Does the title sound dramatic? Or not dramatic enough?
Let’s cut to the chase. The A-League (and Australian football in general) is in dire straights.
Where does the blame lie? Again, let’s not beat around the bush. The game’s administrators, in the main.
It stems from their lack of appreciation of football and its unique value proposition, their refusal to recognise football’s heritage, their dismantling of our youth system and the bewildering desire to destroy active support – one of the game’s huge draw cards. And of course there is the blatant disrespect for football fans, treating them like dollar signs (clubs here have to take some blame also).
The suits at head office are paying the price of making TV money the centre of their strategy, and making what’s in the best interest of football a secondary consideration. A third team in both Sydney and Melbourne? Doesn’t make sense, does it? A Canberra or Wollongong team does. But not in the world of TV money.
The administrators looked desperately for any positives. What’s that, I hear you say? Streaming numbers are up? Well in the real world that has little to no impact. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Major sponsors have walked, the Charles Perkins Academy for Indigenous footballers has shut its doors, and Foxtel (after seing a 70 per cent decline in viewers over three seasons) has pulled the plug early. So desperate were the administration for any sort of good news, that Fox’s new revised and reduced TV deal was painted as some sort of victory.
It wasn’t. It was a disaster. The ramifications are being felt now. Players are being asked to accept a 30 per cent pay cut, $20 million worth of talent is already gone and a potential mass exodus is to follow. The game is in such disarray that the transition of leadership at the top has been an ongoing saga.
At the beginning of the season I wrote the A-League needed to turn its fortunes around now because the window of opportunity was fast closing. If you remember the head honchos at the time couldn’t even agree on a radio promotion campaign. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Then they had three seasons to desperately get it together. Now (with the revised TV deal) they have a single season. The window is almost closed.
And so the A-League has entered its death spiral. I say this as someone with experience in dealing with companies who have entered this death spiral and trying to pull them out of it. It is not impossible. But it is damn difficult.
The A-League will either collapse, a victim of poor administration and subsequent flagging interest, or it will survive as a cut-price B-League, getting by hand to mouth off any scraps that fall off the table in a broader economy already under stress.
The latter is the best-case scenario, surviving the next three to four years while trying to get some fresh roots to sprout and take hold. It’s a big ask. The league is in a tail spin. The momentum is only going one way.
So what can be done? Well, in a crisis, some see opportunity. It is no coincidence that the Canberra bid has re-emerged. They reason that a league desperate for money will now be more amenable to their cause. The cash injection from licences will be desperately needed.
Also, dust off the old cobwebs and re-examine the findings of the old proposed APL by the players’ union. The A-League went with a “build it and they will come” mentality, playing out of large stadiums with exorbitant rents. Play out of smaller, football-specific venues and engage clubs in a long-term plan to build their own stadiums. This process should have started 15 years ago.
Get rid of the metric bozos running the game. Get people who understand football in, and people with the right connections. Also – and this may be difficult because people love power – give CEO James Johnson more power to ram through desperately needed change.
We seem to now have a man who understands football. I wish we had him three seasons ago. Sadly though his powers are curtailed with the new organisational structure that will come into play. He is pivotal to the game’s revival.
The club owners – who for years were screaming for reform in order to invest – have their chance to put their money where their mouth is. And finally, engage the fans, not as dollar signs fulfilling metrics but as human beings, with emotion and passion.
The A-League may not make it through this, but we need to give it every fighting chance to do so.