, the biggest and best-run A-League clubs have been hamstrung for the sake of those who cannot keep up.

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The lack of promotion and relegation also ensures that underperforming clubs continue to drag the quality of the league down.

If there is one alarm bell ringing in light of the news it is that, despite the FFA’s ongoing work and recent release of a white paper discussing the a plan for a national second division in Australia, the prospect of such a league and potential promotion and relegation was not mentioned by one of the people quoted in the NLWG statement.

Perhaps this will be mentioned in the details to come, but if this agreement is truly going to “align and unite Australian football’s interests like never before,” as FFA chairman Chris Nikou put it, then a second division and promotion and relegation need to be on the agenda.

Chris Nikou

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

While the on-field product obviously needs to improve, it’s vitally important that our professional clubs take their role in the development of football infrastructure equally seriously.

Clubs need to look at how they can become more than just a team badge, a collection of players and staff and fans.

They need to look at developing proper homes for themselves and proper facilities. This doesn’t necessarily mean every club needs to go out and build a brand-new home stadium, but it does mean at the very least building elite football facilities to help develop their own talent.

This is especially crucial if the future is a national second division with promotion and relegation.

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Clubs need to future-proof themselves and develop multiple sources of income above and beyond receiving television money, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that subscription television – which has floated the professional game in this country – is on the way out.

They can’t do this if they continue to hire stadiums and train on hired or council grounds.

If they don’t and they fall and crumble as a result, then at least they can no longer say it was because of factors beyond their control.

The fact that so many old National Soccer League clubs continue to exist and in some cases thrive despite their more modest surrounds and being locked out of the top tier of Australian football for so long is a testament to those clubs and act as proof that there is life for all clubs in football beyond the top tier.

Any club which continues to see itself as only feasible in the top tier following this announcement will set itself up for eventual destruction.

Hopefully the change means the eventual phasing out of the salary cap, the introduction of transfer fees between A-League clubs and importantly to the clubs beneath them and – as mentioned – the alignment of the football pyramid with a national second division.

Newcastle Jets fans

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

The other side of the coin which remains of great interest is what the changes mean for the FFA.

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They undoubtedly mean less money for the national governing body – despite the assertion that FFA should be no worse off from the reorganisation – but it also means fewer expenses.

Of course the FFA’s financials remain incredibly opaque, so it is hard to say exactly how much the governing body will have at its disposal.

No doubt there will be some sort of change to the organisational structure, and whether or not this leads to the consolidation of the state member associations of further proliferation of the FFA’s roles and funds to member associations remains to be seen.

What is beyond doubt is that with a greater focus on grassroots football the FFA needs to address a number of issues and work harder to align its member federations.

First and foremost the cost of playing memberships, particularly at National Premier League level across the board.

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Finding additional funding to help subsidise the cost of coach education is also critical.

While many questions remain over the FFA, particularly in light of the much-maligned Matildas coaching saga, it would be hard to argue that the tenure of the new board has not been an improvement on the previous one thus far.

That’s not to say it has been perfect, but since its appointment this FFA board has overseen this historic deal, has progressed the national discussion on a national second division and will hopefully have erased the NCIP in the coming months.

It must now take on a new and arguably more holistic role in the governance of football in Austalia and ensure it delivers results for the most important part of the game: the grassroots.