While COVID19 has caused all kinds of chaos for Australian football, the blessing is that it has underlined the need for fiscal discipline by all clubs involved in the A-League and indeed the lower tiers.
The news that Newcastle Jets, Central Coast and Macarthur FC all have financial challenges is hardly surprising.
For too long Australian fans have had an unrealistic picture of where we are at as a football nation.
Talk of a second tier and promotion/relegation are all wonderful ideas but are simply a pipe dream right now. We need to get clubs in the top division stable and functioning, before we even think about bringing in more mouths to feed. In any event, no A-League club (bar Wellington) can be relegated until 2034 as per the 20 year licence agreement signed in 2014.
So all the talk of a National Second Division has to be put on the backburner. An A-League owner commented it is at least 10 years away anyway.
So let’s deal with what we have now. The FFA has lost $43.5M in annual revenue. The A-League is struggling to keep up. The Socceroos and Matildas have not competed well enough on the world stage for a few years now.
So where is the money going to come from to provide financial stability?
It all starts from the top. Every club owner goes through a due diligence process. This process is somewhat clouded in light of the number of clubs in A-League history who have fallen by the wayside or have had financial trouble.
Nathan Tinkler then Martin Lee at Newcastle were a disaster, not entirely the fault of the owners mind you. Clive Palmer at Gold Coast was always going to fail.
Macarthur FC were asked to give a bank guarantee when they came in to the competition. They rightly asked for FFA to give one in return. When this didn’t happen, FFA with their tail between their legs then agreed to a somewhat bizarre deal where the Bulls were permitted to pay their licence fee in instalments, only for the bulk of the money to be returned to them as part of the deal.
Mike Charlesworth to his immense credit has stuck by the Mariners for seven years. For an owner to commit to a club that has never been a powerful player off the field is admirable. The Mariners have had great success on the field, and in fact in the early stages of the competition were the prototype for what the A-League was about. Developing Australian talent on a tight budget.
Times have changed though. Australian football cannot afford clubs that won’t pull their financial weight.
We talk about making fees cheaper for juniors and paying women footballers a better salary. All of this costs money.
Talk of club owners funding the acquisition of struggling teams via a trust run by the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA), the umbrella body representing the current owners of the 12 A-League clubs, is a positive move.
Other sporting bodies like the AFL has an equalisation policy where smaller clubs are compensated for lack of sponsorship and members by being handed bigger distributions than other clubs. For example, powerhouses Richmond and Collingwood were given the minimum $11.5M last year whereas Gold Coast were given $27M.
This policy is funded by the AFL’s larger coffers which are partly sponsored by taxing bigger clubs who spend more than the ‘soft cap’ which is essentially a penalty for clubs spending more on their football department than is allowed.
The American leagues have a similar policy which allows small market teams the chance to compete.
Of course FFA simply don’t have the funds to implement such a model, yet that is.
The idea put forward by the APFCA is a start. Why not have well financed and successful businessmen and women put their brains together, nurse a small club into a decent financial proposition and sell it to an owner who may be more willing to take on a stable club than a basket case. The profit made could then be distributed to all clubs.
We don’t want to go around in circles though. The new owner must go through a rigorous process including signed contracts stating they will fund a minimum amount each year plus give bank guarantees.
Another option is to tap into Asia. While the A-League is far less attractive to Asian markets than the Japanese J-League or Chinese Super League, we do have a role to play.
There is no reason why we can’t work with the AFC to try and help build our league either via player trades or other commercial opportunities. This does already happen somewhat but we can build on this.
The biggest key though is asking for government support. Football in Australia has bragged for so long about how we have the most participants. But that hasn’t transitioned into our top leagues.
Perhaps we need to go to the government with a reasonable expectation. If we demanded the same as AFL, NRL and cricket we will be told to get lost. Fair enough.
Let’s go with a model whereby we ask for a reasonable amount and if we hit key targets - crowds, TV audiences and financial stability - we can ask for more. We should provide the government a breakdown of where there money is going and how it is reaping a reward, be it financially or socially.
Another left field idea is why not let other sports invest in our league. Football fans would be mortified at the thought of the AFL or NRL taking some sort of stake in our game.
But let’s think about this. If we stay in summer, and all indications are that we will beyond the current TV deal, we could potentially provide a revenue stream for the AFL and NRL in its off season.
Yes there will always be suspicions, the AFL especially, will use any power it has to undermine the foundations of the game like they did when channel seven had the NSL rights all those years ago.
But times have changed and the AFL and NRL are smart. They know the potential rewards of investing in the world game.
There is no reason why all three codes can’t work together in a smart way. The AFL and NRL are always looking at more revenue streams. By working with the world game, there is potentially a huge opportunity for them to tap into any financial rewards from the Socceroos and Matildas World Cup appearances, especially with Australia hosting the 2023 World Cup.
The AFL has a well publicised interest in tapping into multicultural Australia. They have done this successfully before and could do even better by working with FFA. Football already has a multicultural presence without even trying. It could be a relationship that could work well if done correctly.
Western United have already had successful agreements with Geelong and the Western Bulldogs re facilities. It is a small example of how things can work.
The AFL were almost sold on the idea of supporting the 2022 World Cup bid, due to the benefits they would get in terms of better infrastructure.
Of course the downside to this is if the AFL or NRL help promote football, they could potentially lose juniors once the winter months come in with football being played in the winter as well. That is one catch that is admittedly hard to overcome and makes it harder to sell the idea of them investing in football.
A solution to this could be football agreeing to shift its junior seasons a month or two. There is no reason why football can’t start at the end of May and end in early November before it gets too hot. This allows the AFL to allow its juniors to go from early March to August.
This gives each code a clear few months on their own at either end of the calendar. The overlap can cater for kids who want to play both.
The reality is FFA need to think outside the box. It will be worth it.
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