Exploitation for the greater good

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The other day I was perusing my Twitter timeline catching up on the latest news, debate, meltdown when I spotted a Brisbane Roar tweet that made me take pause. It was of Matt Mackay, Jade North, James Donachie and Michael Theo with a bunch of juniors from the Southside Eagles club at the community club’s FFA Cup night. It was a great image of local football heroes with their adoring fans and one that in other circumstances would be nice to see more of. This is where the problem lies, the Australian football landscape currently is not one of unity or reciprocation. It is not about the haves helping the have nots and growing the game from the ground up. Currently football more than ever is a one way relationship of the top taking and the bottom giving.

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Had these players been there on their own steam to support local football that would’ve been brilliant. In their Brisbane Roar apparel and seemingly staged for the Roar social media team it smacked of something else; the brand awareness and marketing that seems to have replaced all else at the top of priorities in our game.

This seemed like a recruitment drive of sorts with all that was missing was the marquee to sell season-tickets from. We know that a goal of the FFA’s Whole of Football Plan is to convert 75% of football participants to an Aleague team and this is certainly how you do it. Aleague sides don’t have juniors especially on the scale as local state and National Premier League clubs do and it is winning the hearts and minds of the kids that is the key to achieving the FFA’s target. Is the FFA Cup the right stage to do this though particularly when the Aleague team isn’t involved on the field?

The FFA Cup was started in some part to shine the spotlight on local football. To give them their night when every inch of football media space is usually dedicated to the Aleague or the big overseas leagues. There seems to be a belief though that building the game at the grassroots level is only a means to serve the top. The myth often spread by people in the game is that football needs a top tier but the truth is that the top tier needs the grassroots far more.

Things got interesting when Roar’s former Socceroo Craig Moore replied to my tweet where I questioned this practice. What was just a random thought thrown out with out much care,  turned into a debate. That is usually how Twitter works.

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Clearly he was defending his employer and team and I wouldn’t expect anything else. Craig and I have a good rapport usually but you can’t agree on everything all the time unfortunately. He mentioned the kids and how they love it and how it’s important to build the game. All valid points which make sense if you ignore the underlying aspect – which is the more comfortable thing to do – that this is a hostile takeover. The Roar as an entity aren’t about building football but building their name and securing their spot at the top of football in Brisbane.

Basically the Roar are just doing what they can to survive which is their right but the real problem is we have this football system in Australia that is geared towards funneling everything upwards to 9 franchises owned and run by the FFA and their billionaire partners. We wonder why junior fees are so high? Because there is no help coming from the top, there is no trickle down. The lower tier clubs are given these requirements and conditions that the Aleague teams have been exempt from and then expected to pull the revenue out of thin air.

Aleague teams going down to local clubs recruiting fans and getting their brand out there is considered normal, in fact, the right way to do things. We don’t have an open system so these franchises are all we have at the top level so why not build their fan bases as big as possible?  Well, then what? Once every kid in Adelaide supports Adelaide United, or kid in Perth supports the Glory then what? Almost everyone says they want promotion and relegation and a second division eventually but what and who will be left to support it?  These clubs should be competing on an even playing field now with the ability to rise to the highest level they’re capable of, not holding up the members of a cartel that have a monopoly on the sport, the media, and the revenue streams.

We just need to look within the Aleague to see why this is a dangerous thing to let go unchecked. Melbourne Victory was given five years free reign in the Melbourne market. Australia’s second largest city with a love of sport and a rich soccer history. Nathan Tinkler could’ve succeeded in that situation and not surprisingly the Victory are now the biggest soccer club in Australia. Fast forward to the introduction of the Melbourne Heart – something we were all excited about – and apart from the derby it has been largely disappointing support-wise. They were close to folding until bought out by the City Group who have so much money that crowds will not be an issue for them.

We wonder why Melbourne City hasn’t had the same off field success as Victory well it’s because the Victory had years to build their fan base and commercial network unchallenged. The majority who were likely to follow a franchise with no point of difference other than geography, did. When Heart came in to the competition they were just the “red and white” side of the same coin, there was little left for them.

This hoarding of support while great for an individual team like the Roar in Brisbane it does make you wonder what will be left for the rest should a second division and promotion/relegation be introduced. If the existing 9 Australian clubs are to hold 75% support of Australian soccer participants that leaves very little for another league of teams plus a couple more teams in an expanded top tier.

The appearance of the Aleague sides in the NPL is another example of the hostile takeover. Firstly, they’re not forced to meet the requirements of the Club Compliance Policy which includes having boys and girls teams from u12s. Most worryingly is it is a way to poach the best young talent which has been happening for years thanks largely to the NTCs which are known to act as talent scouts for Aleague sides. Now it’s magnified with young players more likely to flock to the Aleague NPL side because it is a clearer pathway to the top flight. As it stands, the Aleague has been raiding the playing stocks of these clubs for next to nothing since inception.

Of course it’s good for the player’s development to play at the highest level possible but how long can we as a sport keep taking and taking from the bottom without putting anything back? The bigger the Aleague sides get, the bigger the pressure on those at the grassroots who are holding them up. The only way to ease the load is to share not just the burden but also the cake. The best way to do this is to open the system. Forget about artificially creating 9 super clubs and focus more on creating a fertile and organic base from which to grow a healthy sport. This doesn’t mean a free for all. You still need intelligent and responsible governance something that has been sorely lacking in the sport for a long time.

All levels of the sport helping each other is important fort he sport to move forward but the key is that it has to be mutual. Last night was just a small example of a wider issue in the sport that needs fixing and that is the bottom up support system that the absentee landlord style of the FFA is responsible for creating.

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