The Pecking Order Vision – The Future of Australian Football
WARNING – this is a big article. But it needs to be. A discussion on the future of Australian football, and the creation of a grand Vision that will appeal to every person involved in our sport, cannot be had in the length of a normal article. By necessity I needed to cover a lot of topics, and I refused to leave anything out.
If you’re looking for the next news article about expansion or promotion/relegation with little substance or new ideas, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re ready for an all-encompassing discussion on what the future of Australian football can and should look like, as well as how we can get there and what you can do to help, read on.
We also recorded a bit of a Q&A Video on the document in one of our weekly shows.
The Pecking Order Vision – The Future of Australian Football.
State of the Game.
The Pecking Order Vision.
The Australian Football Pyramid of the future.
The Critical Components.
The Transition to Professionalism - Licenses.
The most important of the Professional Criteria – Stadium.
The Women’s Game.
What changes are required?
Timeline for Implementation.
Why implement the A2 and A3 at the same time?
Dispelling the Myths.
Expansion as the Answer.
Removal of the Salary Cap – Taking the shackles off the big boys.
The Elephant in the room - Money.
What does it really cost?
How do we pay for it?
What Would This All Mean?
Call to Action.
Some Final Inspiration from Ange Postecoglou.
State of the Game
Australia currently has 10 professional football clubs in a closed league, and no stated pathway or plan for increasing that number. We also have the National Premier Leagues that are split across eight States and Territories and approximately 100 clubs, with no direct link to each other or the A-League.
We have a Whole of Football Plan that showcases the FFA’s vision for the next 20 years, which lacks detail, clarity and ambition, and has failed to excite the footballing public. The governing body is coming under increased pressure from numerous stakeholders in the game who are unhappy with many aspects of the way football is being run.
The talk at the moment is circling largely around expansion, promotion and relegation and the introduction of a second division. Those are all great ideas, but I’m thinking much larger. I’m looking to create an incredibly bold vision that we not only get excited about, but that we can all get behind and be a part of making it happen.
“Such is the energy stored in the huge football community that committed, visionary thinking and behaviour will unleash those huge pent-up reserves. I believe that with this type of mentality, the metrics will be washed away in a tsunami of positive responses from the football community. Give them something to chase, something towards which they can build, something that will make their dreams come to life. Empower them and just see how quickly it can happen.” Ange Postecoglou
The Pecking Order Vision
To have 50 professional football clubs in Australia, over 1,000 professional players and 50 professional coaches, and to allow any club in Australia to be involved in that growth. The official football pyramid will be open to any club in the country, with the ability to join at the bottom and have a clear and transparent path to the Professional Leagues. Professional clubs will play out of club-owned, purpose-built stadiums, and clubs at all levels will be encouraged to invest in their facilities knowing that there are rewards for doing so.
The system itself will encourage and reward sustainable growth at all levels. The big clubs at the top will drive the elite level of our game forward, including professionalism, quality of football, mainstream popularity and commercial value. The clubs underneath the top tier will drive the game forward in terms of football infrastructure, player and coach development, innovation, participation and community engagement. And critically, all clubs will have the potential to move up and down the pyramid to find their place, without being locked into (or out of) anything for the future.
The responsibility for our future will be in the collective hands of the footballing public, with guidance and oversight from a governing body that is inclusive, ambitious and innovative. The FFA won’t have to create professional clubs; instead they will be created organically with the FFA setting the roadmap.
And all of this will be done in a way that is conscious of the commercial realities of competing in a very competitive sporting market, across a country the size of Australia.
The most important components to achieving this vision are transparency, inclusiveness and opportunity.
I caveat this whole thing by acknowledging that in Australian football, someone is always unhappy (or more accurately in recent times, a lot of someones). I can guarantee that there will be people who don’t bother reading this full article (it’s necessarily long to pre-emptively answer questions and hopefully explain my logic and reasoning), and will leave comments like ‘it’ll never work’ and ‘where’s the money come from?’.
For those who get past the wall of text, firstly thank you. And secondly, there’s a chance that you will find issues based on how my suggestions affect your particular club or league or State. And that’s completely understandable. But I ask you to put aside your club or league-specific opinion for a short period and read the following from an Australian football point of view. My opinion is that these types of grand visions and long term strategic plans need to start at that level, and then the focus can filter down to the micro levels for improvement.
I’ll also say up front that this might seem like something we (as a collective football community) aren’t in a position to think about or implement at this time. There will be those who say ‘that might sound like a good idea, but let’s focus on x, y and z first’. My response to that is that this is definitely a long term vision, but is absolutely something that we should focus on AND CAN IMPLEMENT now. Why space out steps 1, 2 and 3 when you can do all three at once in a sustainable and effective way? It’s very easy to say ‘that won’t work’. It’s much harder, but infinitely more rewarding, to ask ‘how can that work?’.
With that in mind, please read on.
Before we start talking about the answers, the first thing to do is to define the problems. And the way I see it, there are a few key ones that keep coming up in media, in club statements, conversations in football circles, forums, football results and even indicated by the FFA’s metrics.
1. Player Development – This has been a big one recently, sparked up again on the back of some dismal Asian Champions League results for Australian teams. I’m not a junior coach and haven’t had the exposure to today’s young players to make a judgement on this issue.
But it’s an age-old question – how do we provide the best environment to develop world class players? And I’m sure that there’s not one thing that will be the Holy Grail here, but even if you believe that there’s no problem with our player development, you can’t argue against continually looking for ways to improve the process and environment.
2. Coach Development – Maybe not mentioned as often as the issue of player development, but the question is whether we are producing enough quality Australian coaches, and if we are, are we giving them enough opportunities to continue their development and prove themselves at higher levels?
3. Referee Development – We all like to complain about the refereeing, and I’m on the side of the fence that says it’s actually not that bad in the A-League (we’re hardly unique in complaining about referee mistakes). But whether it’s an issue or not, if we’re going to develop the professionalism of our game, we need the referees to keep up.
4. Lack of incentive – The biggest clubs outside the A-League right now have no incentive to invest or improve themselves, or to move towards a professional set up. There is a ceiling at the top of the NPL, and these clubs have no way to move beyond it, and no indication from the FFA that it’ll change anytime soon.
5. Lack of Inclusiveness – we continually hear (and talk) about the strength of football, being our huge participation numbers at the grassroots level. We have passionate football people in every city and town around the country, and one of the biggest complaints they have is that they feel completely ignored by the decision makers. Included in those ranks of clubs are those who have produced numerous Socceroos and have the development systems in place to continue to do so, as well as some with serious financial clout ready to invest if given the right incentive. They don’t believe in the direction Australian football is headed, because the FFA hasn’t set out a vision that they can get behind. Which leads me to…
6. Lack of Vision – The biggest issue overall is that the leaders in football have a distinct lack of vision and purpose, and the five points I’ve listed above are symptomatic of this. For a long time we’ve used phrases like ‘sleeping giant’ to describe football in Australia, and the FFA keeps reminding us of the huge participation base. And yet, when the FFA released their Whole of Football Plan which stated that in 20 years we’d be the number 1 sport in the country, what was the reaction? It certainly wasn’t excitement and a sense of purpose. An aim like that should unite the football community and have us all working towards it. The problem was a lack of substance behind the claim, and ultimately a lack of vision. They failed to sell the dream. Australian football needs an ultimate vision for where the game is headed, and it needs to involve every single person involved with the game in some form.
You might believe that some of these issues are bigger than others, and you probably have your own thoughts as to how they can be solved. I encourage you to share them. The collective thinking of the football community is a significant asset that we don’t use enough. I believe that my suggestions below provide at least a partial answer to all of the above issues.
The Australian Football Pyramid of the future
I’ll dive straight in by showing you my vision for what the Australian football pyramid can and should look like. Imagine an all-inclusive system with 10 tiers of football, two of which are fully professional, which has over 500 clubs competing and is open to any other club around the country who wants to participate.
Better than that, it’s designed to encourage investment in facilities and player development and reward those that have a desire and take action towards becoming a professional club. At the same time, it finds balance with the current A-League and provides some protection for those professional clubs. It also allows the A-League to remain the key commercial driver for our sport, while taking the shackles off all other clubs and allowing them to drive the game forward at the elite level. In other words, it engages clubs at all levels to play their part in growing football, and clubs of all sizes have a part to play.
Believe it or not (and I’ll prove it shortly), it’s a structure that is very similar to what we have now, but with a few changes that all fall under the same category – they encourage growth, inclusiveness and a drive to professionalism. Note that I’ve left out the regional leagues and focussed on the State Leagues in this diagram. There are just as many clubs outside of this setup in regional associations who underpin everything and have the potential to be linked to this as well.
Let me explain…
The starting point is to have a two-tier Professional League at the head of the pyramid, with the A-League and A2 League. I won’t go into which teams should be in each league because this is a big picture conversation. But needless to say, if the FFA invite applications and set out clear and transparent criteria (which they should be doing right now anyway!), there would be more than enough submissions to expand the A-League to 12 or 14, and also have the remaining applicants move into an A2 League (subject to criteria being met). The focus should be on having every State represented and at least two clubs from each major city. Immediately we can increase the number of professional clubs in Australia from 10 to around 20.
Promotion and relegation between the A-League and A2 can begin at any time, but I’d suggest waiting at least two years and using that time for a staged removal of the salary cap, giving clubs time to prepare and the new clubs to settle in.
‘WHAT?! No salary cap you say??’ That’s right, for promotion and relegation to work it needs to go. In its place, I’d implement either of the following rules, both of which allow a club, if they want to, to increase their costs in a sustainable and responsible way:
· All clubs must remain in the black. Any team that stays in the red for more than three consecutive years will lose its Professional License (more on this later). The J League successfully uses a similar rule.
· Owner investment cannot form more than X% of revenue. I.e. the club must increase its other revenue streams (sponsorships, gate takings, merchandise, etc.) and not rely predominantly on the owners throwing in cash.
An important point that I don’t want to be missed, is that no team from the Professional Leagues can be relegated below A2 until we have the desired number of teams in both the A-League and A2 League. If a club continues to meet the criteria for a Professional License (see below), they cannot be relegated below the A2. The justification is twofold. First, it provides protection for the existing A-League clubs, which like it or not, will be a significant sticking point for the FFA and the club owners. And secondly, no fully professional club should be relegated to a semi-professional league when we’re still in a growth phase where increasing the number of professional clubs is the priority. There will be people who don’t like this, but I think it’s necessary in the short term.
These Leagues are essentially the same as the current State-based NPLs, but with a few minor tweaks. The biggest problem I see with the NPL in its current format is that we go from one tier (the A-League) with 10 clubs to a second tier (NPL) with around 100 teams. It’s a huge gap in quality and professionalism. An effective pyramid structure needs to have a larger number of teams at the base, but it needs to have a gradual increase in numbers as you go down each tier. I think that making the Conference tier narrower (i.e five leagues) goes part way to solving this issue, while also recognising that some NPLs are stronger than others and will be more effective if placed at the appropriate level.
The way I’ve moved some State NPLs into a single Conference won’t sit well with everyone. I don’t know all the State-specific issues and intricacies, so please don’t crucify me for it. But understand the important reasoning behind it:
· It’s important that each level of the pyramid provides an adequate step up in both football quality and professionalism from the tier below it. For a team that is promoted to a higher tier, it should encourage the club to grow to that new level, but not be too large of a gap that it becomes overwhelming and unlikely that they can compete at that level consistently. And vice versa, the drop for a relegated team should not be so great that they lose all momentum and reduce their professionalism. Instead, it should provide them a platform to regroup and aim for a move back up the pyramid.
· It’s also critical that we don’t ask amateur clubs to travel large distances (increasing costs) where it can be avoided. For example, it might make sense for SA and WA to combine into a single conference, but the reality of distance makes it impractical.
Similar to the current NPL, there will be a NPL Championship, or as I’ve called it a Promotion Playoff, to select the teams that would move into the A3 League. I don’t pretend to have the best process, but here’s what I’d suggest:
The two bottom teams from the A3 are automatically relegated back to their relevant Conferences. The third bottom team will join each of the five Conference winners (total of six teams) in the Promotion Playoffs. The six teams will be drawn randomly into three home and away fixtures, with the three winners moving into the A3 League.
The only criteria I’d set for clubs moving into the A3 is that they hold a Transitional License (explained below).
Below the Conference Leagues, the pyramid broadens again to the State level, and essentially reflects the current set up in each State. Each should be linked to the tiers below it with promotion and relegation (choose whatever format you think best).
The Critical Components
Underneath the A2 League will be A3, and this (along with the Licenses discussed below) is the most important component to the overall TPO Vision.
A3 will be the Transition League which transforms clubs from amateur/semi-professional into fully professional clubs. The J League has used a very similar concept to successfully increase the number of professional Japanese clubs from 10 in 1993 to over 50 today.
The A3 will only be open to clubs who hold a Transitional License, which indicates that the club intends to become fully professional in the future and is working towards that goal. It is therefore open to any club who shows intention to become professional. The League itself operates the same as any other, but with conditional promotion to the A2 only. There are two conditions to be met for promotion from A3 to A2:
1. Performance – the club must meet the performance criteria, whether that’s winning the league, finishing top two, or top four. Let someone on a higher pay packet than me decide. Typical promotion kind of stuff.
2. Hold a Professional License – more on this in a minute, but gaining a Professional License indicates that the club is ready and able to become a professional club and enter the Professional Leagues.
So you see that the A3 League is a critical component of the pyramid, with the key purpose being to transition clubs from amateur/semi-professional to holding Professional Licenses. At the same time, it does not exclude clubs from competing in the A3 if they don’t yet hold a Professional License, giving a taste of what professionalism might look like to the semi-professional clubs.
Some will argue against conditional promotion and that it should be based solely on results. I think that argument misses the point. Having minimum conditions that must be met acts as an incentive and encouragement for ambitious clubs to improve themselves. Only one club might get promoted each year, but all 10 of them will be doing all they can off the field to be ready if it’s them.
Minimum criteria also allows the FFA to maintain certain standards in its Professional Leagues, therefore protecting the commercial product. I believe it’s a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario.
The Transition to Professionalism - Licenses
There will be two levels of License that will drive the progression of a club into the Professional Leagues.
The first is for clubs who hold a Professional License. A Professional License will be awarded to any club that applies to the FFA for such a license and meets the strict criteria that will be set out by FFA in a clear and transparent manner. Every club in the A1 and A2 must hold a Professional License. For a club in the A3 to achieve promotion to the Professional Leagues they must meet the performance criteria (e.g. finish top of the A3) AND hold a Professional License.
The key here is that the criteria must be made public knowledge and be measureable. Every club should know exactly where they stand against each criteria. An example of good criteria might be ‘a club must have 1,000 signed up and paid members’. An example of bad criteria is ‘a club must add value to the league’. This is the sort of thing that creates ambiguity and leaves it open to subjectivity and self-interest, which in the past has been shown to lead to distrust.
An example of the things the minimum criteria might address are club ownership and legal structure, number of administrative employees, financial management systems, sponsorships, memberships and average attendance figures, facilities, stadium availability, minimum revenue, capital/bank guarantees, business plans, junior and women’s setups, and community support. I.e. all the things that would prove that the club is setup to become fully professional.
The second type of License is a Transitional License. This type of License is open to any club who applies to FFA and meets the criteria. It will include similar criteria to that of the Professional License but significantly relaxed, and in some cases (e.g. stadium) just have a plan to tackle that criteria in the future. It is essentially a license that is awarded to clubs who have stated an intention to become a professional club. In order to gain promotion to the A3, a club must meet the performance criteria and ALSO hold a Transitional License. These Licenses will be reviewed periodically (e.g. every two years).
The reason these Licenses are such a critical component of the overall system is that it gives clear objectives for ambitious clubs to meet in order to progress through the tiers and into the Professional Leagues.
The most important of the Professional Criteria – Stadium
I don’t want to go into what the criteria should be for each of the Licenses, but there’s one I wanted to mention, because it’s critical to the future of football in Australia.
Imagine that every A-League and A2 club owns their own stadium – some are smaller suburban grounds holding 10k people, and others are grand 40k capacity stadiums. Some already exist and will be upgraded, and some will be brand new football-specific stadiums. The thing they have in common is that they all have the adequate facilities, and they are all owned or controlled by a professional football club. Imagine what Australian football would look like in that scenario.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone disagree with the idea that owning our own stadiums would be incredibly positive for football, but it’s such a big leap to get to that point that we put it in the ‘too hard’ basket and let it be an issue we deal with in the future. Fair enough.
But this article is all about a grand vision for football in Australia, and what better place to talk about it than here? In fact, it absolutely MUST be part of this conversation. How can we have a bold, long term vision that doesn’t include one of the things that would have the biggest impacts on our sport? We can’t.
And what better way to address it, than to make it a part of the criteria for professional clubs. Shift the onus onto the clubs to find a way. Are they truly committed to being a professional club that drives football forward in Australia? Then surely owning their own stadium should be part of that future. Now, I’m not suggesting the clubs are in a position right now to go out and build/buy stadiums – far from it. I’m suggesting that at a minimum, it should be part of having a Professional License that each club put an actual plan in place to get to that point in the next 10 years. Not every club will be able to do that. But our future as a sport depends on visionary and ambitious leaders, including at a club level, and we should reward those who are willing to take on that responsibility.
The Women’s Game
Some will have noticed that I’ve been quiet on the women’s side of football. I must confess that I’ve had almost no involvement in the women’s game, and don’t feel confident enough to comment in any sort of detail.
Having said that, the women’s side of the game is incredibly important to the future of football, and needs a detailed discussion of its own as to what is needed going forward.
I’ll make two comments. The first is that having a grand vision for all of football that is supported by all stakeholders and that we work towards together, will lift all parts of our game.
The second is that I believe the Professional Criteria should include the requirement for all A-League and A2 clubs to have a W-League side that is run in-house. All new clubs that are introduced to the Professional Leagues will be added to the elite ranks of both the men and women.
What changes are required?
At this point, you probably think I’m crazy because you can see all the significant things that need to change to make this a reality. And I don’t want to downplay the amount of effort it would take to get to this point. But now is the time to be bold – it’s time for growth, not consolidation. Let me show you what the Australian football ‘pyramid’ looks like today.
Now let me show you what needs to change to get us from the current structure to the future one according to TPOs Vision.
In doing this I’ve removed everything that can stay the same as it is now. The only changes that are required are being shown in red.
All of this pie in the sky, ‘transform Australian football’, ‘become all-inclusive while protecting the professionalism and commercial side of the game’ type thinking, can be achieved through just a few key changes.
On top of that, some of these will happen in the coming years anyway, and some are not 100% necessary:
· ACT NPL being linked via promotion and relegation to the league below it (Capital League) will happen in the next few years. Same goes for the WA Div1 being linked to Div2.
· Renaming the NSW and VIC NPL and having the TAS, ACT and NNSW leagues being linked to these ‘Conferences’? Adding Northern Territory to the official pyramid? I think these things are in the best interests of the system, but if it’s too difficult, leave them out! The system will still work.
The only changes required are to implement two new leagues – the A2 and the A3 Leagues. As I said, I don’t want to downplay the significance of these changes, because they are huge. But those are the only 100% critical changes needed to unite football. And it can be done now.
Timeline for Implementation
At this stage, I’ve stated what I think the final product needs to look like, and I’ve shown that the only real changes are to introduce the A2 and A3 League, along with promotion and relegation and scrapping the salary cap (more on this shortly).
A process like that has to happen over a long time frame right, like 20 years? Wrong.
This structure could be fully implemented and running in six. And that’s allowing plenty of time for planning and consultation, an application process, preparation time for new professional clubs and a gradual introduction of promotion and relegation, at the same time as the salary cap is scaled back.
Items 1-6 show when each of the Leagues will run. Again, this is not the key message here, other than to show how the leagues could fit together to give at least three months and at most six months in every case for a promoted or relegated club to prepare for the next season.
Items 7-17 are the important ones for making the changes required.
7. I’ve given more than enough time for the relevant parties to come together to put a plan on the table (20 months). However, if there’s any area of this timeline where it’ll take longer than expected, it’ll be deciding on a plan that all agree with.
8 & 9. At the end of the consultation process the FFA should be in a position to release a transparent and measurable set of criteria for both the Professional and Transitional Licenses.
10. Parties will have the preceding two years, as well as six months after the criteria are released to put together their bids. Bids will be due 18 months prior to the start of the A2 and A3 Leagues, allowing plenty of time for clubs to prepare.
12 & 13. The salary cap needs to go. I’ll talk more about this shortly. My preference would be for it to be removed in one go, but I’ve taken a conservative approach and allowed time for it to be progressively removed over two seasons.
15. The first two years of A2 and A3 will see no promotion and relegation to allow clubs to settle and get used to their new life as Professional or Transitional clubs. It will also allow clubs to get used to a world without the salary cap.
16. At the end of the second A2 season promotion and relegation with the A-League can begin. Alternatively, promotion only could be used to increase the number of teams in the A-League.
17 & 18. At the end of the third A2 and A3 season promotion and relegation will be fully implemented.
All of this gets us a fully functioning pyramid with three national tiers and seven state/regional tiers, of which two are fully professional, with no salary cap and full promotion and relegation from Tier 1 to Tier 10. And it can all be in place, using conservative timeframes, by the end of 2023!
Why implement the A2 and A3 at the same time?
It will be tempting for people to ask why we don’t take a staged approach to introducing new leagues. My first response would be to ask why we’d delay something that has huge benefits when we don’t have to?
But I should explain why I believe both leagues are incredibly important in their own right and neither should be delayed.
Firstly, the A3 League. Aside from the ultimate purpose of driving clubs from semi-professional to professional status, the key benefit is that it opens up the possibilities for the huge pool of grassroots clubs, and offers an incentive for ambitious clubs to invest. If we truly want football to grow, we need to tap into the huge resource of passionate football people outside the professional set up. The A3 League does this by removing the ceiling that is currently in place.
The major importance of the A2 League is that it creates a platform to set up new professional clubs, without disrupting and causing damage to the flagship competition – the A-League. It also allows the FFA to test new franchises/clubs before admitting them to the A-League, and they can do it in an environment that they control (the Professional Leagues). And finally, if nothing else, the A2 League creates a buffer so that semi-professional clubs have a stepping stone to aim for, without having to jump directly to the top league (which the FFA would never allow, and nor should they). I.e. the A2 and A3 combo makes it possible to have a full promotion and relegation system without damaging the FFA’s premier competition, and giving the rest of the pyramid what they want (and need) – a clear set of criteria that give them the potential and opportunity to earn a seat at the table.
The two leagues are critical in their own right, but are far more powerful when combined.
Dispelling the Myths
I want to touch on a couple of things that I commonly hear in football circles in relation to timing and commitment to changes in football.
The first is the notion of ‘financial stability’, and the argument I hear is that we need to hold off on any changes until the current A-League clubs, or the league itself, is financially stable. It’s one of those things that gets thrown around and used as a reason to delay any big changes, and yet, I’m not sure that anyone’s really stopped to think about what it means.
What does a ‘financially stable’ club look like? How do we define it? If the big goal is to make sure all our elite clubs are financially stable, why has no one asked the following question – how will we know when we get there?
If your answer is that the league must be structured in a way that allows all clubs to spend within their means, I think we’re already at that point. The problem is that it’s down to the management of the individual club as to how they do that. Should we punish not only the other A-League clubs, but all football in Australia, because a particular management team performs poorly? And we only need to look at the big football leagues around the world to see that a significant number of clubs rely heavily on rich owners to cover ‘losses’ (side note – why do we think about them as losses? Let’s reframe our thinking on this. It’s not a loss, it’s an investment made by the owner).
In a competitive environment, where clubs are continually under pressure to keep up with the other clubs, we will always see decisions made by club management that are in direct opposition to ‘financial stability’. Any team could cut their staff numbers, marketing budget, let their expensive players go and replace with cheaper alternatives, all in an effort to cut costs. But it won’t happen and nor should it. But we can’t put a hold on progress because of poor club management.
On top of that, even if you can define financial stability, the reality is that we will never reach it. In a competitive environment, any additional revenue will just result in additional expenditure. A bigger TV deal won’t make a club financially viable, it’ll increase that club’s ability to spend money. It doesn’t force a club to spend less than it earns in revenue. A club with income of $2M can go bankrupt just as easily as a club earning $100M if the wrong management team is in place.
And finally, this whole argument is only important if you’re assumption is for the A-League to remain closed, and for the current clubs to be the entire future of our elite game. With a shift in thinking (which is the whole point of this article), it becomes obvious that if a club makes poor financial decisions or goes beyond its means, there are clubs waiting to take their place. In fact, it’s another way to drive professionalism and strive for better-run clubs, because those that aren’t at that level will be left behind.
Expansion as the Answer
Expanding the A-League is probably the thing that gets the most coverage in the media, and is spoken about as the most critical step for Australian football. And it’s an argument I find immensely frustrating. Because once again, it’s something that is spouted as fact without a lot of thought. And worse, the argument is often that we must expand the A-League first, before we (as a football community) do anything else. Based on what?! Firstly, why do we have to do things in isolation? And secondly, why is expansion step one?
I don’t think anyone would argue that 10 is the right number of teams for the A-League, but my view is that expansion is a band-aid fix. Let’s talk about a few of the benefits if expansion is done in isolation:
· Additional professional spots for players (if two teams, around 40 new Australian spots created)
· An extra Australian coach or two at the top level
· More games per season
· Added interest for the fans (temporarily)
· Probably more derby games (depending on the location of the expansion clubs)
· (Minimal) additional value from the TV Deal
All of those are good things. But here’s a list of things that isolated expansion would also bring:
· A subjective and ambiguous selection process that results in multiple bids being rejected and ill-will created (does anyone expect the FFA to conduct an open and transparent process?)
· Potential investment into the game being turned away when the failed bids disappear
· More irrelevant games at the bottom of the table each season
· The added interest for fans will only be temporary. In a few years, the same conversations that involve the words ‘stale’ and ‘boring’ will be had. In effect, the added interest from a fan point of view is a novelty only
· Increased resentment from the rest of the football pyramid who still feel excluded and ignored (which is exactly what they are)
· Increased animosity between stakeholders in the game who should be working together
Expansion by itself doesn’t address any of the real problems in Australian football, and if anything, makes some of them worse. I am absolutely in favour of expanding the A-League, but only as a small part of a much larger answer.
Removal of the Salary Cap – Taking the shackles off the big boys
The purpose of this article is about a grand vision, how and when it can be done, why it should be done, and pre-empting some questions along the way. A key step in the process will be scrapping the salary cap, as it can’t exist alongside a promotion and relegation system. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this point, as it takes me a little off topic (and there’s enough reading here already!). But suffice to say, that there are several reasons the salary cap should go:
· A restrictive annual salary cap conspires against title holders each season. Every year, title winning stars seek and deserve increased remuneration, but a salary cap makes that impossible for clubs to provide. The salary cap deliberately punishes our best clubs for their success.
· Following on from that point, it makes it very difficult to compete in the Asian Champions League. Instead of strengthening their squads for next year’s ACL, our clubs struggle to maintain their current squad for the reason stated above. There are numerous examples of this.
· The salary cap restricts the growth of the big clubs who should be driving the sport forward. It forces rich clubs to underspend (what they otherwise would be able to) and the poor clubs to overspend. By default, a salary cap must restrict all clubs to a level achievable by the weakest club, otherwise it would fail.
· Something that I think is overlooked is that the salary cap creates an attitude of entitlement and expectation where every fan always expects to win. It’s often used as the reason for why we need the salary cap (keeps all teams competitive), but I’d argue that it does a lot of damage from a fan engagement perspective. It’s not a lack of success that keeps fans from turning up. It’s the fact that when every fan starts the season thinking their team can win, nine out of ten clubs fall short of those expectations. And that’s what turns fans away. If a casual fan expects their team to be winning, but they are in sixth, that’s a failure. If a team’s goal is to avoid relegation, a fan goes into that season knowing it’ll be tough and expecting a struggle. A 7th place finish in that case is still a success compared to expectations, and the fans won’t feel like their team has failed. The salary cap sets the expectations high for EVERY club. Let a club find its proper place in the pyramid and the fans’ expectations will adjust to that.
· The salary cap is putting the responsibility on the FFA to assist in bringing in big name players. Scrap the cap and let the big clubs bring in the big names. FFA should be offloading that responsibility and cost.
· The salary cap doesn’t make any single A-League season more competitive – quite the opposite. Instead it balances out the winners over the long term, at the expense of restricting the growth of the big clubs. Winning something every 5-10 years might sound like a great way to keep fans interested, but it sets expectations that by design can only be met 10% of the time.
· It works in NRL and AFL because they have all the players. We’re competing in a global marketplace and disadvantaging ourselves. We’re capping potential.
· There are other ways to restrict spending. For example, implementing a 4+1 rule means clubs that want to be successful have to invest in and understand the Australian market.
· We need to change our thinking from focussing on individual clubs to focussing on the league itself. The success of the A-League and of professional football doesn’t depend on Central Coast Mariners, Adelaide United or even Sydney FC being in the league in 25 or 50 years. Clubs come and go. Fans come and go. Owners come and go. Sponsors come and go. Players come and go. The only thing that remains constant is the league itself.
The Elephant in the room - Money
Easily the most common objection I hear to any sort of sweeping changes or grand vision for Australian football is the question of funding. There’s a general acceptance by those in the discussion that we just can’t afford to make the changes needed, and we look to the losses made by A-League clubs and the FFA to back up that claim.
I absolutely hate this argument. It blows my mind that we can allow any sort of positive change for our game to be put on the scrap heap before we’ve even really looked at the problem. Once again, I keep hearing ‘it won’t work’ instead of ‘how can we make it work?’.
Don’t get me wrong, money is a critical factor in all this. But it’s ridiculous that we let it define what we can even talk about.
I don’t have all the answers, far from it. When I first published the TPO Vision in 2017, I included more detail in this section. But as I should have expected, it became the focus for a lot of people, particularly those with the mindset of ‘it won’t work’, as they expected me to have all the answers. For this reason, I’ve removed most of the discussion on money, because I want to remind everyone – when creating a bold vision for the future and where we want to be, you don’t start with the constraints. So to keep the discussion focussed, let’s agree that the money question is absolutely critical (I’ve never argued otherwise), but that we’ll put it to the side temporarily.
What Would This All Mean?
Let’s pretend for a minute that the TPO Vision becomes a reality. That the football community at all levels come together to make it happen. What does Australian football look like at a National level, professional level, at a grassroots level? It will be unrecognisable to us as we sit here today, because the possibilities are immense.
Imagine a football club from a regional city that currently plays in the State League. Ten years from now they have built themselves into a hub of footballing excellence. They have a purpose built 10,000 seat stadium and sell out their home games every second week. They have the support of their local football community as well as the local government, and a range of local business sponsors. The team is made up of exciting local talent, and they’ve even managed to secure a high profile foreign player. They now play in the A2 League and are proud to be one of a number of clubs to have won their way from the amateur leagues into being a fully professional club.
Or how about the A-League club that has become a major force in Asia, and is pushing the quality of football in Australia to new heights each season. A club who is playing out of their newly built 35,000 seat stadium and achieving record crowds. And this season they are aiming to go to a new level again, signing three of the biggest names we’ve ever seen in Australia in a single season.
One of the other A-League clubs they’ll be competing against is a club who has transformed themselves into the youth development club in the country. Their academy teams attract the best talent, they have world class training facilities and their starting 11 each week has the lowest average age in the competition. They’ve already produced a number of young players who have become Socceroos regulars. And by placing their faith in the best young talent in the country, the club is able to profit when their players move to bigger clubs and foreign leagues.
And finally, a young kid who grew up a few blocks from his local football club. He played all of his junior years with the club, and in that time they’ve moved from the 6th tier to the Conference League (4th tier). At 17 years of age the kid has broken into the senior team and is playing regularly. As a result of his breakout year he’s been approached by A2 and A3 clubs, but he wants to see out the year with his boyhood club, and is enjoying his football more than he ever has. On the final day of the season, in front a sell-out crowd of 3,000 at the club’s suburban ground, he scores the winner which earns his team promotion to the A3 League, the first time they will ever play on the national stage. At 17 years old he becomes a club legend.
These might sound like fairy tales, and without major change they are. And there’s no guarantee that these types of stories will happen even with the TPO Vision in place. But they become possible. All we need is for the right people to believe in the possibility and to give those people a platform and a system that encourages them, and these types of stories can become our reality.
Call to Action
This article isn’t about a revolt or creating rebel leagues. It isn’t about overthrowing the FFA or forcing their hand. And it certainly isn’t about disunity or fracturing the football community.
It’s about having the discussions that should be taking place already. It’s about going beyond just talk and taking real action. It’s about putting a plan and a vision together, that all stakeholders can have input to, and will stand behind. It’s an invitation for anyone and everyone involved in football in Australia to make a contribution. The FFA, PFA, State Federations, regional associations, NPL clubs, state and regional clubs, referees, juniors, spectators, fans and sponsors – they all need to be involved and to work together.
But it all starts with having the conversation.
So this is my challenge and request.
1. I ask that you read this article again (yes, I know it’s long) and challenge me on anything I’ve said or implied that you have an issue with or can anticipate resistance to. That’s how plans improve. That’s how we get a vision that everyone believes in.
2. I encourage you to share it with others who will also have suggestions, and are passionate about changing the game in Australia.
3. And most importantly, if you are in a position to help move this to the next level (and even if you’re not but want to stand with us all the same), please get in touch.
We keep hearing about the huge numbers of people involved in Australian football. It’s about time we united and used that strength to change the future of our game.
Some Final Inspiration from Ange Postecoglou
I’m passionate about football to the point of being obsessive, and I have huge faith that the right people coming together will initiate positive change that most of us would not believe possible. Maybe nothing comes of the hours and hours I’ve put into this post (months if you count all the time I spend thinking about it), but it’ll be articles and conversations and ideas like this that will spark something. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from Ange Postecoglou’s book Changing the Game which really sum it up for me:
· “Such is the energy stored in the huge football community that committed, visionary thinking and behaviour will unleash those huge pent-up reserves. I believe that with this type of mentality, the metrics will be washed away in a tsunami of positive responses from the football community. Give them something to chase, something towards which they can build, something that will make their dreams come to life. Empower them and just see how quickly it can happen.”
· “I know the game has a big future. There can only be room at the game’s top levels for people who see the size of its potential. And I mean really believe it, not just mouthing platitudes to snare a few corporate dollars here and there. I’m talking about setting the place alight in pursuit of what this game can be in Australia. That’s a big vision for a big opportunity and there is a ridiculously big number of people in this country who will join us on that journey.”