Earlier this week the Association of Australian Football Clubs chairman Nick Galatas gave an update on how things are tracking on the Championship, the proposed national second division for football in Australia.
Galatas noted to the Spider, Shim and so much Moore podcast that progress may seem slow from the outside, but Football Australia has a lot of work to do to align stakeholders in order to get the Championship off the ground.
A lot of informed speculation has been that it is the A-League clubs who are most opposed to the creation of another national league given other potential roadblocks, like the larger state federations, have already announced their support.
Most of the discussion about why the A-League clubs are afraid of a second national league has focussed on promotion and relegation, principally how scary relegation is for clubs and fans who have never experienced it. But relegation is probably off the table for the foreseeable future as the Frank Lowy-David Gallop administration extended the A-League licences for an additional 15 years as well as giving the two new franchises licences that guarantee them top-flight participation for a similar period.
So why would the A-League clubs fear the Championship if there’s no immediate prospect of relegation? The ex-NSL and current NPL clubs surely can’t compete with the brand names and big stadiums of the A-League clubs.
My personal suspicion is that Championship will deliver significant disruption to the A-League clubs’ ability to retain the talented players on their books. A-League clubs are currently hot-housing many of the best 16 to 21-year-old footballers in the country. We’ve discussed here at The Roar and across much of the football media that young players are not given the right opportunities to develop their talent. This COVID-affected A-League season has created a rare opportunity for a lot of them to be given game time that they’ve previously missed out on.
But the Championship clubs will be able to offer young footballers two things that they are not getting much of in the A-League: playing time and money. In 2020 Professional Footballers Australia published its Y-League Pathway and Workplace Conditions Report, which makes for pretty ugly reading for those keen to see Australia’s quality of football improve.
In short, our next generation of players are undertrained, underpaid and a constant flight risk from the local game or from the sport entirely.
The report highlights that our youngsters are just not getting meaningful financial support, which is risking their ability to stick with the game long enough to develop to their full potential. It states that 83 per cent of Y-League players believe a better wage is the most important factor to prolonging their football career, which is a polite way of saying they don’t feel they are being paid enough. And who can blame them when 82 per cent of them earn less than a measly $5000 per year? That income barely covers their out-of-pocket expenses, like footy boots. Even with income from other work commitments, 94 per cent of NYL players are living on less than $19000 per year.
Poor training volume is also a real problem – 67per cent of these players have said that they already do additional training beyond their NYL commitments, with 45 per cent saying that they train on their own a whopping three or more times per week. Why aren’t their clubs giving them those extra sessions?
These are young men, often boys, really, who are on very little money and are having to choose between football and other careers before they have reached their potential in their early 20s. Those who stick with the current system aren’t trained up to a very high level. Unfortunately this is what our talent pipeline looks like. This is how natural talent is wasted.
So this is the gap in the market that the would-be Championship clubs must be eyeing. Even a modest wage of $45,000 per year would be a tempting offer for an 18-year-old who fears getting stuck behind a couple of well-paid veterans on the depth chart. Why not move across town to play in the first team of a Championship club? Sure, the crowds will be smaller and the limelight less intense than in the A-League, but it’s a better development opportunity than being left in limbo in an NPL squad.
For the A-League clubs the message would be clear: use it or lose it. Players will choose to leave if they’re not given opportunities. Ultimately it’s the tougher competition for playing talent that A-League clubs may be most afraid of.
Fortunately for football fans competition drives innovation and excellence. For the good of the football ecosystem and our beloved national teams the Championship can’t come soon enough to give our under-utilised, underpaid next generation the chances that young players of the last 15 years have missed out on.