We have the biggest amateur and semi-professional sport in the country, not just counted through official Football Australia stats but also through the large ecosystem of futsal, indoor soccer and private school leagues and so forth that sits off to the side.
We are comparable in playing numbers to a fair whack of top-tier countries, and if quantity of people engaged in competitive football alone was a factor, we’d probably be a top-30 country year in, year out.
So why do we under-perform at national team and international club level? This is a question of quality, rather than quantity. And a question of quality at the pro level, not necessarily the levels below.
Do we have a strong enough production line at grassroots? Sort of.
Here I’ll resort to anecdote. At an AAFC meeting in Canberra not long after the organisation had been formed, I heard a president from a Capital Football NPL1 club remark that kids who had come up through the Skills Acquisition Process (SAP) couldn’t play alongside their counterparts who were just one year older, but had missed the SAP boat.
The SAP players had been instilled with skill levels, tactical nous and mental fortitude that is frequently missing from their non-SAP peers. This isn’t surprising. SAP’s ten-month commitment to three training sessions per week is a big step up from amateur club football, which has maybe a quarter of the annual workload.
SAP has been great step forward, and the NPL is big enough to create opportunities for young footballers. More than 100 clubs playing semi-professional football is a real asset to the game.
The problem is that the talent gap between the NPL and the A League is still too big at first-grade level. If young talents miss the cut-off to get into a 16-player A-League academy age squad, then they’re more or less out of luck.
The NPL’s talent development still isn’t as good as the A-League equivalents, so players’ chances of eventually carving out a pro career are seriously diminished.
But the NPL clubs could become a productive pipeline if we let them. Many of them have the pedigree and facilities to produce professional footballers to the same level as A-League clubs.
So what can we do to make the NPL as productive as the A-League? These clubs certainly have their problems. They make player selections not just based on talent, but also on whether the player can pay the hefty rego fees. Successful football countries actually pay young players to stay in the system, not force them out if their parents aren’t rich enough.
This begs the question of why NPL clubs charge so much?
First, coaching for such long seasons and with the frequency Football Australia wants does cost a lot of money. It ain’t cheap, and there isn’t much fat to cut, beyond some notorious examples of siphoning off to first-grade player payments.
The bigger issue is to find out why NPL clubs can’t or won’t subsidise their junior programs.
In essence, they have no incentive to do so. NPL clubs don’t have much income beyond boosters, sponsorships and selling coaching services. They don’t get much at all from the gate, let alone TV revenue. There’s also no real transfer fees.
By comparison, clubs like Western Sydney Wanderers earn more than enough from TV, match day and memberships to cover their academy costs.
James Johnson has identified that re-introducing transfer fees will bring more money into the football economy, and incentivise NPL clubs to compete with lower coaching fees.
That’s probably true but he’s missing the bigger ticket item: earning money from playing games. Bums on seats and eyeballs on TVs is the greatest source of income that NPL clubs don’t have.
And they don’t have that because Football Australia deliberately denies these clubs the opportunity to play games their fans would actually care about: games of higher standard and competitiveness that would also aid talent production.
It makes macroeconomic sense too. The 11 A-League clubs have been given the responsibility to develop our footballing future. That’s too much work for them. We can see how bottle-necked their talent promotion from academies to first grade has become.
No productive industry would place so much burden on so few such small businesses. England has a massive 92 pro clubs to work with. As Australian football fans, we are all the poorer because of Football Australia’s short-sightedness.
If we want our massive football ecosystem to become more productive in talent production, then we need to re-design our competition structures to maximise player opportunities and match fan desires.
If we do that, a slow cascade effect takes place. More fan engagement equals more money. More money leads to longer seasons and more competitive player production. Better player production leads to better on-field results against other countries at club and national-team levels.
Confidence will be restored in the sport.
It’s time to uncork the talent production pathway, Football Australia.