A perfect storm approaches in the form of:

  • A third straight World Cup qualification
  • Two great seasons just finished for the A-League and a new TV deal
         meaning unprecedented interest in next season
  • The Asian Cup to be held here in 2015

On top of that we see the Under 20s performing well at their World Cup (occasionally), new emerging
superstars (such as Rogic, Kruse and Oar), and hopefully, before not too much longer, the inauguration of the FFA Cup to really connect the grassroots of Australian football with the A-League.

Australian football has never looked stronger and the coffers of the FFA are about to be filled with TV
money, World Cup prize money and rich sponsorship deals. By this time next year the FFA could well have another $30 million in the bank and a profile beyond its wildest dreams.

So what should we do with that money?

Obviously, a lot will be spent on the elite teams, and so it should. But the future of the game is in
the grassroots. Football already dwarfs the other codes (combined) in terms of player registrations, but the other codes had never been terribly worried about that because, back in the bad old days, they knew that many of the elite athletes playing football would switch to league, or AFL, because there was no professional pathway in football, and no competition for the big corporate dollars.

The A-League has changed that. It is now possible for many young footballers to make decent money (and live the football dream) with also the possibility of making really good money in Europe or Asia.
This means that many more of those gifted athletes are staying in the game and the other codes are starting to panic.

The AFL, in particular, is now very open about its desire to poach the best athletes from any sport so
football has to be careful to make sure it remains the most attractive option for young players already within the fold.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to make football affordable. Especially in a tightening
economic climate, football has to make sure that it doesn’t price itself out of the market by charging registration fees wildly out of proportion to the fees charged by other codes.

And yet, the damage is already being done. In NSW, it is unbelievable cheap for kids to play Aussie
Rules. The AFL is investing a large part of its billion dollar TV deal in their game’s future by massively subsidising the fees of young players.

In contrast, parents are being charged ridiculous amounts for their kids to play football – especially
if they want to get serious about it. I constantly hear stories of young players being charged over $1000 per season to play for teams with specialist coaches which are supposedly fast tracks to the elite level and the untold riches which await the next Tommy Rogic or Robbie Kruse.

Can this really be true? $1000 per season?

Obviously, the average is far lower but it’s still too high. I personally know two sets of parents who have recently taken their boys out of football and put them into Aussie Rules because they simply can’t afford their children’s game of choice anymore. One of these kids was a really good player and in all likelihood will be lost to the game. I have no evidence and have done zero research, but it seems fairly clear that this loss of players could be happening everywhere, simply due to economic forces extraneous to the relative appeal of the various codes.

Also obvious is the fact the AFL and NRL have a huge economic advantage over football when you consider that their TV income is so vast and yet their grass roots numbers are comparatively small. This means that there is a lot more money available per mouth to feed – they can afford to subsidise their registered players, and this is an enormous incentive to cash-strapped parents.

I implore the FFA to use some of the millions they are about to receive to fight the grass roots economic battle. They can’t compete dollar for dollar, but they must find a way to show their constituency that they understand their problems and want to work with them. Insurance is the killer. It’s the greater part of all registration fees and yet, what exactly does it cover?

Build it and they will come. Make it fair, and they will stay.

Adrian Deans is the author of Mr Cleansheets – available in all good book stores. Also coming shortly: Straight Jacket. Watch this space for further information.