The sheer edge-of-your-seat drama of promotion and relegation between the proposed second division and NPL will supercharge Australia's fans' interest in domestic football below the A-League, say those at the coal-face of the second tier.
Promotion and relegation on the table from day one of the proposed second division – tentatively dubbed The Championship by its proponents – could make the league more popular with fans than the A-League, say its backers.
Day one would be some time in 2021, which means the excitement and drama of a relegation scrap down to the NPL followed by a promotion playoff could be witnessed by Australian fans as early as 2022.
At this point, with no promotion and relegation planned between the A-League and the Championship, some say the second division could steal a march on the A-League in the minds and hearts of Australia’s football fans desperate for a new and exciting element.
With a White Paper on a second division currently being worked on and set to be unveiled any day now, various models are being refined.
“Promotion and relegation from the Championship to the third-tier of our game, the NPL, is definitely on the cards,” Rabieh Krayem, one of the Championship’s backers, told FTBL last month.
One of the more successful NPL coaches in Australia is Olympic Brisbane FC’s Ben Cahn. Like many in the second tier, he is watching on with interest.
The respected former Central Coast Mariners youth team coach says the prospect of promotion from the NPL to the Championship will drive standards up in the second tier, though there may be consequences for some when a free-market approach is given free rein.
“Having been in the A-League the NPL leagues across the country are seen as a bit part player, sub-standard and badly administered badly run competition,” he tells FTBL.
“But having been in the NPL, with Olympic for a year and a half, it’s the opposite. And many at all levels are doing some really good things across the NPLs.
“If the capital and investment are there, there are many who can make a success of it.
“That said promotion and relegation to and from the NPL has the potential to divide the current NPL teams into those who are ambitious and well-backed and those that aren’t.
“It may create a bigger gap, though that’s what you get with a rewards-based pyramid.
“The better more ambitious generally rise to the top, while some others tend to struggle - which wouldn’t be too different to any football pyramid around the world.
“And the other interesting point is, let’s say it was a success and in a few years it’s an open system and clubs are becoming really ambitious and every game means something, and there are promotion and relegation games, I think the crowds and interest in the NPL would increase.
“But it would pose an interesting question for the A-League clubs.
“All of a sudden there’d be a lot of interest in the emotion and excitement that surrounds promotion and relegation.
“And the A-League would be out there on its own with no pathway into it.
“If they didn’t open up to promotion and relegation to the A-League, then it might isolate the A-League.
“The Championship may become the main division of football with all the accompanying excitement to and from the NPL.
“Just the fact of having a proper pathway and pyramid [with promotion and relegation open in each tier] it keeps everybody honest and drives the standards up.
“It may put the necessary pressure on the A-League to really move quickly and open up the whole pyramid - if promotion and relegation from NPL to Championship was a success of course.”
It’s a valid point.
Could the very fact that there is promotion and relegation mean the second tier overtakes the A-League in the hearts of fans?
That said, how promotion and relegation would work remains a problematic work in progress, hindered by timings.
The White Paper is set to flesh out a number of options around promotion and relegation.
Currently, there is an annual FFA-run NPL Finals Series in September. Featuring the winners of each state NPL in Australia, it crowns Australia’s champion NPL club.
As a reward, the winner is given free entry into the FFA Cup Round of 32 the following year. The current champion is Campbelltown City from South Australia’s NPL.
This tournament could double as the mechanism for choosing an NPL side to face the last-placed Championship club.
However, timings may be problematic given the Championship is slated to kick off around the same time as the A-League in October.
If there was a play-off - and it was won by the NPL club - there would be virtually no time to prepare for the new Championship season given the requirements to move from semi-pro to full-time clubs.
And for any A-League club in a promotion and relegation dogfight, memberships and advertising for that season would have already been sold.
A cleaner solution may be to play the Championship in winter with any NPL national winner in September qualifying for the new season the following March.
Furthermore, any successful NPL club would, presumably, need to pass certain benchmark criteria such as suitability for broadcast at home venues, and capital investment for full-time players and staffing.
Proponents of the Championship are hopeful that the Championship comes into play by 2021.
There is a lot of work to be done in the meantime. The paper outlines some of the key planks of how a second division would work and is based on feedback from recent meetings with the FFA, clubs and the New Leagues Working Group (NLWG).
But one thing is for sure: the A-League needs an injection of excitement, says Cahn, who hopes the push from below is what is needed.
“A lot of people, I think, have lost interest in the A-League. A league where 60% of the teams make the Finals Series,” added Cahn.
“And there’s nothing at the bottom end of the table that keeps the clubs on their toes.
“Having been in Korea twice in the last two months [on a Pro Licence coaching course] my contacts over there say to me they don’t take us particularly seriously.
“They always fear the Socceroos, but they don’t have any interest in sending players or coaches to work in the A-League. They see it as a bit of a nothing league.
“And coming from England, I know people think the same.
“They laugh at the A-League.”
Cahn, like many, hopes the Championship is simply allowed to start sooner rather than later - a preferable option to endless planning to find a “perfect” model from day one.
“We’re not a crossroads but it’s an interesting point. There are a lot of people at all levels of the game frustrated with the current state of the game,” he says.
“From a pure football point of view, we just have to go with it.
“If we have clubs who are willing to put their necks on the line and have the capital investment, we can do it. And why shouldn’t we back them and get it started?
“It will provide a point of difference between us and other football codes. And aligns us with any successful football league in the world.
“And there’d be an excitement factor - which is what football is all about - and will attract new supporters and investors.
"But we have to start that to see that. If every game has something riding on it...
“We’re never going to create a perfect model on paper. Any new initiative will have its ups and downs, but we can build and grow and learn from it any mistakes.
“But the sooner we can get started the better.”