Football in Australia is a fragmented sport lacking in leadership and direction. There is a desire from many within the game to see growth yet an unwillingness to do what it takes. The unwillingness comes more from people not prepared to put their own interests aside for the greater good rather than a lack of know how. Football’s governing body – the FFA – often talk about how to get the more than 75% of football participants active in the A-League but little is done in terms of the game as a whole.
The tiers below the A-League are handcuffed by what they can do as far as growth and development are concerned because the game currently operates trickle down in a closed system. There is a concerted effort also to follow the American sports model which has been successful for the 4 major leagues that operate under virtual monopolies as they don’t face any serious competition from anywhere. Football is not an insular sport and it operates on a global level through player signings, regional competitions and international governing bodies who have their own standards and regulations for the game.
It is the challenge of all to find a way that every section of the game can grow together and everybody’s interest is ultimately protected. The key in doing this revolves around the granting of the division 1 (D1) status. Currently, the A-League holds that status which brings with it the prestige of being able to lay claim to being the top league in Australia, attract the investment and sponsorship, be afforded mainstream coverage, as well as participate in the regional competitions such as Asian Champion’s League. However, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation are dissatisfied with the way that the current holders of the D1 status operate and refuse to adopt the policies and practices that other members in Asia do.
A redistribtuion of the D1 status could be exactly what football in Australia needs and could lead to every party’s needs being met with the game itself being the biggest winner. The best part is very little needs to change in the way of infrastructure and league set up.
The Restructured National Premier League
The A-League will be stripped of the D1 status and the D1 status will be granted to the NPL which will operate in a conference system exactly as they do now. The A-League sides will be allowed to apply for membership to their state’s NPL conference if they wish but they will have to meet the club compliancy policy, including ownership requirements.
If the A-League sides do not wish to join, they will be free to operate as is but without sanction from FFA, AFC, or FIFA and participation in the ACL and FFA Cup would be forfeit. It would become a fully independent league run by the owners to take it in the direction they wish much like the NFL in the US or AFL in Australia. They would be able to make the rules and conditions to suit their sporting and commercial ambitions without concern or hindrance from the governing body and laws that football currently operates under. This could mean more visa signings, more marquees, or any other initiatives they deem fit for their competition.
The NPL with D1 status would mean that many of the 75% of participants now not taking part in the top flight will automatically become active members in this open system. There are 100s of clubs in various divisions and leagues around Australia who already participate in an open system and this could be a great opportunity to give them a sense of belonging on a national level and give them all a real target which to aim at. This would also satisfy the FFA’s goal of inclusion at the top level and the AFC and FIFA directives of promotion/relegation and a more representative governing body in Australia. The best part is that the league structure already exists so the only difference is that it would be supported by D1 status. A fair and professional criteria would be set for each level of the pyramid much like they do in Japan.
The NPL will be run by a commission made up of representatives from the FFA and each NPL conference. Each NPL conference will consist of an official from each club, an FFA rep, and an independent rep nominated after a vetting process and then elected democratically by the conference and FFA reps.
An egalitarian funnelling up of FFA funds will be introduced. Clubs in the lower tiers with womens, grassroots, indigenous and special needs programmers getting disproportionate shares of the FFA money without concern for their income generation. This will generate more stability and growth in areas than the ineffectual trickle down method currently is able to do.
Every NPL club will be responsible for running programmes for women and juniors but the FFA money will be responsible at national team level such as for the Pararoos, Joeys and Matildas.
Regional Implications and Effects
The D1 status will mean that the places on offer in the Asian Champions League and any other continental competition will fall to the NPL clubs. With continental competition and international recognition, there will be more economic benefits and financial incentives via sponsorship, media rights, local and international investment, and merchandising. Over time the clubs will be able to grow organically within a free market as will the football standard with more participants competing for positions at the top than ever before.
The introduction of the 3 plus 1 rule that will incorporate 100s of clubs around Australia will mean many more football opportunities for our Asian neighbors in Australia. So far the top flight in Australia has no policy that encourages Asian player recruitment although many of our own footballers benefit from this policy in other Asian leagues. Ingratiating Australian football further within the region by showing we are a truly cooperative and committed member will lead to increased goodwill and more opportunities in a football and commercial sense. The NPL already employ many players from Asia so it is unlikely to be a difficult policy to implement.
Much like the Bundesliga and J-League, there needs to be limitations on the ownership structure of clubs to ensure that they always remain part of the community. A cap of 50% of private ownership needs to be applied to each club with the other 50% to be shared by a Supporter Trusts who will be made up of paying members. This will not include season-ticket holders but a separate package that will be offered to people wanting a stake and say in their club. The private owners plus Supporters Trust will elect a board democratically through nominations they put forward.
The private ownership can come from abroad or domestically but the sale must be approved and voted on by the members after an independent report on the suitability of the proposed bid.
All clubs and ownership groups will provide open and transparent financial records to independent auditors, the FFA and NPL commission. This will make it easier to track the fortunes of a club and determine each clubs Sustainable Loss figure which will be based on their access to funds plus overall revenue. More than 3 years of losses above their Sustainable Loss figure, will result in financial relegation.
There will be a non-profit clause inserted into the licensing agreements which will mean that clubs will not be able to post profits until their infrastructure is up to ACL standards. The transparent financial records will show that any profit coming in is redistributed into ensuring the club meets all requirements. As soon as they show that they meet the standards, they will be able to post profits as normal which can be used as seen fit by their board. In the meantime, if a club qualifies for an AFC competition they will have to play out of the nearest venue which meets the minimum AFC standards.
Media and Image Rights
If the current A-League teams choose to remain independent and run their own league without sanctions, they will be given their agreed share of the already negotiated TV deal. They will from then on out be free to negotiate future broadcast deals as they like, be it individually or as a collective.
As for the NPL clubs in the new D1 open system, the FFA will negotiate a national broadcast deal which will incorporate a Match of the Day format. Given the sheer numbers of fixtures during the regular season in the various conferences, it will be impossible to broadcast every game live nationally. When the NPL competition moves to the Championship stage which will see the top two from each conference battling in a national tournament, the national coverage will be much more like what we see with the current AL coverage.
The conferences will have to negotiate broadcast rights with local stations which will offer more in-depth coverage of their local competition and clubs. These amounts are likely to be small initially but other platforms be it Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or club’s own media and websites will be employed to offer content for live games and other coverage of the league. There will be less reliance on single operators than there is now and long-term exclusivity deals will be avoided. It’s all about living within their means and allowing things to grow naturally rather than force them to live above their means and play catch up like we have seen in the past.
Each club will be responsible for their own image rights from logo to kit. Any merchandise sales will be handled predominantly from club to club with the NPL and FFA getting 5 per cent each for every sale made leaving 90% for each club. This will incentivize clubs to market their goods and increase an important revenue stream.
Player Movement and Development
Player development will be brought more into focus and become and even more crucial aspect of running a club in the open system. More clubs involved and exposure to a higher level will of course force the level to rise but this will be aided by transfers and loan status more akin to the rest of the footballing world.
Transfers between domestic clubs will be allowed but it will be on the provision that each player agrees to any proposed move. The two clubs involved will have to agree to the fee but if they are unable to, it will fall to an NPL Transfer Tribunal who will take all factors into account before setting a fee.
The Professional Footballer’s Association will be invited to be the representatives of the NPL players but if they choose to stay with the independent A-League competition, a new players union representing the men and women of the NPL will be established. The players union will be present at the Transfer Tribunal to ensure the player’s rights are protected in all transfer and movements within Australia.
Players signed to A-League or W-League contracts will be classified as unregistered and will be ineligible for representative football. Also the National Registration Fee will be abolished in an effort to reduce the burden on families and encourage even higher participation in the sport which will only help strengthen the player pool.
Clubs and Their Participation
New clubs that come into existence must start at the lowest entry point in the pyramid and must meet the Club Compliancy. The Club Compliancy will be based on the existing one for competitions such as NPL Victoria. Each application will be assessed on their own merits with the NPL conference and NPL commission charged with judging each bid.
NPL 1 and NPL 2 will be a provisional three up and three down. Promotion and relegation will be decided by a pro/rel playoffs. This will add an extra element of excitement and give each club and their fans something to fight for right until the very end. This playoff will be run locally as the national championship is being decided. As a club climbs or drops down the ladder they will be subject to differing professional criteria, this will include clubs who qualify for Continental competitions.
Winners and runners up of the NPL will be awarded prize money and both clubs split the gate of the final. Conference winners and runners up are decided by the traditional “first past the post” model.
There will be a strict Code of Conduct policy for all clubs. If there is an incident deemed excessive it will result in an automatic 3 point deduction, a 2nd incident will result in a 6 point reduction, and a 3rd will be relegation at the end of the season regardless of points or table position. The offending club will not be eligible for promotion for 2 years and any further trouble will result in another relegation. Every club will have the opportunity to challenge the rulings but if they’re unable to show why they shouldn’t be held into account, they will be relegated. No exceptions.
The beauty of this outline is that each group from the A-League to grassroots is considered and accounted for. The A-League can exist as is just independently run from the FFA which is the wish of many of the current owners. This will mean Aleague fans will not lose their teams and will be able to follow for as long as the Aleague exists. The NPL structure needn’t be dramatically changed either but with the addition of the D1 status means that the stakes are raised for all.
Opportunities for players, coaches, and support staff will improve as the growth of football continues. The growth is more natural and secure based on the natural forces of the football environment. There is no skipping steps or trying to be bigger than we are, no forcing people and club so to live above their means and therefore always be in a perpetual state of getting by.
The league structure in Australia becomes secure because now the D1 level isn’t reliant on the success and viability of a few clubs. If for whatever reason, a club is unable to continue, it drops down the system and is replaced with the competition going on largely unaffected.
The relationship between Australia, the AFC and our neighbors will improve exponentially. This increased cooperation and mutually beneficial relationship will only aid the growth of the game in Australia and the region.
Clubs aren’t bound by an unrealistic criteria used merely as an exclusionary tactic rather than as a way to grow the game. For the first time the needs of the top and bottom aren’t mutually exclusive but become one in the same.
Fans will be able to follow any team they choose rather than be limited to one or two options in their state. Not only follow teams though but become actual stakeholders in the game where they are not just exploited for their money. Fans will have a real say in the direction of their clubs and the game if they wish.
The granting of D1 status to the NPL would be the game changer that the sport needs going forward. It will of course be a gradual growth but it will be a true growth. What is the point of a short-sighted long term vision when at the end of this vision, nothing has changed? Having a long-term vision even if it means a step back initially will ultimately see the game reach the level that is unattainable within the closed monopolistic franchise model which places the interests of the few above that of the many.