What’s the absolute worst that could happen to football in Australia?
The collapse of the A-League? All clubs going bust? The total breakdown of the fabric of society that advances a Mad Max-style dystopia?
When James Johnson started considering taking on the role of CEO of the FFA, managing the economic fallout for football as the result of a global pandemic was low down the list of considerations. And yet here we are.
Perhaps the Mad Max element seems a bit farfetched, but then even at the start of the year the idea that sport in Australia would have shut down almost completely, and the NRL and AFL would be issuing dire financial warnings, also seemed a tad preposterous.
Max Rockatansky is unlikely to appear, unless it’s in his pyjamas and a hoodie following some enforced isolation, but whenever the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, we’ll be entering back into a very different sporting landscape.
To that end, any talk of completing the season imminently seems wildly optimistic at best. New South Wales is under a form of lock-down for 90 days. Different states will be at different stages in their battle to control the virus. New Zealand won’t necessarily follow the same course of action as Australia. Football has very little control over the political, economic and health responses of the country.
In many ways the sport has never been so irrelevant yet so necessary. Even if you strip out the A-League or the NPL, the game is played widely across Australia. It’s part of the fabric of communities. That fabric, and the role football plays across grassroots, will be sorely missed, perhaps more so than the game’s premier competition.
So what should Johnson do to safeguard the future? Club after club are standing down their players and staff to survive. Regional football bodies do not have the funds to survive a sustained shutdown. The code’s main broadcast partner, themselves struggling to stay afloat, are rumoured to be finding a way to offload the remainder of the broadcasting deal. The A-League is not the Premier League and like other codes in Australia, the loss of finances will soon begin to bite.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The FFA is probably a better place to be right now than, say, Rugby Australia. The game has also been through crises and collapses before. Some of that knowledge will prove invaluable tomorrow.
Tough as it will be to imagine, Johnson needs to plan for the very worst-case scenario and work backwards. What happens if the A-League collapses, with franchises going under? Or we lose the majority of NPL clubs, many of whom do their best to live within their means, but will struggle badly in this crisis? What if many of the foreign stars leave these shores and opt not to return? What if a generation of future Socceroos and Matildas get lost from the game and don’t return?
These are uncomfortable questions. They’re also very real dangers. Johnson and his team, along with the clubs, have every right to hope for the best, but much of the threat is nothing to do with the way the game is run.
Even well managed businesses have closed their doors and stood down their staff. We have an idea when restrictions may be lifted, but that’s dependent on stemming the spread of an easily transmitted virus. The likes of Milos Ninkovic and Alessandro Diamanti may be wonderful schemers, but this is a problem beyond even their creativity.
But what the pandemic does give the FFA is time: time to consider these questions, plan, and model scenarios that include a need to start from scratch after immeasurable damage to the fabric of the game.
A Black Swan event for football in Australia may not happen. But by assuming it could, the FFA can move from fire fighting to proactively planning a new future. There’s understandably a desire to finish this current season, but long-term disaster planning will stand in game in better stead than devoting energy to finding a remote Queensland island to quarantine players in order to play matches.
As the likes of John Aloisi have already pointed out, it’s also an opportunity to reset the game. The NPL and A-League seasons have an opportunity to sync together. A second division may, practically, be easier than ever to introduce. Struggling franchises could have the opportunity to start over.
Then you have the rarest of rare luxuries – a completed season in the form of the W-League. This is an opportunity to spend time strategising how to build on the positive trajectory of the women’s game, harness the grassroots and create one of the best women’s leagues in the world, while also ensuring the next World Cup finds its way to Australian soil.
Nobody quite knows what Australia’s sporting landscape will look like when the pandemic abates and restrictions are lifted. Nobody can say with any certainty who will be left standing. But by planning for the very worst, the game stands a charge of emerging from this crisis in a stronger place.