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“He is not unique...he’s just a very naughty boy!”

I laughed out loud when I came across this image. It reminded me of the state of play in Australian football today. 

Obviously the 'unique' refers to the peculiar Aussie football model established in 2004 .... and yes, they’ve been very 'naughty' in privatising the top tier, selling it off via franchises to private owners and then systematically shutting out all clubs outside the A-League.

The unintentional repercussions or otherwise are many, but more about those fun and games later.

For the past 14 years, FFA’s underlying strategy, based in large part on preliminary work conducted by the PFA, has been to attempt to make football attractive to the wider ‘Aussie mainstream’. 

The need to develop a 'unique' private franchise football model was accepted by many, and it was hoped it would resonate with the wider mainstream public and wake the ‘sleeping giant’ which we've heard about for years. The model mimicked in structure the local games of Rugby Union, AFL, Rugby League, and stubbornly tried anything but mirroring global standards that has helped to elevate football as the number one sport internationally.

To date, football in Australia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this 'unique' strategy – yet the ‘Aussie mainstream’ has not embraced the A-League and now many in and around the football industry are looking for solutions again. 

After 13 years of running this model, the FFA declared in February last year that they needed to develop a new ownership and operating model for both the A-League and W-League because, after analysis of the sport's financial standing (after finalising a six-year, $57 million per year TV deal), they revealed that expansion of the A-League and W-League, or any rapid growth in the game generally "will require significantly more capital investment". In other words, the model is flawed and we’ve gotta fix it!

Yet from 2004 until today, the code has been blessed with:

  • 4 World Cup appearances
  • Asian Cup Championship
  • The 'Timmy Cahill, Alessandro Del Peiro marquee effect'
  • Unparalleled Matildas success
  • A professional (and expensive) football administrative layer
  • Direct Government financial support to football (FFA's inception, World Cup Bids etc)
  • Peak broadcasting deal of $57m annually, as well as Free to Air (FTA) coverage
  • Strong media access and support from all media categories
  • Peak corporate ‘expertise’ on FFA Board
  • PFA support from Day 1
  • Professional marketing strategies ('Yoshi', 'We were made in the A League', to name a few)
  • Ample consultants brought in to augment different FFA departments/initiatives (and even paid consultancy fees to current and former FFA board members)
  • A top tier football 'monopoly' with a closed league/franchise system in nine of Australia's largest cities.

At the same time, the model has negatively impacted the football tiers below with:

  • No transfer fees
  • No promotion / relegation
  • No pathway for clubs, coaches, referees, administrators
  • No incentive to invest in the key area of facilities/upgrades
  • Historically the lowest number of Australian players participating in the top tier
  • The second tier NPL clubs  - which, in fact, manage the nation's most significant football infrastructure - are not properly represented constitutionally, either in legal status or in practice
  • An organised attempt to erode all football tiers under the top tier in the hope of directing interest/followers to the A-League, and
  • Autocratic and undemocratic football constitutions, which we now find ourselves trying to unravel with the Congress conundrum.

Over the years in my professional sphere, I've seen Australia littered with costly mistakes in corporate strategies, for example: Kodak, Woolworths, Bunnings (UK), Santos, Dick Smith, ANZ Bank Asian Strategy, NAB UK strategy and more. The balance sheet of some of these corporates can weather these strategic errors, but in some other cases it can be fatal.

Obviously, Australian football does not have the luxury of a strong balance sheet and we are in a dangerous situation.

What chance did property developers/landlords (no question, successful in their own domain) have in designing and implementing a 'unique' Aussie football model that has no precedent of working anywhere in the world?

Make no mistake, our 'unique' model is flawed, and the unintentional or otherwise repercussions are now all too obvious for all to see.

I'll spare you the details of the dramatic deterioration of broadcast ratings, match attendances, youth development standards, cost of kids' participation, coaching licence costs (most expensive internationally), the continuing implications of the 'infrastructure deficit' (good to hear other stakeholders getting on board with this fundamental repercussion of our unique model), international youth competitiveness, standard of play in the top tier, the player merry go round, oldest age teams in games history and so forth. I could go on all day.

Talk has centred around recapitalising a flawed model and the transfer of the management of the A-League to the franchise owners in the hope of "she'll be right".

This, in my opinion, is just kicking the can down the road and the day of reckoning, although marginally delayed, will be more severe. If the model hasn’t worked with all that it has been blessed with in these past 14 years, perhaps it’s just a flawed model?

Unless we untangle the structural mess created by the model, our code will remain a predominantly kids’ participation sport and the next generation will continue to struggle with the lack of facilities at all levels of the game.

A fundamental fact that is missed, is that the average annual income in Australia is $78,832 (2016).

The so-called 'mainstream' is careful to spend their limited entertainment budget on what they feel will provide value for money. They will attend a one-off ‘entertainment event’ like a Socceroos match or a Liverpool/Chelsea visit, but will not spend it on weekly attendance or membership or viewership of A-League football.

Furthermore the 'clean air' the code experienced in the first ten or so years is now over. The current Aussie mainstream culture prefers to spend its entertainment budget on affordable entertainment such as Big Bash Cricket, Women’s AFL, new Basketball/Netball competitions, NRL and, as it develops, AFLX. Everyone has surely noticed the renewed emphasis by all codes on reducing the cost of their entertainment ‘products’.

Hence, evolution of our game is not ready yet for the current cost structure in venues, administrative costs, or in fact the amount we pay our professional players: the average A-League salary is around $125,000.

At least seven franchines have gone broke in 14 years (nine according to some). These also come at significant cost in one way or another, for all the tiers in football.

Yep, our code has been a sleeping giant since the 1950s, and always had huge kids’ participation metrics too but the millions participating aren’t engaged and “our model is not viable”. FFA themselves said so.

Enough is enough.

I believe it’s time we migrate our code to the global standard, that is: link the tiers, adopt transfer payments, introduce promotion/relegation etc.

There are no shortcuts to building football culture. It takes generations, unfortunately, but unless we adopt the global standards we are going nowhere. We need to ditch the ‘unique’ Aussie model and start the implementation process of building an affordable top tier linking it to all 700 clubs nationally.

Australian populations are not static, cities and regional centres are growing, and we must introduce the right global football culture to the next generation. We must build them football facilities/assets. We need to protect our large kids; participation metrics with family friendly infrastructure and build club culture.

Mobilising a facilities expansion focus across Australia is at the core of what the migration to the global standards will encourage. The longer we leave it the harder and costlier it will get for the next generations. Our current 'unique' model inhibits fixing the ‘infrastructure deficit’ problem. In fact, the current model raises severe questions on whether it drives the right behaviours from the private and for profit franchise structure.

Hopefully those in denial* of the repercussions of what’s occurred in our football landscape see fit to accept the need for significant reform and start to work towards unifying the game and adopting the global standards.


*Denialism

In the psychology of human behaviour, ‘denialism’ is a person's choice to deny reality, as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.

Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of an experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.

In the sciences, ‘denialism’ is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed and well-supported, in favour of radical and controversial ideas. In football, ‘denialism’ is the rejection of the consequential negative effects the current unique football structure has had on football culture, such as junior fees, youth development, facilities development, club development, governance, mis-administration including conflict of interest and significant reputational damage (eg. Congress issues, the World Cup bid as set out in the Garcia Report).


Categories: Opinion | A-League | Local | Football Business

ffa governance, football development, prorel, national second division

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