Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Point - Counterpoint: The AAFC's 'The Championship' proposal

A week or so ago, after the AAFC released its sort of plan for a national second division, I remarked on Twitter that because I was busy and because I didn't particularly want to write on the topic, that it would be great if some other people would like to write something for South of the Border on the matter. There was also the desire to see both 'pro' and 'con' positions taken, and if it were left up to me I would've ended up writing something pithy and nihilistic.

While I didn't make a point of this in my initial request for submissions, more than anything what I wanted were two pieces that could work as opposites while also acting as a sort of time capsule from South fans' perspectives. While initially I had the idea that the two writers (working independently of each other) would come up with something completely opposite to each other, the difference that emerged ended up being one of attitude - Manny's optimism versus Foti's scepticism. While holes can be picked apart in both pieces, it's that difference in emphasis that's most interesting to me. Thank you to Manny (Point) and Foti (Counterpoint) for their contributions.

POINT - A piece on purpose and leadership
In spite of the supposed ‘staleness’ of the A-League, there has never been more to talk about in Australian football. In light of the FFA’s current governance reform crisis just about every issue in the game has been discussed. Junior fees, player development, aspirational football, A-League expansion – and although these issues have always been around, it had only been in light of governance reform that the conversations about them have become linked. People are starting to realise the importance of managing a football ecosystem rather than managing problems in isolation - even A-League expansion discussions, all to often reduced to TV rating and attendance speculation now incorporates everything from infrastructure, to junior development. This change in the conversation can only be a good thing for Australian football, although despite all the chatter, surprisingly little has to do with actual football.

It should never have come to this. Only a few years ago FFA released the much publicised ‘Whole of Football Plan’ that boasted big statements and bigger numbers, unashamedly aiming to make football the biggest sport in Australia. The ‘plan’ was missing a massive component - never does it answer why football should be the biggest sport in Australia. The Whole of Football Plan to me is the most obvious symptom of the sickness this sport carries. It chose to accept a reality defined by others rather than accepting the reality of its own identity. In doing so, the past decade has seen the game’s stakeholders lacking leadership and common purpose, allowing the rogue inertias of different parts of the game to move in different directions, pulling the sport and FFA apart in the process.

Moving forward we need to understand purpose and question things in the context of a greater goal. Why do we need big attendances? Why do we need TV ratings? Why do we need to fish where the fish are? What is all this leading to? These are the kind of questions that stakeholders have been left to answer themselves, and it is the reason a body like the AAFC has to exist.

I’m sorry Paul, and I’m sorry to the readers expecting a debate about the purpose of a second division. Although there will be elements of that discussion we need to realise that there is no steady state. Australian football has gone though and will continue to churn though different systems and clubs. I see promotion and relegation in one form or another as an inevitability, and a second division as imminent. However the likely form of the coming second division will be dictated by state league clubs and it is more important that we understand their incentive and their search for purpose so that we can best challenge it and align it with the greater goals of Australian football, whatever they may be.

Make no mistake, state league clubs have been forced to create this AAFC to have a real discussion. For too long technocrats at national and state level dictated curriculum, league structures and conditional licensing to clubs – but let’s be clear, not all clubs but rather the top state clubs, the competitive state clubs, the ambitious state clubs who have been suffering under the weight of their own competitive identities in a system that does not support them. So let’s have that discussion what the hell do they want, what does ‘The Championship’ want and what could it mean for Australian football.

The Championship Strategy
The AAFC’s Championship proposal firstly points out that it is just that, a proposal. It is not a breakaway league and the proposal is open to debate and change. The plan was delivered in October 2017, as promised, and whereas the FFA have pushed back the release of an expansion framework twice over the past year alone – effectively derailing that conversation – the AAFC has taken steps to offer an open constructive dialogue.

A National Second Division for Women
The first thing that hit me when reading the proposal was the intention to create opportunities for men and women. How this will work with promotion and relegation is yet to be explored. Will club results be stapled? Will a women’s team that is promoted to the W-League work with a men’s team relegated to the state leagues? Women’s second tier football is a surprising new dimension to the football pyramid discussion, however where will clubs find the money for a national female second division? Beside riding the new wave of female sports corporate sponsorship I don’t believe it's viable. In a world where women’s teams and men’s teams are packaged together you may be able to create a valuable product but not one that will work in an open pyramid as supposedly intended. I’m sceptical of these joint team ventures in anything other than a closed system and have to wonder whether the AAFC is just using women’s football as moral capital or if this is a sign that an open pyramid is even further away then we hoped.

Bridging the states and the A-League
The AAFC also hope the competition brings a higher standard of opportunity for men and women. The gap between the state leagues and the A-League needs to be bridged and a second division will help this. Too often we see state league players unable to break into the higher level and a second division will help scouting and development by offering a more competitive environment than the current state leagues. Importantly though, what about players falling from the A-League? Losing an A-League contract is often the end of a career as the likely destination (the state leagues) offers neither the cash, prestige or development opportunities for players to rely on to help them restart their professional careers. Even mediocre A-League players suffer in the current system. They are often wasted on the bench, becoming A-League journeyman. A-League clubs trust A-League experience and state league clubs often need to stretch their budgets to access it. Without somewhere for these players to leave the system they continue to take spots on the bench from younger players, and mature aged state league players, they continue to never push their team mates or the competition. Surely they would be better dropping down to make way for new blood and test themselves with the responsibility that comes playing at a lower level to lift the players around them and prove their worth for a second shot. In short a second division will bridge the gap that Australian football is suffering from. If the AAFC clubs are brave enough and ambitious enough to fund it themselves now good luck to them, because it will happen one way or another, eventually.

Commercialisation of the Grassroots
The AAFC also stated their proposed competition will improve the commercial appeal of the game, although considering other second tier competitions in Australia such as the National Rugby Championship, this certainly hasn't been the case – although isn't necessarily a problem. If the league can serve another purpose (developing players and clubs) and remain financially viable, it doesn't need to grow the size of the pie but it would mean that we are getting more out of existing resources. Considering the asset rich nature of our sport, dozens of upgradable stadiums, hundreds of thousands of players, volunteers and administrators, it could be possible that filtering all of this wealth and expertise into nine clubs may not be the optimal strategy – and in fact I would argue has not been!

In the 13 years of A-League what lasting benefits have we gotten as a football nation? I’ll tell you – 6. AAMI Park, the Mariners' centre of excellence, a rebuilt stand at Perth Oval, Adelaide’s training ground, the City Football Centre, and the soon to be redeveloped Parramatta Stadium. The strategy in the past 13 years has generated tgree football managed resources. Our biggest club – Sydney FC is nomadic, with no permanent training ground. Meanwhile our state clubs languish without leverage for council money or private investment all while sitting on self-managed facilities at the height of the property boom. This is the real commercial opportunity of the game because it is commercial opportunity with purpose. By opening the football pyramid we can create a multi-million dollar national football facility boom like weave never seen.

One that will pay dividends for years to come – and one that is not possible through the narrow nine-professional teams or a centralised national body. I feel as though the AAFC are right if this is what they mean by commercial appeal of the sport, however if they are limiting this commercial conversation to broadcast content and private backers who can only be relied on to provide short term financial assistance mark my words – the competition will only provide the short term transient benefits and much like the State Leagues today will spiral out to unsustainable player payments and reliance on benevolent private interests. The commercial benefits of the League need to be thought of in the long run.

A final thought on the AAFC’s intentions
There’s no doubt the AAFC and their member clubs are ambitious. We need a second division in one form or another for our players but I hope they are genuine in their intention to open the football pyramid, respectful in the development of the women’s game and are thinking long term about the commercial benefit of the league.

COUNTERPOINT - I want to believe, but...
I do not follow the A-League and I have never been to a match. I have watched bits and pieces of a handful of games on TV only because my friends chose to watch matches at get-togethers/gatherings (while I would disengage and “tune out” on my smartphone) when there is no AFL on. These friends like to mock me for following South Melbourne in the Victorian soccer wastelands every week instead of following Victory or City in the A-League. Luckily for me, it is hard to take their mockery seriously when in the NSL years they attended a handful of Lakeside/Middle Park games each year, and now attend at best one A-league fixture a year. They also don’t swear allegiance to a particular A-League team so the “bandwagon supporter” tag fits them perfectly.

Like many that have witnessed their beloved NSL clubs drop to the State League, I too yearn to see the day where my club will return to the top-flight and compete for the top prize in this country. For many years I have believed that the only way a fifth star could be added to the “Hellas” crest while keeping South Melbourne in the hands of the members would be via the creation of a second division along with promotion/relegation to the A-League. It seemed like the perfect solution that would fix the sport’s structural problems and also reverse the decline of the Socceroos’ talent pool. However, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that a second division wouldn't be financially viable.

The Championship
Over a week has passed since the AAFC released its blueprint for a national second tier competition to be known as “The Championship” consisting of 12-16 teams and beginning in 2019. While most of the “NSL bitters” on #sokkahtwitter were excited by the proposal, I couldn't help but feel that the structure had quite a few flaws. (If you haven’t already seen it, you can view the proposal at http://www.thechampionship.com.au/).This is why I decided to write this piece when Paul Mavroudis put out a call for submissions for South Of The Border. I am not a writer, so please excuse me if this is boring and hard to read (This is probably the longest essay I have written since I was at university 14 years ago).

Playing Rosters
In general I am against restrictions on player rosters. Just like with the NPL’s Player Point System, it appears as though this league is being created as a pathway for players into the A-League. When you place quotas/salary/age caps/restrictions on squads, you are limiting how strong squads can be, and therefore limiting or slowing down player development potential. Young players will never become develop football smarts if they don’t come up against experienced players that have played at higher levels. It should be up to each club to decide whether it wishes to field a team of ex-marquee players in the twilight of their careers, focus on promoting youth from within, striking a balance between the two, or employing another philosophy. Allowing freedom and diversity will achieve the best results.
One last thing on this, if there are going to be playing roster restrictions, they should at least be in line with those of the A-League clubs so that relegation doesn't force them to clean out their squads completely.

Criteria – Men’s and Women’s teams
I didn't know there were plans for a women’s second division and it seems absurd that they are creating one at a time when each W-League franchise has a salary cap of $150,000 across their whole squad. (That is an average salary of under $7,500 per player). Surely they shouldn't be thinking about a national women’s second division until women’s salaries in the top flight rise to a level where they can be considered full-time professionals.

The criteria mentions that clubs must field men’s and women’s teams with matches to be played on the same day (with one to be played after the other). While I can see the benefit in this, it makes no sense to insist on it given that the prospect of promotion and relegation will mean that the men’s and women’s leagues will eventually consist of different clubs. The Mariners don’t have a W-League club, Canberra United doesn’t have an A-League club. Should a marketable NPL women’s club with great facilities and development setup miss out on applying for The Championship because it has no men’s team? Are the Melbourne Knights ineligible to apply for a place because they don’t have a WNPL club? (On second thought maybe this criteria isn't so bad :-D ) But seriously – the men’s and women’s competition should be separate legal entities. It shouldn't be up to one to bankroll the other. Let each one stand up on its own merits.

A view to expanding to 20 teams by 2024 and Promotion/Relegation by 2024.
For any competition to survive, it needs crowds. More spectators will translate into more sponsorship and TV broadcasting revenue. One would normally expect a second division to attract higher crowds than what is achieved at NPL level. What causes this crowd increase? I guess it is the excitement generated by rivalries, a greater possibility of showdowns with big clubs and playing for a more “meaningful” prize.

The fact that promotion/relegation will not be available from the beginning will minimise the crowd increase that one would expect from entering a national second tier competition. While the crowd in a local Heidelberg or Knights derby game might be a bit more than what we currently achieve, we would expect fewer travelling fans from interstate clubs as the gimmick of playing an interstate club quickly wears off, and supporters will be selective about the few away games they might be willing to travel to each year.

If the second division is to be marketable and attract interest from TV broadcasters, the average crowds must be at least FFA Cup size. As an example, South Melbourne vs Edgeworth achieved a crowd of 2,500 in the FFA Cup round of 32 this year. Sadly, without promotion/relegation being immediately introduced, The Championship crowds for South Melbourne vs Edgeworth would be unlikely to achieve even half of that and our crowds would be on par with what we get in the Victorian NPL.

In 2017 South Melbourne’s NPL crowds ranged from 400-2500 people depending on fixture time, opposition, and weather. If you regard South Melbourne as one of the benchmarks at NPL level, and assume that crowds such as these are as good as it will get for the other participants of The Championship, will sponsors stick around till 2024 to finance The Championship’s minimum $1.6 million travel and accommodation costs? (A 16 team competition would mean that annual travel expenses of at least $83,000 - $115,000 would be needed for each participant). Even if The Championship survives that long it is unlikely that promotion/relegation will be introduced in 2024 as A-League clubs will never lend their support to being relegated to a league with such small crowds.

Unfortunately, when it comes to sport in Australia, crowds are part of the product. If people see empty stadiums on TV they won’t want to go. If the football is mediocre but if there is a great crowd and match day experience people will want to return and form a bond with a club.

Random Thoughts:
  • I am always skeptical of nice round numbers (eg $1,000,000 salary cap, $2.5 million budget) How did they arrive at these figures?
  • Is it possible to have a 20 person squad of full time professionals under a salary cap of $1,000,000?  
  • Is a $2,500,000 budget feasible?
  • The AAFC has been banging on about promoting “football culture” yet this competition has a finals system, and they want the winner to qualify for Asian Champions League.
  • If South Melbourne, Heidelberg and Melbourne Knights were to leave NPL and join The Championship, what is the impact on the NPL if promotion/relegation doesn't exist for a while? 
  • Perhaps fan base, stadium and location should be the only criteria?
  • How do you fairly offer promotion/relegation in a way that will prevent the possibility of all teams coming from one major population centre and therefore minimizing TV rights revenue?

2 comments:

  1. "Exploiting the problems they themselves (NSL bitters) manufactured"

    or

    "I say, let em (FFA) crash"

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have no problem with the proposal as long as it's financially viable.
    Things like salary caps and restrictions can be ironed out along the journey but if it does get up the financial side needs to be spot on and the nost viable bids must be chosen

    ReplyDelete

While I like people commenting on the blog, it would be useful if different posters could at least leave some sort of nickname to make it easier to sort through all the different 'anonymous' posters. If your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet. Lastly, just because I approve a comment for publication does not mean that I endorse its content.