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With a recent baton change at the top and soon after a giant back down in the face of the crisis involving protests by active fans groups, Football Federation Australia (FFA) is under the spotlight in terms of its governance performance.

To delve deeper into the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of the national body in relationship to governance and engagement with stakeholders, I went into conversation with people who have in-depth knowledge, experiences and specialist expertise.

 

Daryl Adair is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at the UTS in Sydney and his expertise includes the governance of sporting organisations. Daryl is on the editorial board of the academic journals Sporting Traditions, Sport in Society, Performance Enhancement and Health, the Journal of Sport History and the Journal of Sport for Development. He is a co-author of the book Managing the Football World Cup published in 2014.

Bonita Mersiades is a writer and communications consultant, publisher of Football Today, and has previously worked in the government and not-for-profit sectors. Until January 2010, Bonita was Head of Corporate and Public Affairs with FFA and was a member of the senior management team for the Australian 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup bid. Previously in the late 1990s Mersiades was team manager for the Australian national football team, the Socceroos. In 2001 Mersiades was part of a delegation that successfully lobbied Frank Lowy for a return to football administration.

Overall, how do think FFA has performed since its inception in 2004 (noting that Frank Lowy took the helm of football in 2003)?

Daryl Adair
FFA has a mixed report card, similar to that of other national sporting organisations. But there were unique challenges. The initial focus for the FFA was to establish a new national competition. The emphasis, via former Soccer Australia Chair David Hill and with the support of new FFA Chair Frank Lowy, was to ‘mainstream’ soccer by rebranding it as football, and by establishing clubs that represented cities rather than what FFA regarded as parochial interests (namely clubs with historical links to ethnic groups). This created opportunities and tensions. The latter remain unresolved especially in terms of the Club Identity Policy for the FFA Cup. This runs counter to the Australian ethos of multiculturalism and runs in the face of FFA’s claim to represent and foster diversity, and that football epitomises diversity in Australi

FFA was bold in terms of convincing the Australian Government to bankroll a bid to host the 2022 Football World Cup. Can’t blame them for trying, yet the chances were always going to be very slim (which I think the government knew). A key tension associated with this bid is suggestions (still to be delineated) that FFA failed to ask hard questions about the integrity of those it employed as lobbyists, and those it sent financial ‘gifts’ to. This was painted as naivety rather than brinksmanship.

Bonita Mersiades
In terms of increasing the game’s revenues, profile and credibility, reforming the national league, giving support to the Socceroos to make it to three consecutive World Cup’s and getting into the Asian Football Confederation, it has performed well.

What have been the strengths in terms of leadership at Chair, Board and senior management levels?

Bonita
Its greatest strengths are also the greatest weaknesses. In my experience, the Board didn’t function as other boards do. That was because of the sheer force of personality and reputation of the former Chairman (Frank Lowy). It may have been appropriate for the early part of his tenure, but became less so as time went by and it was certainly a problem in terms of the World Cup bid.

The game has gone ahead in leaps-and-bounds in many respects but has stayed relatively stagnant in other areas. That’s usually a sign that it’s time for a change. It has also not really recovered from its early disenfranchising of the game’s natural supporter base.

There are some senior managers who have been at FFA too long, and it shows. As a general principle, I don’t think senior managers should be in roles much beyond four or five years.

Daryl
The chairmanship of Frank Lowy, being one of Australia’s wealthiest people, has been both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, Lowy clearly has clout in terms of raising the profile of ‘new’ football in Australia, and securing the support of key people in state and federal governments. When Frank talks, people listen. On the negative side, some argue that Lowy has run FFA as his personal fiefdom, a position captured in a piece last September by Will Glasgow in the Australian Financial Review.

Lowy and the Board have looked outside of football for a CEO, bringing on the likes of Ben Buckley from the AFL and David Gallop from the NRL. Buckley’s strength was in negotiating media deals, but he was uncomfortable dealing with the political machinations associated with his role. Although giving this position his best shot, personal skills were probably better associated with trying to build consensus rather than forcing others to accept the ‘Lowy line’.

Gallop entered the CEO role in a honeymoon period; unlike Buckley he didn’t have to deal with massive problems like removing Clive Palmer’s license to own Gold Coast United and that club’s disbanding. Gallop is neither a visionary nor a charismatic leader. However he was the ideal person to do Frank Lowy’s bidding. Gallop’s limitations were only too evident when he and Lowy badly mishandled the lack of due process crisis for fans banned from A-League games.

What have been the weaknesses in terms of leadership?

Daryl
I have already referred to some key weaknesses and more generally I would summarise them in this way.

There was a top-down FFA management style that involved dictating to A-League and state league clubs. Along with a lack of public forums to debate the state of football and strategies to go forward, there is little evidence that FFA listens to stakeholder groups including fans. The exception was when they were pushed hard to do so, for example active fans groups walk outs at A-League games.

A communication chasm exists between what the FFA is seeking to do with the A-League and Socceroos (so-called mainstreaming) and the reality that football has a rich and diverse heritage at the state leagues level. For the FFA, ethnicity is a doubled-edged sword. They use the term when convenient to wax lyrical about the cultural and ancestral diversity of players in the A-League, then shy away from clubs at the state league level that have epitomised group ethnic allegiances for many decades.

For FFA branding, it’s okay to ‘be ethnic’ if you are part of a mainstream club. If you have an ethnic heritage, let’s say Greek, and you are playing with a state league Greek-Australian club, that is not something FFA wants to showcase. The fact that FFA bans ‘ethnic’ insignia at FFA Cup games is an extraordinary demonstration of its determination to underplay and diminish collective expressions of diversity that have been at the heart of Australian football for decades. It appears that FFA is embarrassed by those who have been integral to its history. Without promotion and relegation in the A-League, state league clubs are consigned to history in terms of prospects of making it to the top-tier of club football in this country.  

FFA has recently been ranked internationally well down on governance performance. What needs to be done to lift in this critical area?

Bonita
For a start, it could do what needs to be done to bring it to the minimum level set by Transparency International.

Daryl
The impression is that a Lowy dynasty was created with Frank and now continues with his son Steven. Nominations to a recent election to the board were heavily influenced by the overt recommendation of individuals endorsed by the Lowy family. To outside observers, an ‘alternative ticket’ to the status quo seems unlikely given these power dynamics.

It is scandalous that FFA does not publish (for public consumption) annual reports that include financial statements and its overall fiscal position. This criticism is also leveled at A-League clubs. All of these stakeholders receive government funding in one form or another, and should therefore be required to publicly disclose a summary of their revenue and expenditure in an annual report.

It’s absurd that people can go immediately to, for example, the AFL and find annual reports with financial statements going back years, and the same for all of the AFL clubs, but virtually nothing for professional football.

Governance is many things, yet stakeholder engagement particularly with the largest group (the fans) has become a huge issue. What needs to be done to ensure greater sustained transparency, accountability and responsiveness for a more inclusive modus operandi?

Daryl
The fans, owners and clubs have genuine grievances that the FFA tends to listen to only after there has been a crisis. This is reactive, rather than proactive management.

Bonita
It’s disappointing that it has taken a crisis for FFA to become more engaged with fans. A ‘fan engagement/development strategy’ was something that had been discussed with the former Chairman even before he became Chairman!

I would like to see an organised fan entity independent of FFA democratically representing the interests of fans. There have been attempts to do so in the past, but it almost always runs into a roadblock of one faction or another not wanting to cede anything to another, rather than focussing on the big picture.

If we are to follow the #NewFIFANow Guiding Principles for reform within FIFA, I would also like to see fans have the capacity to nominate someone for the FFA Board, have a vote and have a regular input to decisions that affect them. This is not to paralyse management or getting things done but to ensure that one of the two most important stakeholders in the game are regarded as such in terms of both process and culture.

Should the A-League be detached and run at arm’s length of FFA under a Commission or separate business entity?

Bonita
Yes. The argument that the A-League “isn’t ready” or could not survive does not stand up to scrutiny.

Daryl
The FFA has vast responsibilities. If it devolved the running of the A-League to a commission this would allow the FFA to better focus on its international responsibilities with the Socceroos, Asian Confederation, and on its national responsibilities in terms of grassroots technical development.

What models or exemplars of governance have impressed you the most that FFA could learn from and adapt?

Daryl
Unfortunately sport is replete with governance failures. The Australian Sports Commission now requires basic governance standards of NSOs before they are given funding. That’s a start.

Bonita
Unfortunately, sport is letting us down generally in terms of governance. Having said that, there are some good things happening and rather than try to find a perfect fit from just one model, we should look at what we like and what would fit well at this stage in the game’s development.

* * *

The last word comes from Jack Reilly, former Socceroos goalkeeper with 35 caps from 1970 to 1977 including all three games at the 1974 World Cup finals, and for six years a member of the FFA Board. Jack has shared these insights and intentions exclusively with me for Football Today.

“I am just about to submit a report to the now Board of the FFA which is critical of the past and totally focussed on the future and the measures which have to be put in place to succeed.

“There must be an absolute review of the past ten years and the $310 million in losses which have been incurred. After consultation with all parties the Board must then put in place a 1-3-5-7-9 year plan with absolute goals and ensure delivery is achieved.

“David Gallop very early in his tenure prepared a paper on corporate governance. At the time he was Deputy Chairman of the Australian Sports Commission who had just given football a rating of 2 out of 5 for corporate governance. The paper was presented to the Board but never debated. At this point in time my submission is for consideration by the Board.

“Our game requires total review which will then give us back the pride we are all trying to achieve. We all want to see the game reach its zenith. Open up the debate, listen, be totally constructive, hold everybody accountable and enjoy. I think we may be very pleasantly surprised by the intelligence on the game there is in the community. They are our future.”

Jack’s submission of over 80 pages will be delivered this week to FFA. Let us hope the leadership of the national body is open and wise enough to embrace opportunities from the key recommendations that help to evolve its governance and strategic policy direction. Our football stakeholders including the fans, clubs (A-League and State level), associations and players across Australia will be expecting the start of a new era of engagement to progress our game for the greater good.


Categories: Analysis | Football Business

ffa, governance, daryl adair

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