There’s a lot of football discussion happening within the game around Australia at the moment, and it’s brilliant. Many issues from how to revitalise the Aleague to the high junior fees are on the minds of a restless footballing public. Debates, discussions and sharing opinions are great ways to come to solutions and find common ground.
However, not all opinions are equal. Sometimes we draw our opinions from our own experiences, sometimes we draw them from countless hours of research, other times they’re recycled from the media or other third parties, and often they are created from a “feeling”. It is important that we know where and who opinions come from so we can better scrutinise their legitimacy.
Promotion and relegation aka pro/rel is an issue that is often bombarded by those who have either done little research, have no connection to those who it would benefit, or do not understand the fundamental differences between open and closed systems.
The most honest argument of those against promotion and relegation is often the “I just can’t see how it will work” argument. While being true that some individuals can’t see how it would work, it isn’t really a damning argument against pro/rel and certainly not a reason to not move forward with it.
If your aim is for everyone to be in favour of pro/rel, you are fighting a losing battle. All that can be done is to put out the data, evidence, and logic to counter the arguments against pro/rel in Australia, from the popular to the more obscure protestations. Busting the myths and misinformation that they are built on is key in the battle for bringing the global standard to football in Australia.
Let’s start with issues regarding fandom and players.
Fandom and Culture – They just won’t support or understand it
The nature of Australian sporting fandom is one of the more common arguments encountered against pro/rel. It is argued that Australian sporting fans are just too fickle in nature to support a side that is relegated.
There are a few issues with this line of reasoning that make it impossible to support. First, more often than not the term “sport fans” as opposed to “football fans” is used. There is a big difference between the two as one refers to someone who might have merely a passing interest in football, while the other describes someone who is a passionate fan in the context of the specific sport and therefore is most likely to have a grasp on global football concepts like pro/rel.
Wouldn’t this suggestion of fickleness that the people turning away from a club that loses or gets relegated indicate they’re more present for the event rather than the club or team? If so, this might also mean they will merely change to another, more successful team and not be lost to the sport forever as is the suggestion by the anti-pro/rel side. Is this good for the relegated club? Yes and no. Short-term it could hurt but a club can use this to better budget and plan for the future with any add-on “fans” that come with success being a bonus.
Now by claiming it to be a unique aspect of Australian fandom, the argument immediately renders any contrary evidence one could source from overseas examples, null and void. One can only look at the examples within Australia but the absence of true promotion and relegation ever existing in any national sporting league makes this problematic.
One thing we can look at is the attendance trends of teams in terms of their performances. League position and wins should have some effect on attendances, the only way it wouldn’t is in terms of memberships/season tickets because these are generally purchased before a season begins. In the case of season tickets, you’d have to look at the results from the year before and how it impacted the season ticket sales the following year.
Let’s look at the AFL which is the top league of the sport, Australian Rules Football. They are a closed league and have new franchises as well as clubs that have existed for over 100 years. While the below numbers hold little meaning as it is a different sport and different culture, they’re the closest examples we can find to the parameters set by those against pro/rel.
In 2015, the top 5 and bottom 5 attendances (ladder position) were:
Richmond Tigers, 49.9k (5th)
Collingwood Magpies, 47.3k (12th)
Adelaide Crows, 46.5k (7th)
Port Adelaide, 43k (9th)
Essendon Bombers, 42.5k (15th)
Greater Western Sydney, 10.8k (11th)
Gold Coast Suns, 12.4k (16th)
Brisbane Lions, 18.8k (17th)
Western Bulldogs, 23.5k (6th)
Melbourne Demons, 25.2k (13th)
In 2016, the top 5 and bottom 5 were:
Adelaide Crows, 47k (5th)
Collingwood Magpies, 46k (12th)
Richmond Tigers, 41k (13th)
Port Adelaide, 39.7k (10th)
Hawthorn Hawks, 36.8k (3rd)
Gold Coast Suns, 11.6k (15th)
Greater Western Sydney, 12.3k (4th)
Brisbane Lions, 17k (17th)
North Melbourne Kangaroos, 28.1k (8th)
Geelong Cats, 30.5k (2nd)
In 2017, the top 5 and bottom 5 clubs were:
Richmond Tigers, 56k (3rd)
Essendon Bombers, 51k (7th)
Collingwood Magpies, 47k (13th)
Adelaide Crows, 46.7k (1st)
Carlton Blues, 38.4k (16th)
Greater Western Sydney, 13.2k (4th)
Gold Coast Suns, 13.7k (17th)
Brisbane Lions, 16.5k (18th)
North Melbourne Kangaroos, 22.9k (15th)
St Kilda Saints, 31.4k (11th)
What do these figures tell us? Richmond, Adelaide and Collingwood appeared in the top 5 every season while GWS, Gold Coast, and Brisbane appeared in the bottom 5 every season. Eight of the 15 top 5 spots were taken by clubs who failed to make the Finals series and 5 of the 15 bottom 5 spots were occupied by teams who made the Finals series.
Attendances did fluctuate from season to season. Gold Coast’s slightly rose from 2015 to 2017 despite no major change in ladder position. Brisbane’s slightly declined despite no real shift in league position. GWS experienced a huge improvement in their results and saw a year by year increase.
Adelaide made the Finals every season and there was little change in their attendance average. Collingwood failed to make the Finals in any of the seasons but also saw no real change in their averages. Richmond saw a big decline and then jump over the three seasons.
There seems to be no single factor that can be attributed to the attendance trends of the supporters as a whole. If you look at specific clubs you may be able to make assumptions about the supporters but there are too many factors involved to paint all AFL/Australian sports fans as band wagoners who will jump off during adversity.
The 2016 season saw a big drop in attendances for Richmond despite a successful season the year before. If we look at round 1, they played a traditional rival in Carlton as a home match, it drew 75,706 supporters to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The next round they played Collingwood at the same venue as the away team and 72,761 fans attended. In round 10 they played another traditional rival, Essendon, as the away team at the same ground, 56,948 attended.
Six matches later they would play the return fixture against Essendon but this time as the home team “only” 44,908 showed up. Three games later they were the home team against Collingwood but again there was a huge drop off from their first encounter and less than 50,000 attended. They only played Carlton once that year so we can’t compare the beginning of the season to the end of season crowd.
The two second leg matches against bitter rivals were in the second part of the season and involved sides whose chances of making the finals had all but evaporated. Add to that there is no relegation of which Essendon would’ve been in danger of and you have games happening without any interest for fans who are most likely fed up and disappointed by that stage. These matches still drew above the average for Richmond but nowhere near what the away legs drew at the start of the season. All three clubs would still go on to have the top 3 average attendances the following year.
What also hurt Richmond was the scheduling. The AFL has twenty two regular season games even though they have 18 clubs. This means that there is no traditional home and away format we see in many soccer leagues of a similar size. In 2016, Richmond had home games against interstate clubs Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Gold Coast, Brisbane, and Sydney with all drawing much less than the 41,000 average and only one game getting over 35,000 (Sydney Swans in round 8). A return home tie against Carlton and Melbourne instead of any two of the interstate sides would’ve seen a rise in the average.
Switching focus back to the round ball game. Let’s look at Central Coast Mariners. In 2013/14, they finished 3rd with 12 wins and had an average attendance of 9374. The next season they dropped to 8th and had only 5 wins and an attendance of 7585 . It got even worse in 2015/16 when the side had 3 wins to finish bottom, however, their average crowds went up to 8111. There was a slight improvement in 2016/17 with the team reaching 8th on the back of 6 wins but the average crowd dropped to 7412. This season the Mariners are 9th and have 3 wins with an average crowd of 7167.
The last four seasons have been a struggle for Central Coast and their supporters who have experienced only 17 league wins from 105 games. In that time period the crowd has dropped from a high of 8100 in 2015/16 to a low of 7167 this current season. How can we accuse these 7100 of being fairweather fans? They’ve shown the loyalty to stick with their side in these lean years so it isn’t far-fetched to assume that at least 5,000 to 6,000 would stick by them even if they dropped down to an existence in a second division
Of course there’s no way to know for sure because this is just a theory and we haven’t seen how Australian football fans would react to their club existing in a free flowing football environment. The signs are that these 7000 Mariners fans are standing by their team despite their feelings of frustration so there’s no reason to believe they would cease to support the club especially when the opportunity to come back up would exist.
At the other end of the scale you have Sydney FC who swept all before them last season and continue to do so this season. They enjoyed 20 wins last season and had an average crowd of 18,099. In 2014/15, they had 14 wins, finished 2nd and had 18,050 crowds. The year before they had 10 wins and finished 5th with crowds of 18,682. This year they already have 18 wins and are clear on top of the ladder but crowds are down to 15,073 in the league. If support was all about winning, the crowds should be at an all-time high but they aren’t, they’re the lowest they’ve been since 2011/12.
Just like the Mariners 7000, maybe we should give the Sydney fans who do show up, win or lose, more credit. While the 18,000 is great, the hard core group of supporters is somewhere closer to 11,000. In that case, it makes more sense to work within those parameters. Anything above that becomes a bonus instead of the below the minimum that it is currently burdened with. Clubs need to get out of these oppressive stadium deals in oversized venues and stop overpaying on salaries and budget to a more realistic number of loyal supporters.
The problem is that we are more concerned with the 2,000 that stop showing up instead of the 7,000 that do. Around the globe, we see numerous examples of clubs working with far less numbers than we see attending the Aleague because they’ve grown to fit their surroundings instead of trying to be something they’re not. They focus on the fans they have and not the ones they dream of having. They adapt to the changing nature of fandom rather than remain prisoner of the metrics and behaviour of the past.
Although we have only a small sample size to work with and lack the conditions of promotion and relegation on the national stage to draw from, all indicators say that results aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to supporting a team. This is as true in Australia as it is around the world.
Another argument labelled against the fans is that Australian fans just don’t understand promotion and relegation. Once again we go back to the lumping of football fans in with general sport fans. You’d be hard-pressed to find a football fan in Australia that doesn’t understand promotion and relegation.
According to the FFA’s Whole of Football Plan released in 2015, there are around “7.5 million Australians in the football community” with 2 million of them described as “active” participants. The vast majority of these people are either involved in clubs that are in leagues which have promotion and relegation, or follow teams in leagues that have promotion and relegation.
Holding the belief that “mainstream” Australians wouldn’t accept the concept of promotion and relegation as it is too foreign to them, is odd in itself. Let’s say that “mainstream” Australians currently don’t support football. If this is true, what difference is promotion and relegation going to make? Trying to explain how promotion and relegation works won’t be any more of a challenge than explaining the offside or handball rules.
The majority of the Australian football community and sporting community aren’t interested in the Aleague as it stands and as it’s a closed-model format, promotion and relegation can’t be blamed for this disinterest. With such huge participation numbers mentioned above that dwarf other organised team sports, you could make the argument that football is watched on a weekly basis more than any other code when you take into account, national, international and local competitions, junior football for boys and girls as well as national teams.
We need to stop this idea that football is such a foreign sport to the average Australian because it hasn’t been for many decades now. Even as the average “Australian” has changed, football has long been a popular game at the local level despite not garnering a lot of the media attention.
On top of any data or indicators that can be found on fan support, there are the voices of the fans themselves. Before we start labeling them all as fickle or fairweather, we should ask them directly about the nature of their support.
Below is a small selection of football fans who were asked about their support.
Cassandra Treppiedi (24), Adelaide
On why she started following Adelaide Force and Adelaide United.
”I was drawn to both clubs firstly – my dad taking me to games at a young age (Adelaide Force). Then I started to follow the A-League and starting supporting United as I got older.
On following lower tier football.
“I’m involved with the FFSA (Football Federation South Australia) and work with NPL clubs in the media. Before doing media I still followed the NPL closely.”
On how a second division would affect her support.
“A second division with pro/rel would affect my support of the game positively as I would love to see it happen.
“I would stick by Adelaide United if they got relegated. Would also want the other Adelaide team to do well but my loyalty would stay with United.”
On the importance of sporting meritocracy.
“It’s quite important. I’m for recognition when it’s deserved.”
On if she is concerned by which clubs participate in an open system.
”No concern for which clubs exactly, just as long as they play a good brand of quality football and have a good culture.”
On whether she would follow all the divisions in an open system.
“I would follow all divisions as a typical journalist but as a football fan, I would regardless.”
Brian Meinrath (47), Sydney
On his support of football.
” I watched NSL as a neutral on TV, started following Sydney FC and going to games when the Aleague started and started playing football at 37!
”Moved into Manly area 8 years ago and was asked to help the club (Manly United) because they needed a sponsor. I started going to a few of their games and loved their philosophy and culture. I got involved at board level 4 years ago.”
On whether a second division with pro/rel would affect his support.
”Yes. I would support Manly over Sydney FC in pro /rel. Now they are in the NPL, I see them as a competitor to Manly.
”They look to cherry pick our best talent and operate commercial programs in our backyard eg. school holiday camps and school academies. It reduces our ability to grow our own brand in a very competitive local sports landscape.
On his concern over who participates in the top flight.
”No, not concerned. I’m just not sure how many would realistically have the capacity to do so.”
On if rewarding sporting merit is important.
”Yes, I believe in sporting meritocracy.”
On if he would support his side even if they were relegated.
“Yes, I already go to every home game in the NPL”
Björn Rostron (31), Sydney
On who he supports and if he followed the NSL.
”Sydney FC. More due to happenstance rather than design. I moved here in 1995 with my parents from Switzerland. I was about 10. I don’t think my dad liked any of the NSL teams in our area, not that there were that many.”
On how he would feel if SFC were relegated Andy if I think would affect his support.
”That’s a loaded question. It wouldn’t feel good but it wouldn’t impact my support necessarily. I watch enough NPL football in winter that I’d support Sydney FC if they happened to drop.”
On if being relegated he’d fear for the survival of Sydney FC.
”That I think is a genuine worry considering some of the great NSL teams don’t exist or are a shadow of their former selves.
“Considering as well that the majority of Aleague clubs don’t have their own stadiums per se would make it hard.”
On if he’s concerned by what clubs could participate in the first division.
”Nope, as long as they are there for good reasons such as promotion due to winning the second division. Financial viability is a definite prerequisite.”
On if he would take an interest in a second division.
“I love football. Take it where I can get it. I referee, play amateur league so yeah I’d definitely follow a second division regardless of whether there was promotion and relegation.”
Dean Zammit (26), Sydney
On the nature of his football support.
“I’ve had mates that play NPL for my junior clubs (Parramatta Eagles and Bankstown City) and followed their progress but never the club. As I’m a coach of NPL youth, I follow the club I coach at.
”I don’t have an Aleague team.”
On if he would support an open system.
”I’d support all levels of football.”
On how a club getting relegated would affect his support.
”I would continue to follow the club if they’d got relegated, as did asa kid with Juventus when in Serie B.”
On how his support would change with an open system.
”I’m as active as I can be with my current club. I’m looking at NPL1, NPL2 and NPL3 results on a weekly basis and when possible I watch games. This is due to many friends in these teams/leagues.”
On pro/rel in Australia from the top down.
“I’m all for pro/rel in this country as it will provide more opportunities for players Andy coaches to be involved in the sport full-time which I believe will only benefit the football here.”
Mathew Doolan (27), Adelaide
On his opinion of promotion and relegation in general.
”I think when you begin to understand the global nature of football properly, the concept of promotion and relegation is the logically way to incorporate the depth and breadth of competition into one structure.
”It means your team’s success and ambition is defined by merit year on year rather than be capped by history or league structures as is the case with many other codes in Australia.”
On how he would cope to Adelaide United getting relegated.
”I think while the experience of Adelaide United’s being relegated would be painful, at the end of the day my support, in terms of watching the games, following the team etc. wouldn’t change much.
”I know there are positives that could hopefully result from my team’s relegation, with players being more accessible to fans, maybe better investment in the team or a focus on younger, local players.”
On how he feels about a traditional club gaining entry to the top flight.
“I think any club being promoted to the top division will be of great benefit to Australian football in terms of freshening up the competition and aiding the development of young players.
”The entry of clubs of an ethnic origin should be seen as a boost to the top tier, as many of these clubs have a long history of developing Socceroos already and bring a different culture of support to the competition.
”The concerns of some Aleague supporters in this regard seem fuelled by the hysteria around ethnically motivated violence or exclusion of supporters from other backgrounds.
”I’m not sure these criticisms were ever particularly accurate in the past,and given the professional business mentality of top level football today, I think it’s very unlikely these clubs would allow such activity to impede their progress in the future.”
On if he would retain an interest in the top division if United were relegated.
”Definitely. Perhaps some fans follow their club before their sport but for me watching the best domestic football in Australia will always be of interest.
”As it stands I already keep track of as many Aleague games as I can every weekend. If Adelaide were to be relegated, I would still follow the game which involved the best future and current Socceroos in Australia.”
Athan Stylos (20), Melbourne
On why he support such his team.
”I support South because it is my father’s club and also my grandfather’s”
On why he doesn’t have an Aleague team.
”I don’t have an Aleague team because of the way in which they pushed traditional clubs aside after what they created.”
On if South being in a second division would make him more interested in the first division.
”I still watch 1-2 Aleague games a week when I have the time but if South were in the second division with a possibility of getting promoted, I would definitely have more interest in it.”
On if South were in the first division, would have an interest in the second division.
”If South was in the first division then I would still have an interest in the second division as I would like to know who is likely to be promoted.”
On if franchises and clubs can co-exist.
”I think they can but I also think it will be hard for franchises to be able to cope with the risk of getting relegated to the second division.”
On whether he’d prefer South to be a part of an open league or the safety of a closed league.
”An open league with the risk of getting relegated. Promotion and relegation will only create more people to be passionate about their own clubs and Australian football in general.”
Josh McKenzie (15), Melbourne
On who he supports and why.
“I was a diehard Melbourne City fan until the end of last season. Never missed a match I could attend. I donated money towards tifos and banners.
“And now I’m a huge South Melbourne fan. I always somewhat followed them in the winter but without any huge passion, it was more because their stadium is at the end of my street.
”But I decided to take my support to the next level. I’d like to think I’m a huge South fan now.
“I switched because of a lack of identity with Melbourne City, the crappy crowds and atmosphere due to playing in such a big stadium.
“The falling active groups/atmosphere in the Aleague, With Ultras having their freedom suppressed, means the atmosphere that initially attracted me to games, is gone.
”I love the local, community feel of the NPL, and I was attracted to it.”
On if an open system would get him interested in the first division.
”Yes, definitely. If there was pro/rel in the Aleague I feel that I would be back into 100%.
On if getting relegated would affect his support.
”I follow South in a second division of sorts now, it wouldn’t change anything if we were to be in an official one.”
Denis (33), Lake Macquarie
On which team he supports in Australia.
”Melbourne Knights because of my dad. I’m of Croatian descent so naturally support Croatian football clubs.
”I suppose I’m a weird case when it comes to Aleague. I couldn’t care less about it when it began. I never watched it.
“Somewhere a few years ago I decided to give it a go to support Australian football more so began to follow Western Sydney Wanderers. watched for a few years but not anymore.
“I’m now over it, it’s boring. I very rarely watch any games now even though I have Foxtel at home.
”Although I watched AFC games last week because I wanted to see the Asian sides.”
On if a second division would make him more invested in the game.
”Definitely more invested. I will follow the league more if there is a second division with pro/rel and as long as traditional clubs are included.
“Will go back to supporting a franchise? No, I will not.”
On whether he feels ethnicity is a problem for the game or has it been exaggerated.
”I don’t see it being a problem. Those days are long gone. Most get on but of course there are morons around.
”It’s definitely been exaggerated by a biased media. They thrive on that stuff.”
Paul Giannopoulos (38), Southeast Melbourne
On the nature of his football support.
”I have a Greek background obviously but had played Aussie Rules all my younger years. When I was about 15, my uncles took me to Middle Park to watch my first South game and from that day I was hooked.
”The atmosphere was unlike anything that I had seen at the AFL. And I loved it. I followed South and the NSL until it finished then I became a Melbourne Victory member.
”I was an active terrace member from day one but started to get frustrated with the club and supporters when the terrace had its issues.
”When the City Group came along, I felt I wanted to make a change and me and a few mates became City active members and still are today.”
On if he still follows South.
”I still follow South via social media and would love to see them in the Aleague but I would stay a City member.
“I don’t think they will get in under current circumstances but if a second division and promotion and relegation occurs, they may force their way in.”
On support for a second division and pro/rel.
”I would love to see expansion of the league. We need to have at least 14 teams. In the future a second division of at least 10 teams with promotion and relegation.
On if he would support both leagues regardless of which one his side were in.
“I would watch both leagues and I think it would increase the audience by taking games to the suburbs and cities missing out on national sporting competitions.”
Evan Binos (47), Melbourne
On who he supports.
”South Melbourne. I tried Carlton when they came into the NSL but bottom line was it wasn’t my team. I didn’t feel anything for it.
”I am a South supporter and have learnt to accept the great stuff about South along with the bad.
”My old man introduced me to South Melbourne and I have introduced my son.”
On if he follow the Aleague.
”I’d say a fleeting interest.”
On how the introduction of a second division would affect his support of football:
”With the introduction of a second division my interest in the first would only be fleeting. Any interest in the second division would depend on if South were in it.”
On if he’d still follow the lower leagues if South were in the first division.
”With South my son playing for a team whose seniors are essentially below the Victorian NPL2, yes I would.”
Merv Cattermole (68), Brisbane
On who he supports.
“The Bergers although I’m not Greek. Now Brisbane Roar.”
On if he still follows Heidelberg.
”From a distance but not as passionately.”
On how his support for Roar would be affected by relegation.
”I’d follow on.”
On how he feels about traditional clubs potentially being a part of the open system.
”I’m a multiculturalist so would love for all clubs to reclaim their names.”
On if he would follow the first division if Brisbane were relegated.
”Yes but not as much.”
On if he would follow a second division even if Brisbane were in the first division.
”Yes, it would be interesting. I’d try to catch a few games live and watch what I could on TV.”
On if he felt welcomed at Heidelberg.
”At the time I was coaching Oakleigh’s U13s so my son and I were very accepted. In general I found most NSL clubs welcoming of “skips”
On if he’s worried about crowd violence at the football.
“I have never felt unsafe at a football match in the UK or Australia.”
John Barbagiannis (41), Melbourne
On who he supports.
”I support South Melbourne as it’s the team I supported as a little boy, as my Dad used to take me to watch their matches at Middle Park. I fell in love with the club then and haven’t stopped following them since.”
On if he follows the Aleague.
”I have zero interest in the A League. I don’t go to games and don’t watch it on TV either.”
On if that would change if there’s was a second division with pro/rel.
”Yes, if there was an open system with pro/rel I still wouldn’t support an AL team but I would watch it on TV to see hopefully, some of the teams my team could play against one day if and when we were promoted.”
On if he would have a problem with franchises or traditional clubs taking part.
”No, I have no issue if it’s an open system open to all. That’s the beautiful thing about world soccer, the smallest club can make it all the way to the top.”
On if he’s worried about violence in an open system that includes clubs with ethnic origins.
”No, definitely not, and certainly not more than the violence we see at A League matches.”
On if he believes the “ethnic violence” angle has been exaggerated over the years.
“Yes, definitely overblown. I attended some of the so-called ‘riot games’ in the past where all it was was a few idiots pushing and shoving and throwing the odd punch.
“People are more aware of this stuff now, there are more cameras and the likelihood of anything happening is no more than it currently is with the AL franchises.”
Dillon Maikousis (24), Melbourne
On who he supports and why.
”I was young when the A-League began and all my mates jumped on the Victory train but I think it was mostly my dad that kept me loyal to South. I followed in his steps so never felt the need to follow anyone apart from South, even though we were forced into the State leagues.”
On if he would follow the first division if it were an open system.
”I’d absolutely be interested in a first division if South were in a second division and vice versa. To know who would be getting relegated/promoted into your league would keep me interested in both levels.”
On what getting relegated would mean to his support.
”Getting relegated wouldn’t affect my support at all.”
Tim Xiros (45), Strathfield
On the nature of his football support.
”Started following Olympic when they played at Pratten Park as I lived only a couple of blocks away.
”Sydney FC was the only Sydney club so had no other option if I wanted to follow the national comp. I attend 50% of home matches for both clubs.
“I follow both teams now due to comps in both summer and winter. Different story if comps will be in same season.”
On if he would support a second division.
“I will not support a 2nd division, as the teams will be all the “leftovers”. I will only support a team if it is playing in the top tier, i.e. 1st division.
“Olympic will take precedence over Sydney FC but that is unlikely to happen if they remain a member-owned club.”
Below are two polls taken on the nature of football support. Fig. 1 looks at relegation while Fig. 2 looks at interest in lower division football.
Deloitte, a globally-renowned consultancy firm, was commissioned in 2016 to look into the viability of promotion and relegation for football in the US market. Here are some of their findings on interest and fan engagement.
– Evidence from open league structures shows that the movement of teams between leagues can, over time, be of a net benefit, increasing overall match attendance.
– Relegation battles can extend the interest in a season, with relegation often not decided until the final gameday weekend.
– The potential for clubs to move between leagues creates exciting narratives for fans throughout the pyramid.
– Promotion and relegation offers appealing and exciting broadcast content throughout the season, in addition to the traditional narrative of a title race.
– Evidence from England and Italy shows that a match in the context of a promotion race can deliver average audiences in excess of three times the league average.
Players – Where will they come from?
Another often used argument against promotion and relegation is the player talent pool, or lack thereof. Even recently FFA CEO, David Gallop brought it up as a speaker at the Business of Sport Summit, citing “depth of quality and gap between A-League and second tier” as a problem for implementing pro/rel.
This is a self-defeating argument as a gap in the standard or a lack of a player pool is exactly why an open-tiered system is needed. The competition, professional environment and experience gained from aiming for the top flight and then getting exposure to it is what will propel our players forward.
Any standard gap or lack of players must surely come down to the way things are at the moment. In order to address this we have to change to the system employed globally that is known to provide the opportunities and environment for players to develop along with the clubs and the sport as a whole.
Lower tiers in a linked system are important for the development of players as well as for their exposure on a national scale. During the recent international break there were a few marquee matchups such as England versus Italy and Germany versus Brazil. England, Italy and Germany are also home to first divisions widely considered to be in the top 4 in the world. Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro Série A is arguably the strongest league outside of Europe.
In the match between England and Italy, only four of the twenty-two starters hadn’t experienced lower-tier senior football. Eight of the English players got their senior starts at lower-tier clubs while four of their Italian counterparts had their senior debuts in the lower tiers.
Raheem Sterling was the only English player to never have played in the lower tiers. Eric Dier played in the Segunda Liga of Portugal for Sporting CB’s B team and Jesse Lingard was sent on-loan by Manchester United to Leicester when they were still in the Championship. Jamie Vardy started in the seventh division of England’s pyramid with Halifax Town and moved up via the sixth, fifth and second divisions before ultimately reaching the first division.
For Italy, Daniele Rugani was bought by Juventus but loaned back to Empoli who he got his senior debut with and helped get promoted from Serie B. Jorginho, Davide Zappacosta, Marco Parolo, Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne all played in the third division or lower at the beginning of their senior careers.
Germany had only two starters in Julian Draxler and Leroy Sané who have only played their senior football in the first division. Germany like many football countries allow clubs to enter reserve sides in lower tiers and it is this system which saw seven of their starters get their senior debuts in the lower tiers. Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich got their debuts with VfL Bochum and RB Leipzig in the 2.Bundesliga and 3.Liga.
It’s a different story in Brazil than their European counterparts largely due to the different role the top league plays in Brazil as opposed to England, Italy and Germany. Brazil is known for its endless production of football talent that has been exported across the footballing globe for decades. Even though their first division is one of the strongest in world football and arguably the strongest outside Europe, it does lose a lot of talent abroad.
Eight of the Brazilian players have only ever played senior football in first divisions with Philippe Coutinho being the only one who started in a lower-tier club, Vasco de Gama. Paulinho moved to Lithuania from Brazil as a youth player to get a chance of senior football. He excelled with FC Vilnius before moving to Poland with ŁKS Łódź and eventually heading back to Brazil where he got senior football with Serie B side Bragantino. Casemiro was loaned to Real Madrid B in the Spanish Segunda División by Sao Paolo.
Despite the stature of Brazil on the world stage, their football system like most plays the role of a feeder to wealthier leagues around the world. Player transfers are an important source of revenue and with the football culture, Brazilian pride to win at every level they enter and a way to a better life, it has helped produce a consistently high standard of player.
In 2017, Brazilian players were plying their trade in 118 countries. In 2016, the accumulated financial sales value of Brazilian players was 594 million, the most of any football playing nation.
With player sales being an important part of the revenue for clubs in Brazil, it offsets the anti-pro/rel argument that the threat of relegation causes teams to go with tried and tested veterans over giving youth a chance. According to transfermarkt, the average age of the starting XI in the Brazilian Serie A for the 2015/16 season was 25.5 which is remarkably low given the value placed on young Brazilian talent and the talent drain.
In comparison, the starting XI’s in the Bundesliga this year have an average age of 25, Serie A’s average age is 27 and the Premier League is 26.8. The Hyundai Aleague website listed the average starting XI age for the Aleague in 2016/17 as being 27.2.
The Bundesliga average age is relatively low for a big league which isn’t viewed as your typical selling league, although it does see it’s top talents often sold to big clubs in England and Spain. However when you look at the average squad age around the first divisions of Europe – most of which would be considered feeder leagues – the average squad age rarely goes over 26. Only eleven of the fifty countries according to statista.com, have an average squad age of 26 or over. Three of those eleven countries are home to leagues widely-thought to be in the top four in the world and buying leagues, Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.
Going by the numbers available, there is no evidence to suggest that clubs in leagues with promotion and relegation rely on experienced players ahead of talented youngsters.
Last season in the English Championship, Brighton & Hove Albion won promotion to the Premier League with the oldest starting XI in the league at 28.6 but conversely Newcastle and Huddersfield also won promotion with two of the youngest starting XIs in the league, both at 25.7 (equal 20th oldest Championship squads).
This season in the English Premier League, the top 5 clubs in the table are also in the top ten youngest starting XIs in the league (sixth-placed Arsenal are 11th). As we can see that even if teams battling for survival opt for an older lineup, that doesn’t mean that will translate up the table. There is an incentive to give talented youngsters a run even with the threat of relegation and that’s the transfer fees.
Promotion and relegation as well as other global standards such as no salary cap and transfer fees creates many different scenarios which clubs depending on a variety of factors adjust to. There doesn’t appear to be any correlation between promotion and relegation and a lack of opportunities for younger players.
Croatia and Sweden both qualified for the Russian World Cup and both have league structures with promotion and relegation. Their national teams also used 100% of players based at foreign clubs so their first divisions are undoubtedly feeder leagues because their best talents are employed abroad by the time they reach the senior national team. The average age of squads in the first division of Croatia and Sweden are 23.8 and 25 respectively do it appears that being a feeder league trumps any adverse affect pro/rel is claimed to have on player development.
Going back to England, the senior national men’s team used no foreign-based players this recent World Cup qualifying. This is not unusual as the Premier League is not by any means a selling league and it is rare for top English prospects to move abroad especially before they’ve “made” it in England. If there is any local player movement it is usually up and down the tables and tiers. It makes sense then that the average of the league is one of the higher ones in Europe because there are more ins than outs especially for local players who will see out their career at home.
Russia’s national team didn’t need to qualify as hosts but based on their recent squads, they have used only 5% of players based abroad. Like England, this lack of player drain has attributed to an older average squad age in their first division than most of Europe. In fact, at 27.1 Russia is the equal highest with Turkey. So rather than promotion and relegation being a cause of restricting youth chances, it seems the league’s role in the global football economy is more of a factor i.e. a selling or buying league. Russian players aren’t known as exports with only one player, Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal, La Liga), a member of a first team in one of the top 5 European leagues.
A player survey done by the PFA and Fox Sports showed that 87% of A-League players were in favour of a second-tier. ESPN have done similar anonymous player surveys in the MLS. Here are the results of the most recent one in relation to promotion/relegation:
Below are some players thoughts on promotion and relegation and what it would mean for Australian football.
Richie Cardozo (Sydney Olympic, FC Bex, Hume City, Rockdale City Suns)
On if he’s experienced promotion and relegation before.
“Yes, I have a few times. Thankfully they’ve been top of the table clashes mostly. I’ve never been relegated myself, but I’ve won promotion and it’s an awesome feeling for any player, club or fan to be playing in those promotion battles, especially achieving it.
“But I’ve also missed out on promotion by one point. Heart break is an understatement. But it’s all part of the game everywhere in the world.”
On his feelings towards the concept.
“I am so for promotion and relegation and it’s beyond frustrating that it hasn’t already been implemented in Australia. It’s part of football, the footballing culture and adds that something extra. It’s very unique. Not many other sports use that concept and it’s a must here in Australia to take the game forward.”
On what impact it would have on players in Australia.
”I can only see benefits. For everyone. Not just players. From a player’s point of view I’ve had to mostly look overseas for professional full-time football due to the small pond and lack of opportunities here.
“Some players have had to quit the game completely and we’ve actually done the game more harm than good in regards to keeping talent here in Australia and even keep them playing the game. It would give the better young players more game time also, give young coaches, media personalities, club officials, sponsors etc opportunities. And the list just goes on and on.
”It would open up more jobs to stay within the footballing world once your career is done. Life after football isn’t easy for anybody and promotion/relegation isn’t just about the players but it does create jobs for people.
”It also brings back supporters and clubs that feel isolated and no real connection to the current Aleague clubs and people will start to find that passion for the game again.
”The catch is you have to have the right people in control of it. The ones that know football and live for football. That understand what used to work, what didn’t, what works now and what doesn’t, and is able to take the blinkers off and combine it all for the good of the fans, players, and the game in general.”
On the idea that the playing talent pool isn’t big enough or good enough.
”I see where people are coming from but I tend to disagree with that if it’s a generalised statement. As I mentioned before many talented players have had to leave Australia or quit because of the lack of opportunity.
“Players more than capable and in cases better than what’s in the Aleague now aren’t in the Aleague. Those players all of a sudden will get an opportunity. Same with the talented younger players desperate for game time that don’t get as much as they’d want. Throw in the foreigners that would love to come to Australia to play and it won’t be any worse than what it is now.
”I’d be tempted to say it can be better. And don’t forget. Not every team gets promoted, only the best one or I’d say two would be ideal for the growth of the game.
“But it’s about the full package. Not just players, but also fans, stadiums, sponsors, promotion/relegation, promoting the games/leagues etc. There’s no one answer but so many small answers that add up as a collective.
“People might also argue that the financial side is an issue. Perhaps it is a hurdle. But to me one that can easily be overcome. It’s just a matter of getting it done which is long overdue.”
Milan Susak (Adelaide United, SpVgg Unterhaching, Brisbane Roar, Tianjin Teda)
On his experiences as a player with promotion and relegation.
”I had the chance to experience both. In my time in Germany we missed out on promotion by one point. We needed to win the last 2 games of the season and unfortunately we drew to a team that was fighting to stay in the league.
”I remember the last 5 games was like a grand final because you had the chance to get promoted and to be on a bigger stage but it wasn’t to be. Looking back that moment was the hardest in my career, not making that last hurdle.
”On the other hand, I also had the experience to also fight relegation with Tianjin Teda in China. The last 8 teams all had the chance to get relegated it was very close, a lot of pressure and then again it was like playing finals every game till the end but with the thought that you’re not playing to well collectively.
”I found it funny because we were actually getting double the bonuses to win when we where fighting to stay in the league than at the start of the season. We stayed up that year. As a player you always need to be playing for something and feeling that pressure to keep you on your toes.”
On if the concept would be good or not for football in Australia.
”Obviously it would benefit football in Australia. They do it in all the big footballing countries, why would we be different?”
On what it would mean for Australian players.
”The lack of opportunities for players I think is the biggest issue, just from working with NSWPL1 BWE team I can see a lot of talent and some players that have the quality to maybe play in the A-League but most likely will never get the chance.
“Pro /rel and a second tier would definitely help keep players in the game because they will have something to fight for. You could be twenty-eight games or so away from playing in the top league in your country, what more motivation do you need, especially for young players coming through?”
Neil Kilkenny (Birmingham City, Leeds United, Preston North End, Melbourne City, Perth Glory)
“I think they should introduce relegation and promotion.
”It just creates a little bit more drama and creates opportunities for clubs in the NPL that they know they can get in the A-League. There’s no ceiling then.
”Obviously there’s clubs in the A-League that you know maybe rest on their laurels a but and if you brought in relegation or promotion all of a sudden everyone’s fighting for their lives because they know the club can go down.”
*Kilkenny quotes via A-League’s Extra Time
Geography – We’re too big
One of the popular arguments is that Australia has a unique geography to the rest of the world that prevents the implementation of promotion and relegation. Presumably, this argument revolves around travel and accommodation costs which of course is something that must be seriously considered for any club on the national scale. The question is, is how much of a factor is it? According to a source, it isn’t in the top three, with salaries and wages of the football department and staff being the main cost of all clubs followed by stadium costs and marketing/members costs.
Australia is indeed a big country, at 7.7 million sqkm it isn’t the sixth biggest in the world. Even if you removed Western Australia and Northern Territory, it’d still be the sixth biggest country at 4.8 million sqkm. Australia sits between Brazil (8.51 million sqkm) and India (3.29 million sqkm) on the list with Russia on top at 17.1 million sqkm. Russia is also home to the longest away day which is in the league’s second division and is contested between Baltika Kaliningrad and Vladivostok, it takes 12.25 hours of travel and is over 10,000km.
There are three countries bigger than Australia that have promotion and relegation. It can be argued that these countries have more money in the game which helps to compensate travel costs but it must also be considered that this argument revolves around lower divisions, not first divisions as Australia has a first division that already incorporates one of the longest possible away days for Australian clubs.
Coupling the size of the country with it’s population (23 million), it makes Australia the third least densely populated country (excluding territories, constituent countries, etc.) behind Mongolia and Namibia. Mongolia has 1.9 people per sqkm, Namibia has 2.56, while Australia has 3.14. Iceland is 4th with 3.24 per sqkm. Mongolia, Namibia, and Iceland all have promotion and relegation.
On an interesting side note, Namibia recently had trouble finding a sponsor for the second-tier league, known as the First Division. Traditionally, the sponsorship was shared between the top-flight Namibian Premier League and the lower tiers. For NPL telecommunications giants and major sponsors, MTC and FND Namibia, linked tiers was a crucial part of their sponsorship agreement and their investment was on the proviso of there being an open system.
“When we negotiated the sponsorship agreement, both sponsors raised concern about the fact that the First Division was not catered for in the NPL’s submitted budget and the sponsors also made it clear to us that their combined investment of N$20 million will be a waste in the absence of the First Division, because it would mean the league would be played in vain as there will be no promotions and relegation.” NPL executives told Namibia’s New Era Sport.
Anyway we need to look at costs of away trips and then consider if these costs would be too much for a lower-tier club to shoulder. First, it’s important to establish the make-up of the second division but given we don’t have anything concrete to work from, we will have to work from an imagined yet reasonable model.
Let’s say that the second division is made up of fourteen clubs with a home and away format equating to 26 rounds. As for participants, we can have one Tasmanian team, a side from Queensland, one South Australian, one Western Australia, one from the ACT, one from regional New South Wales, four others from New South Wales, and four from Victoria. The team from Western Australia will be faced with the most travel so let’s look at what it would take them to do their away legs in a regular season.
Using the Skyscanner app and the prices quoted for the Christmas holiday season, five return trips to NSW for 19 people (15 players, 4 support staff) at $660 each would cost $62,700. Add to that $45,600 to fly to Melbourne four times, $9500 for a trip to Adelaide, $14,820 for Brisbane, $17,765 for Hobart, and $14,060 to fly into the ACT and that’s a total of $164,445 per regular season. This is not taking into account the possibility of sponsorship or commercial agreements with any travel services which many if not all A-League clubs would have.
There is more than just flights to consider, accomodation is key as well. Let’s imagine that clubs spend two nights in a four star hotel each away trip. Again Skyscanner was used to source the prices over a weekend in April. Two people to a room would mean eight rooms (female support staff would require a separate room).
Most rooms in Sydney were around $400 for two nights so that comes to $16,000 for five away trips to NSW. Melbourne had wide ranging prices so we went with $420 because it was somewhere in the middle, this came to $13,440 for four away trips. Adelaide came to $2000, Canberra was $2800, Hobart was little pricey at $4000, and Brisbane came in at $2800. The grand total for thirteen away days staying two nights in four star hotels was $41,040 for the season.
Of course prices would change depending on commercial arrangements, clubs choosing the cheaper or lower star options (a median average was chosen here instead of choosing the lowest or highest price), and of course staying a shorter or longer time. However, working with what we have available to us, the airfares and accomodation come to $205,485 a season. This is less than a typical visa signings wages. For those concerned about food, let’s throw in a 100 dollar-a-day food allowance across 13 away days for a grand total of $49,400. This bumps the overall total up to $254,885 or around two average wages of A-League players.
The National Soccer League operated most of it’s existence with teams from Victoria, Queensland and of course Victoria and New South Wales. There were also sides from Canberra and Perth. The NSL were able to operate for almost thirty years with very little investment in the game compared to now. To use geography as a serious impediment to a second division doesn’t stack up to the information available.
“Increased exposure that a second division gives will increase sponsorship and revenue hence it’s not an issue,” said former Sydney United Senior Football Director, Sam Krslovic, on clubs struggling to afford travel and accomodation costs.
The thing to remember though is the size, population and population density of a country are all irrelevant when it comes down to can or can’t a club afford to participate in a national competition. According to the figures and testimony of people involved in clubs, the costs of away days are not prohibitive to their involvement in a national competition and can’t be offset by sponsorship and increased revenue from exposure to a national competition.
Representation- The first division will be only Melbourne and Sydney teams
Irrational fear is often a barrier to progress. The argument that the first division will become a competition of only Sydney and Melbourne teams is nothing short of irrational. There is no precedent for this in any open league of note.
Even the Faroe Islands first division (yes, they have promotion and relegation with four tiers) has only two teams from the capital city of Tórshavn. Tórshavn’s HB is the most successful club in the Faroe Islands with twenty-two titles but next is Kí from the second largest town, Klaksvík. Kí is Klaksvík’s only representative in the top flight. Of course most cities only have one or two clubs because of the small population and the teams in the lower divisions from the same towns are often reserve teams of the first division teams so ineligible to be promoted.
The closed A-League is currently made up of forty percent of teams from Sydney and Melbourne, sixty percent are from Victorian and New South Wales. Strong suggestions are that the next two teams to be added to the league will be from Sydney and Melbourne taking the representation to just under sixty-seven percent. There’d be few open leagues in the world that are made up of such a majority of two particularly cities or states.
Let’s look at some open leagues from around the world and see what percentage the top two cities in those countries make up their first division.
J1 (Japan) – 22%
K League 1 (South Korea) – 8%
Eredivisie (Netherlands) – 22%
Ligue 1 (France) – 10%
La Liga (Spain) – 20%
Bundesliga (Germany) – 10%
Serie A (Italy) – 20%
1.HNL (Croatia) – 40%
Süper Lig (Turkey) – 33%
Ekstraklasa (Poland) – 19%
Scottish Premiership (Scotland) – 50%
Belgian First Division A (Belgium) – 13%
South African Premier Division (South Africa) – 25%
The leagues with a relatively high percentage are those with less teams in the league such as Scotland and Croatia who, like the Aleague, have only ten teams in their first division. Increased competition seems to create a more level playing field as we can see with most leagues which have twenty-five percent or less representation from the two major cities.
We can also look at the history of the national competition to measure the performance of teams not from Melbourne or Sydney. Let’s work with the model that the team that finishes bottom is automatically relegated. Over the forty seasons of the national league, twelve times teams from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the ACT have finished bottom of the table. Conversely, eleven times teams from these areas have won the championship.
To suggest that club should and teams outside of the major cities wouldn’t be able to compete is ignoring our own history and the global indicators. Is it possible that there will be six straight relegations of teams outside the top two cities and simulataneously six straight promotions from within the top two cities? Of course. Is it likely? According to everything we have available to us to help make an informed guess, no it’s not.
Costs – We just don’t have the money
Anti-pro/rel arguments will often gravitate towards costs even if those using them as a reason to not have an open system usually don’t know the numbers, nor what is available to aspiring clubs, or understand how an open system differs from a closed one. Despite this, the question of costs is an important factor when looking into the viability of a new or old football system.
As touched on above, the biggest costs for the A-League franchises are player and staff wages, stadiums, and marketing. These are costs in world football which vary depending on the club but in Australia due to the franchise system they have been artificially manipulated to create a false sense of parity.
There is no reason the lower tiers need to follow suit, in fact, it’d be bad business to institute these conditions which unnecessarily drive up operating costs and prevent clubs from organic growth. So let’s look at these three costs and what they mean for a second division.
Player and Staff Wages
When Frank Lowy commissioned Andrew Kemeny to produce the Report of the NSL Taskforce into the Structure of a New National Soccer League Competition, it was earmarked early to try to keep Australian players in Australia and lure others back. The belief was that the outflow of players created a negative image of the national competition not being a good standard. Suggestions from making players pay back their AIS scholarships if they went abroad to having former Socceroos warn youth players of the dangers of going abroad were all proposed as measures to halt the exodus.
Players having the option to stay at home instead of having to go abroad to carve out a living from the game is certainly not a bad thing but it needs to be balanced and in line with the market. To artificially influence this can and has had drawbacks from player development to the financial burden on clubs.
The FFA and the PFA agreed to a salary cap and a floor which would see the salaries of players be used as a marketing tool rather than being governed by the market. Currently the salary cap is at 2.93 million and the floor is 2.6 million. There are some exemptions to the cap such as two marquee players, one mature age rookie, one under 20 player on the minimum wage, $200,000 on four U23 players who came through the youth systems of the teams, and $200,000 on players who have spent 5 consecutive years at the club.
The squads are made up of twenty to twenty three players so excluding the exceptions mentioned above the average wage of each club is thought to be anywhere between $113,043 to $146,500. According to the A-League website, the minimum wage in the A-League for a player over the age of 20 is $61,287 and $45,686 for U20s.
With the salary floor in place though the average wage must be $50,000 over the minimum for a senior player which means teams are forced to spend up to a million more than if they were to stick to around the minimum salary. The minimum salary in the A-League is $26,000 more than the general minimum in Australia which according to figures on the Fair Work Commission website was around $34,944 ($672.70 a week).
A 2011 (updated in 2013) report released by the Department of Health, Building Australia’s Football Community—Review into the Sustainability of Football highlighted a study by Braham Dabscheck and the Australian Athlete’s Alliance (the PFA are a member) which found that A-League players received a higher share of revenue than similar football leagues as well as other sports in Australia.
The Department of Health report was concerned that wage trends were not reflecting the overall trends in the sport and thus taking away from other areas.
In the last couple of years of this period, crowd attendances and television ratings for the A-League have been dropping while player payments and the salary cap have continued to climb.
With expenditure of up to $2.4 million on the salary cap plus discretionary player payments to marquee players outside the cap, from average base revenue of around $7 million, insufficient money is left to pay other costs. Funding for management and administrative salaries and marketing and promotion costs is limited and clubs have very little capacity to fund other match day and community related activities that could raise interest and drive support and attendances to increase the sustainability of individual clubs and the A-League overall.
The Australian domestic league should not be seen as the preferred destination for players. It is by encouraging players to aim for the bigger leagues abroad that will help propel their development. This is the reality for most players, clubs and leagues around the world who have accepted and adjusted to their role. This doesn’t mean there isn’t fluctuations and nations don’t rise and fall on the food chain but it has to be done working within the global standard, there’s no shortcuts.
So, if the second division clubs worked with an average wage of the A-League senior players, they’d save up to 1.1 million dollars. People need to keep in mind that clubs in a second division or lower aren’t competing with the first division teams but only those in the same division. If a club gets promoted, they like everywhere else in the world will be able to bolster their roster by acquiring new talent.
Conversely, clubs going down needn’t be burdened with players on high wages if there is a transfer/loan system involved. For example, a team going up could purchase or loan some players from a team or teams going down. This strengthens the roster of the promoted team while offering some financial relief to a team being relegated.
We need to understand that in the global football ecosystem we are somewhere in the middle. Accepting this rather than aiming to replicate closed league sports which don’t exist in a global context like football does that will ultimately see us grow as a football nation.
The best thing for lessening the financial burden of wages would be to remove the cap and the floor altogether. People will balk at this due to the popular rhetoric espoused by closed league sport organisations and their media. The fact is though that a salary cap as a means of promoting competitive balance is a myth. Sure you can point at leagues around the world where there are a dominant two, three, or four teams but you can also find the same in closed leagues with salary caps and you can find very competitive leagues with no caps.
The PFA know it’s a myth but support it so the FFA will support the salary floor. Ironically, research has shown the floor is more likely to be a factor in competitive balance than a cap. However, clubs should never be forced to spend a minimum.
It’s time both organisations took a more realistic approach to the professional game instead of implementing these mechanism which create a false picture of the football market. Live within our means and allow for natural growth. Ways exist to control spending without being unfairly oppressive or suppressive to clubs. Germany and Japan have rules which allow them to financially relegate teams who are operating at losses for more than three years.
Inflating wages for competitive balance is also misguided in attracting fans. Whether it was the Celtics and Lakers, or the Bulls in basketball, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona in football, the Yankees and Cowboys in baseball and American football, fans love super teams, When these teams come to town the stadiums are packed out, the TV ratings of their games are the highest, they dominate the backpages, and interest in the leagues grow. People love to watch these teams whether it is to see them do their thing, or to see them get beaten.
An open system with reasonable wage settings will not affect the quality as much as some would have you believe. In global football, higher wages can always be found up the rungs be it within a domestic football system or within the global market. It is this along with testing themselves in bigger leagues and against better opposition that drives players to keep improving and pushing themselves. We need to bring that aspect back to the game.
Kemeny, in his report said the player outflow gave the perception of the local league being weak but if overseas leagues are scouting and signing our players that’s a sign of strength. The key is creating an environment which is producing players and getting them ready for the bigger stage.
Over the years, studies into the salaries in the Serie A and B as well as the Bundesliga have shown that age, experience and performance are key determinants in player salaries. Measurements of statistics like goals and assists tend to mean attacking players will draw the bigger wages but other measures such as national team appearances can mean elite defensive players can get higher wages than the average player.
Players salaries are also judged more on their last season as opposed to their overall career so players in the big leagues of Italy and Germany are less likely to be able to rest on their reputation. If players don’t perform they are dropped and replaced which is easier to do when you have more clubs and leagues in a competitive and professional environment. The quality gap in Australia caused by the closed system and their various artificial mechanisms makes player mobility much less fluid. This is why we see a high-rate of recycling amongst teams in the A-League.
The graph above from a study by Bernd Frick of the University of Paderborn, Salary Determination in the German “Bundesliga” used various measurements but they all showed a similar trend. As players reached their mid to late 20s was their peak earning years. As spoken about earlier in this report, the Bundesliga is not a selling league and many of their elite and international players stay within the league system for most if not all their professional careers.
The A-League won’t have this same result in a free market because our top players should be moving up the footballing ladder to bigger leagues abroad. That’s not to say we will have no players in their mid-20s but more so the ones who do remain will possibly not be performing in those determinants such as performance (goals and assists) or national team appearances.
Players falling in this age range are more likely to be solid role players and therefore likely to command a more modest remuneration for their services. Players from the 18 to 23 bracket on their way up will have to wait for their next contract negotiations before their performance is reflected in salary. This is where it’s valuable for clubs to show a certain level of faith in their younger players by signing them to at least three-year deals.
This “faith” will be rewarded in the way of keeping the salary of younger players at a manageable level while allowing for possible transfer fees in the future. As it stands, A-League teams are often caught in the predicament of having to let young players go cheaply because they’re no team on long-term deals. It’s a case of letting them go now or signing them up for a massive increase.
If a club abroad really wants a player, they will pay for him and by doing so, it will mean they are more likely to give him a chance. If they got him on the cheap, they can use him as a long-term project which might mean being stuck in the reserves and youth teams for a few seasons. By valuing our players higher with longer contracts we can slow the outflow while not breaking the bank to retain a player who would be better served going abroad and bringing in transfer revenue to the Australian club.
Wages in the second division do not need to be disproportionately set like they are in the A-League. By following the global standards and reacting rather than trying to manipulate the market, clubs in Australia can actually decrease the biggest single cost to clubs without sacrificing quality.
The second biggest cost for A-League clubs revolves around matchday. Most clubs are locked into stadium deals that in 2013, according to the Adelaide Entertainments Corporation, had an average stadium rental fee of $66,000 plus GST. Going by these 2013 figures, eleven home games would cost around $726,000 in rent a year.
This doesn’t include all the match day costs but according to sources, $75,000 to $80,000 a game is around the average. These costs would include stadium rent, security, food and beverage etc so at eleven home games a season that is about $825,000 to $880,000 a season to host matches.
There have been reports that Sydney FC need crowds of over 14,000 to break even but this is if a certain number of tickets are sold on matchday. If all 14,834 registered members attended, they’d still need a certain number of tickets sold on matchday to break even. So looking at the average costs and not taking into account the Ticketek handling fee and GST, A-League franchises who need $80,000 on matchday to break even would have to sell around 4,000 tickets at $20.00 each.
Lower-tier clubs should avoid these types of oppressive stadium deals. Ideally clubs would work with councils and private investors to bring facilities at suburban grounds up to scratch from lighting, seating, and pitch. To have a minimum capacity for grounds, would be repeating mistakes made by the A-League. We have to be in this for the long-haul so allow clubs to grow organically. A suburban ground of 3,000 must be allowed to grow to suit the needs of the club and the community.
There’s far too many clubs in far too many regions around Australia in the NPL and State leagues to be able to generalise about these types of costs so let’s just look at one of the highest ground costs. A source has said this club’s annual ground hire fee is around $120,000 a year.
At 13 home games, that’s about $9,200 a game. If we triple this cost to cover security, beverage, amenities, staffing costs etc, it will cost a team around $360,000 a season. As mentioned before, this cost would vary greatly between clubs but it is better to overestimate costs than to underestimate. A crowd of 3000 with tickets at $9.20 (not including ticket handling or GST costs) would cover matchday costs.
Theres a big desire for Australian clubs to build boutique stadiums out of their own pocket and it’s a great ambition for clubs to have but this needs to be done in a way suitable for a club’s specific circumstances. As great as privately-owned football stadiums sound, the reality is that even in established football countries this is a rarity.
In the J-League, only two stadiums in J1 are privately-owned and they are Kashiwa Reysol and Jubilo Iwata whose stadiums are owned by companies, Hitachi and Yamaha. Major League Soccer, the United States division 1 competition has twenty three clubs. Thirteen of the stadiums are publicly-owned, another three were heavily subsidised by public money, another one has an NFL team as the major tenant, the remaining are multi-use stadiums.
Multi-use stadiums are the future with KPMG Sports Advisory noting in their 2013 report that their is a movement away from the traditional square “English style” stadiums. Whether it’s for other sports, concerts, or corporate events and community festivals, the shape is being determined by the needs of the particulars projects.
Aspiring second division clubs who are currently in the National Premier League, have ground agreements with local councils and some even own their own grounds and training facilities. This existing relationship with councils and the local community is important for controlling current costs and future revenues.
Renovation is probably the most realistic avenue for clubs and this depends on key stakeholders such as the local community, club, governing bodies, local government, fan base, and financial sponsors coming to a mutually beneficial agreement. Local clubs would be best-served following the models of Europe.
Let’s look at some examples from countries which have been rated as being more expensive to build in than Australia.
AFC Wimbledon is a fan-owned club who formed 2002 as a protest club to MK Dons. They have recently been given permission to start construction on an 11,000 capacity stadium. In addition to the football side of things, the stadium will also have 602 residential units, retail shops, and a fitness club.
It’s estimated to cost around 25 million pounds and will be funded with 2 million from Chelsea who bought their old ground, 14 million from developers who will build the units, shops and gym, and the rest will be a bank loan.
Silkeborg IF and the Silkeborg municipality broke ground on JYSK Park in 2015 and opened in 2017. The capacity of the stadium is 10,000 and it cost 27.9 million AUD. 12.9 million came from public funding and 15 million from the club.
Each seat cost the club $1500 so with tickets around $17AUD and an average attendance in 2017/2018 of 4110 that’s 69,870 a game. Excluding cups and playoffs, there are thirteen regular season home games which would bring in about $908,310AUD a season on ticket sales. Of course if one speculates on corporate boxes and services, naming rights, sponsorship etc the club could recoup their investment somewhere between ten and fifteen seasons.
Guldfågeln Arena is the home of Swedish side, Kalmar FF. The stadium broke ground in 2009 and was opened in 2011. It has a capacity of 12,500 and cost around $39.7 million AUD.
Myresjöhus Arena is home to second division club Östers IF and was opened in 2012. It cost $32.3 million AUD which for the 12,000 capacity equals about $2692 per seat. An adult ticket to an Östers game can be up to $30AUD so with an average attendance of 2745 over 15 home games that’s $1.2 million AUD a season for just regular season games.
These are just some examples of smaller stadiums in countries where it’s comparatively more expensive to build than Australia. Design and consultancy firm, Arcadis, release an annual report on construction costs by country and city. In their 2017 report they had Melbourne (14th) as the only Australian city in their Top 44 most expensive cities to build in list. In their 2015 report, Australia was the 6th most expensive country overall to build using the International Cost Comparison.
Building or renovating on the existing NPL sites will follow trends in Europe. As we can see by the chart below, 67% of all stadiums are semi-urban and more than 50% of the stadiums built out of town are less than fifteen years old. Some might point to accessibility problems to some stadiums but as pointed out in the KPMG report, building access roads and upgrading infrastructure is a common way for the government to get involved in a project and has a positive affect on the local community.
Current clubs in the NPL should be allowed to enter with the venues they currently play out of a small long as pitch conditions, lighting and safety are up to standard. This will allow them to avoid costly stadium deals that the A-League teams currently face, maintain their connection to the local community, and any future construction or reform costs can be shared with the municipality.
It would be a good idea for clubs to become sporting clubs and open their venues for more sports, local festivals and community projects so more of the local community can be involved. Offering rental spaces for units, restaurants and retail shops is also a great way to get private investors involved as well as create more employment and opportunities for the local community beyond football.
Getting your brand out there is important in any industry especially ones that rely on attendance and/or viewership. Subsequently, promotion and marketing is an issue that often has Australian football fans asking if enough is being done. This is an interesting conundrum because you have the need to market a league with the need to market the individual clubs. Obviously the governing body and the broadcast partners needto be responsible for overall marketing if the league but clubs must do their bit too.
For lower-tier clubs the focus should begin in their local area. Having an online presence is crucial in this day and age as it is a great way to disseminate club info and keep the fans involved 24/7. However, the crucial area for clubs to build from is the engagement with the local community. As touched on above, a way to do this is by remaining largely a community-owned club. Be more involved in the local area through events and festivals, providing a centre-point for the local community to be a part of. Using the stadium for multiple events is a great way to do this and show that the club is more than just a football club, it’s a community club.
Advertising and promoting games and events as well as offering services Andy incentives to members won’t be cheap. It’s been estimated that marketing costs that include hosting and operating a website, social media staff, printing costs etc will cost second division sides around $217,400.
Again, this isn’t a set cost that applies to every club but a rough guide of what is needed. Each club should be allowed to allocate the funds from their budgets they see fit for their needs and goals.
A-League – The A-League clubs need to be viable first
The whole push for the pyramid to be open is to create a football ecosystem in which every club, player and fan is able to find their place through natural and competitive means. The closed model tries to cheat the market and take shortcuts by artificially manipulating it’s environment. The fact that the Aleague and it’s sides find themselves on the losing end of that battle is not as big as a surprise as those who fail to recognise or admit to the problem.
Viablity is such an odd concept to begin with for a football club. The idea that certain clubs within a system which doesn’t promote or incentivise good business management or viability need to be viable before other clubs have an opportunity to reach their potential is lacking any logic. The idea that a select few franchises have a right above any other football clubs to reach their potential and achieve success is also defying logic.
Many perhaps confuse viability with sustainability and profitability. Most clubs around the world wouldn’t be considered profitable and those that are usually are in leagues with massive TV deals, global reaches, and own their own stadiums or at the very least have very reasonable deals with the owners.
“Football clubs around the world lose money so A-League clubs as a whole will never make money,” said Krslovic.
“In every league there are big clubs and small clubs. Selling clubs and buying clubs. A second division is needed to produce young players and coaches by giving them the experience required.”
Are the A-League franchises sustainable? Meaning can they continue to survive in the current climate? That comes down to the owners. For the City Football Group, they probably are not as concerned as a Mike Charlesworth or a Tony Sage. As long as the owners can shoulder the losses , a team is sustainable. Owners have expressed concerns though over how long they will be able to throw money away for nothing in return. This is where the argument is made that the current A-League model is unsustainable.
One can’t look at the circumstances in a particular model and then decide that a completely different model isn’t viable. If the practices and system are tailored to suit the clubs rather than trying to tailor the clubs to suit the system, there is a better chance of having a viable football competition.
Opponents of promotion and relegation often suggest that the revenue isn’t there to support teams in a second division. These claims are often made by people without any inside knowledge of the clubs with second division and promotion aspirations.
“There are resources to uphold a second division,” insists Krslovic.
”Not everyone supports the A-League. The number of clubs that have folded in 13 years in the A-League exceeds the NSL clubs that folded in 30 years. And that is with Fox giving each club $3 million per year. It’s bad management not resource dependent.
“Increased exposure that the second division gives will increase sponsorship and revenue.
“Sponsors are ready to come on board, existing ones in greater amounts, and new ones. We even have an international club ready to invest and take a stake.
“They will only get involved with us being in the second division and reform of FFA required.
“Financially a second division is no concern to us, in that we would raise the revenue required with little effort.”
Last year Heidelberg United announced a partnership with Keisuke Honda’s international soccer school, Soltilo Familia Soccer School. This partnership included a $500,000 investment over five years towards capital works including a synthetic football pitch. This is just the tip of the iceberg though for what could be available to clubs in the lower tiers I found there was a clear pathway to the top. Whether it is Bournemouth in England or RB Leipzig in Germany, there are always investors both local and foreign interested in building from the bottom up. Closed systems don’t come close to creating this kind of interest and investment in the lower tiers, the tiers in which the game is built upon.
The “we are not ready for promotion and relegation” is often thrown out there as a Hail Mary from the “anti” side when they can’t quite think of why it isn’t possible. Look at the MLS, it’s twenty-five years old with twenty-three teams with new franchises paying over $100 million USD to enter, the sport has one of the highest participation rates in the world, in a country with the third highest PPP GDP in the world. They are nowhere near adopting a pro/rel system and it’s not because they can’t but tbecause they don’t want to. The MLS is a Ponzi Scheme imitating a sporting competition.
Look at the NBA, NFL or MLB. They’re the biggest leagues of their respective sports in the world. They consist of at least thirty teams across the country with each franchise valued the billions. They have massive TV deals and revenue sources yet are not even close to contemplating promotion and relegation. The same situation exists in Australia with the AFL and NRL. The truth is that the people who run those league structures run football in both countries and they just don’t want pro/rel.
The choice has to be taken out of their hands. If they want to be a part of the world game, they have to adapt to it not the other way around.