If any positive can come out of this pandemic, it is that it has forced our governing body to examine the direction of the game.
It has stopped us kicking the can down the road and postponing the inevitable.
As football fans, we have discussed ad nauseam where the game went wrong. We have discussed the decline of our youth system, the poor quality of football, the treatment of fans like dollar signs, allowing broadcasters too much control and influence over our game, an over-reliance on TV money at the expense of a stable model, ignoring our footballing heritage, suppressing and killing active support and just down right poor management as our game is hijacked by the metrics bozos at head office who do not understand football’s DNA nor the unique power football has to drive change and be a leader in the community.
They are protecting their own power base at the expense of our game, avoiding accountability and creating a barrier of entry for people like our golden generation, whose knowledge would be invaluable. If it can’t be quantified into a narrow metric whose end goal is to make money, it’s worthless.
It seems head office doesn’t want the old-school fans who draw inspiration from community, passion and sticking by their team through thick and thin. They want events people and social media influencers who will go to a game and post to their followers about what a great time they are having, conveniently filming themselves as they celebrate a goal. But these people have dropped football for the next trendy thing, just as broadcasters will when the game is no longer profitable, while in the mean time the game has alienated its true fans.
But all is not lost. Head office has been dragged kicking and screaming to the crossroads. The worst thing they can do if they survive this is go back to business as usual. If they don’t, we have reason to be optimistic.
James Johnson, the new FFA chief executive, seems to get it. He understands football without the community is nothing. He has so far proven himself an adept mediator, overseeing the various warring parties and finding a solution to move forward. His power may be limited, but so far he has done a fantastic job and I only wish we had him in the chair three years ago.
We need to go back to zero. The lucrative TV deals look to be a thing of the past and never again must they be allowed to dictate the game’s strategy. We need a model that starts with the fans. That can grow from there. We need the teams to act as small self-sustaining units operating under the umbrella of a national body or at least all pulling in the same direction.
The new model will not require tens of millions of dollars to be sustainable nor should the game ever again attempt to be a second-rate version of the Big Bash, NRL or AFL. The A-League has produced some wonderful moments, wonderful clubs and wonderful fans.
We have derbies that even until recently pulled 20,000 to 30,000 people. That is something we could not have dreamed of 20 years ago.
We have crowd averages of nearly 10,000 people and this is despite the game being poorly run and in decline. We have a huge junior base and we are international and we have more exposure in the Australian media than we have ever had in the game’s history. These are wonderful ingredients to begin our journey to a solid sustainable strategy.
But it’s not complete, because there is a part of the game’s essence that is missing. A key set of ingredients mean the game will never reach its potential unless we all pull in the same direction as one football family. We need to reignite the mission that Johnny Warren and Les Murray spoke about. A game that doesn’t acknowledge its history is rudderless and lacking in foundation and identity.
It’s time to unite the old with the new and to recognise the people and the teams who laid the foundations. These are the clubs who have been alienated and left to rot but who have stilled survived. The fans of those clubs were part of the community who gave not only the golden generation but a host of great players. They produced your Johnny Warrens, Marshall Sopers and Robbie Slaters.
With these clubs we can begin to rebuild our identity, our youth system, and our culture. Take it back to the grassroots. Imagine the passion of a league that has Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory, Perth Glory, Brisbane Strikers, Wollongong Wolves and South Melbourne. Add in Sydney Olympic and Melbourne Knights for a little spice. Add to this new regional teams, an overdue Canberra team and bringing Townsville back. This is Australia and this is Australian football. We will all be part of the new football family.
What form this will take is up for review. We can expect less revenue and a second division, although ideal may not be realistic. But remember, the idea is to build areas of sustainability from the ground up and as the community becomes engaged, revenue streams will open up organically and the game will grow.
Perhaps even a conference system like you have in the US is possible. This would essentially be teams of one area (or conference) playing each other, which would minimise travel expenses, with a select number of games within the season allowed for interstate games.
You may argue the US system may not work in Australia and that’s fine, but the idea is to minimise expenditure, increase community engagement and create youth pathways. We are not trying to get 40,000 people per game and chase billion-dollar TV deals and getting into hundred of millions of debt. That model is unrealistic, unachievable and irresponsible. Perhaps a second division with a conference style system while maintaining the national first division is possible. There are options.
The ingredients are there, we just have to bring them all together. We have the right man to lead us, and we have now the opportunity to make the change. Now is the time to create the game we all wanted.