For those of use who remember the old NSL, On The Ball was a program that analysed the game, spoke about the mission and went through the goings on of every facet of our code with a fine-tooth comb perhaps better than any football program since.
Headed by the visionary Johnny Warren and the great Les Murray, with input from Damien Lovelock, Mike Cockerill and Andy Paschalidis, these legends of our game not only dissected the game but demanded answers and held our game’s leaders to account.
I vividly remember Johnny Warren on one occasion dragging a former Soccer Australia official over the hot coals. “What is the strategy”, “what is the vision” and “how does this all fit into the mission”. He was basically brow-beating this official to the embarrassing confession that Soccer Australia really had no plan.
And so we find ourselves today in 2020 with a game imploding in its own inertia. We have some wonderful feel-good stories. Sydney FC are setting the standard, and Mohamed Toure is a potential star. But this is buried under a lack of strategy, direction and competence, which has infected all levels of our game.
We know the story. Declining crowds, ratings, interest, standard of football, a shambolic youth system, sponsors wallking and the FFA’s inexplicable ability to have taken one of the sport’s only feel-good stories, the Matildas, and trash it.
We are stuck in a dangerous no man’s land in terms of strategy and leadership. The club owners will not officially assume the leadership for some time now. They know that should they do so, other sponsors (and perhaps broadcasters!) will use it as a legal avenue to walk.
The FFA, knowing they are on the out, have little desire to try to set a roadmap for the future. All this at a time when Fox has declared it has little interest in non-marquee sports and has signalled its intent to potentially walk away from rugby union.
Our game is now out rated by women’s AFL and rugby league. You would say these sports have more resources. But ultimately Australia’s premium football competition would not find this acceptable.
As with any toxic culture and management, old clichés get thrown out by the game’s leaders.
If you support the game, you will turn up. Well, no. What you are doing is appealing to the fans’ emotional attachment to the game. And when the metrics brigade run the game have built a culture based on making the game a product and treating fans like dollar signs – not to mention choking active support – then you have taken that emotional attachment out of the game. You are pulling a lever that is ineffective.
I heard another old chestnut the other day: “We have the largest participation base of all sports and we can use this to create lifelong fans.” This one has been bandied around for 40 years.
This brings me to the next point. Where is the Australian football media holding the game’s leadership to account?
The FFA and owners want to leverage our junior players and translate this into bums on seats and eyeballs on TV. Where is the media asking the hard questions?
Have you got a strategy to do this? Have you reviewed past attempts to do this? Do you have an understanding of why they fell short? What will you be doing differently? What touch points, pathways and leverages will you be creating to achieve your goals? Or is your statement just a five-second sound bite with no substance?
We have sponsor after sponsor leaving the game. As club owners, you were well aware that when the Lowy family were ousted, sponsors would walk given their relationship with Frank. What what plans were in place to mitigate this? Or was it just a mad scramble for power without any real strategy?
The likes of Robbie Slater and Mark Bosnich are fighting for our game. But their influence seems limited. Craig Foster admirably seems more focused on human rights and the plight of refugees and his influence seems to have declined. This is all at a time when we need the media more than ever.
It is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The fans and the media need to hold the game’s leadership to account.
So what can we do? Well, that is an essay in itself. In the short term, the game badly needs a shot in the arm. The short-term bounce would be in the form of a quality marquee or two. No, this is not an ideal scenario but we are in desperate times.
The game’s leaders need to make sure they don’t solely build value around a marquee and need to work feverishly to create value through other avenues – local talent, for example. But a marquee will give us the time we need so the game’s leaders can frantically work to create a long-term strategy to fix the many problems the game has and reconnect with fans. We also need to create value in the A-League and end the old adage “for Australian football to be successful, you need the Socceroos to be successful”.
Robbie Slater is 100 per cent correct. Forget the NSL, we aren’t going back to that, nor do we want to. This is it. The A-League is the premium competition. Without it, we have nothing, or at the very least will go backwards for a long time.
Our game’s owners will do well to heed Johnny Warren’s message about the mission and consider what will football look like in an ever-changing environment where people have more options. The game needs direction. And the game’s leaders need to be held to account.
It’s not their game. We entrust it to them.