While it will always be difficult for Australia to become a major football power, there are reasons why it will long remain a major sport in Australia.
Unlike nations where football is by far the most important sport and produces a much larger talent pool due to vastly bigger populations, such as Brazil and Germany, Australia’s relatively small population has six major professional or semi-professional team sports that can lure our best athletes: AFL, football, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and cricket.
Nevertheless, rather than bemoan this reality, we should celebrate Australia’s love of sport that enables so many sports to flourish, a reality that enables many young Australians to play at the highest level and possibly earn a living.
Just recently, Sam Kerr, Australia’s highest paid female footballer, signed a lucrative contract with Chelsea reportedly worth around $2 million for a two-and-a-half year deal.
But the reality of a smaller talent pool does make it difficult for Australia to produce enough world-class footballers to win a World Cup.
With our best-ever World Cup squad being the 2006 team full of top-class players playing in Europe’s top leagues, with nine of Australia’s then 23-man squad represented in Premier League sides and four others playing in the Spanish La Liga and Serie A in Italy, we performed admirably beating Japan 3-1, drawing 2-2 with Croatia, although we lost to Brazil 2–0 and then 1-0 to Italy in the last-16.
It has been argued the 2006 team was the result of players learning their trade from the old ethnic-supported soccer clubs of the previous National Soccer League (NSL) when player development was central to the mission of these clubs, in contrast to the few top players who’ve been produced since the A-League clubs developed their own private (and expensive) soccer academies.
However, while several theories persist to explain the decline of Australian players overseas, there is also much greater competition with players from new country sources as indicated in the Premier League which now has a greater presence of players from Liberia, Tanzania and Gabon given “the net of talent is wider than ever”.
But with Australia still having 101 footballers plying their trade overseas (as of 2019), the potential for talent remains given that many Australians now consider football to be a mainstream sport after earlier years where the sport was referred to as wogball, directed primarily at fans mainly of southern and European backgrounds.
Football has come a long way.
At the club level, the NSL by 1997 was hosting a record grand final crowd of 40,000.
At the international level, when once 20,000 packed into Olympic Park to see Australia draw with Scotland, and I personally witnessed annoyed Scottish fans mocking the so-called wog component of the crowd, by 1997 I enjoyed the electric atmosphere of 98,000 at the MCG when cheering and sighing as Australia blew its 2-0 lead against Iran to draw and end its 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign.
The 2005 World Cup playoff, when Australia defeated Uruguay, was the third-highest television event since 2001 (according to the rating agency Oztam) with a peak of 3.4 million viewers watching it on SBS, while thousands watched the broadcast in pubs and clubs and 15,000 ticketless fans viewed a giant screen outside the Sydney Olympic stadium.
With 2006 international success, the newly formed A-League from 2005-2006, which replaced the NSL, soon attracted its highest-ever home-and-away average crowd of 14,600 for the 2007-08 season.
So, can the A-League continue to prosper today, despite a much poorer performing male national football team, at a time when the 12 teams by the 2020-2021 season have a reduced salary cap of around $2.1 million (besides the new teams of Western United and Macarthur), and the average wage hovers around $140,000 (although 40 per cent earn less than Australia’s average wage of $82,000)?
I think so.
If we look at home-and-away attendances, while some note the recent decline to 10,400 for the 2018-19 season, this average still ranks within the top-20 league averages in the world.
A 10,000 crowd home-and-away average, assuming it can be maintained once the coronavirus disruption ends, is still far superior to the previous National Soccer League (1977 to 2003) average which peaked at 5600 in the 1998/99 before declining to around 4000 over the last couple of seasons 2002/03 and 2003/04.
While some embrace the A-League returning to a winter season with the current season to finish in July 2021, it is worth noting that the NSL only averaged 4000 per match during its first five years when competing directly against other football codes before declining to 2200 in 1985, thus leading to the introduction of summer soccer in 1989-90.
As far as any call for a promotion-relegation system, I am not sure whether this approach will suit Australia beyond encouraging a bigger league of, say, 16-18 teams, which should be the immediate goal.
During 2019, then-Professional Footballers Australia chief John Didulica noted: “There’s no point discussing promotion and relegation until you’ve got 14 to 16 teams in the A-League, followed by a robust second tier of at least 12 teams.”
Didulica argued that any second division needs to be operating at a higher level than existing semi-professional standards of the state-based National Premier League competitions if the objective is to build “our professional footprint” to connect “as many people as possible to the game” and produce opportunities for more players.
Unlike countries like England, which has 93 districts of more than 200,000 people living close to many major football club and venues, and its longstanding passion for football still hosting a four-tier league of 92 teams (including three Welsh teams) where the average weekly wage of the third (League One) and fourth (League Two) tiers is £1700 (A$3100) and £1000 (A$1800) per week, Australia seeks to expand its league having only 20 cities of 100,000 people or more.
Although Greater Sydney and Melbourne have a population of over five million people each, both may struggle to host three teams with crowds above 10,000 in the short-term.
Hence, a larger A-League, say of 16 teams, should look to base new teams in other reasonably large cities such as Canberra where a reasonable average crowd is feasible.
As of 2021, the proposal for a national second division by 2023, aimed at eventual promotion to the A-League perhaps by 2028, suggested an annual cost of between $2.5 million and $3.3 million for a 12-team league with much of the budget going to centralised travel costs, far below the millions invested every season by leading A-League teams.
With regard to television coverage, it remains to be seen whether Optus or Stan (or free-to-air broadcasters) bid for football television rights given the Foxtel network will end its deal with football after July 2021.
While nearly 200,000 people watched the Sky Blues’ extra-time win in the 2019-2020 A-League grand final on Foxtel’s multiple media sources (including Kayo), the reopening round of the A-League on the weekend of 17-19 July 2020 only attracted an average audience of 22,000, thus confirming why Foxtel was no longer prepared to support a deal worth $57 million per year in an agreement that was to run until 2023.
There is no doubt that the A-League may be living beyond its means given that a future broadcasting deal is likely to be far less lucrative.
As noted by a lobby group in May 2020, headed by former Socceroo stars including former captains Mark Viduka, Craig Moore and Lucas Neill, it may be more viable for the football federation to take control of broadcasting at a time when player salaries have made the professional game in Australia too costly for the revenues it creates.
While the proposal suggested that a newly-independent A-League could choose whether to be part of the venture or pursue its own broadcast deal, they suggested the possibility of a Netflix-style streaming service to cover national games, cup competition, national youth championships, state leagues and a future national second division.
The proposal suggests that a football federation run broadcaster could be funded through $25 of player registrations from the 600,000 juniors, amateur and semi-professional players, thus raising $13.6 million (2019 calculations) while further fees from the other 1.4 million Australians interested in football had the potential to achieve an annual total of $49 million.
It remains to be seen how prosperous Australian football will be in coming years, and what changes will be implemented at a time when the high cost of entry into the junior development system has meant that football club registration fees are easily the most expensive of the four major football codes (including rugby union), with some clubs in Melbourne and Sydney charging more than $2,000 per year.
By the end of 2020, after years of negotiation to bring Australia in line with major competitions around the world, Football Australia finally relinquished control of the A-League which would allow each club (and any wealthy owner) a lot more independence to choose its own path in terms of financial and marketing, albeit the safety net provided by the newly formed Football Australia was gone.
However, Football Australia will still be the competition regulator and will retain the final say over A-League expansion and access to the Asian Champions League, while still overseeing disciplinary and integrity issues, registration of clubs, players and officials, the transfer system and the draw.
Nevertheless, I, for one, believe that the A-League, and Australian football in general, will long prosper given the considerable gains made by Australian football in recent decades as it rightfully became one of Australia’s mainstream sports.