Football Australia chief James Johnson has confirmed the long-anticipated national second tier is primed to sprout in 2023, whilst hinting it won’t initially be designed as a gateway to the A-League.
The Australian Professional Leagues - now responsible for operating and commercialising the A-Leagues - share the ultimate vision of expanding beyond 12 teams.
But FA, who will work in tandem with the APL to assess the bonafides of would-be expansion clubs, ultimately has the final say.
And Johnson is taking a cautious approach.
“The APL has said publicly they want to expand, and naturally more teams mean more football which is a good thing,” Johnson told FTBL.
“We have an agreement with the APL to reshape access to the A-Leagues in the future.
“How the A-League (Men) goes from 12 to 14 teams and how the A-League (Women) goes from 10 to 12 teams is an access discussion, and we must sit down with APL and define what that looks like moving forward.”
Under the unbundling agreement, FA sets the criteria and parameters for expansion, the bidding process is then handled by the APL.
Promotion/relegation evangelists have long viewed the formation of a second tier as a potential pathway to the top for a plethora of ambitious clubs, many with rich NSL histories.
And while promotion/relegation could be the endgame, Johnson's strategy is incremental.
“We will take a deep-dive on our second tier plans in 2022 and our focus is to kick off in 2023. We will appoint somebody in the coming weeks to drive our plans,” he reiterated.
"In 2021 there were two working models analysed: one is a home and away format with 8, 10 or 12 teams, with a link to the NPL through sporting merit.
“The other is a Champions League model where teams would qualify on sporting merit from the NPL, play initially in group stages and progress to final stages.
“There are, of course, pros and cons with both models. Either way, the model we choose should have a close connection to community and grassroots.
"All matches need to be competitive and based on sporting merit, it needs to have a strong club licensing framework around it and needs to address football challenges, such as youth development.”
Johnson confirmed that ex-NSL royalty like Sydney Olympic, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights, Sydney United and Marconi have all expressed a strong interest in taking part in what could be domestic football’s next big step.
He also confirmed that other clubs from strategic markets that don’t have an A-League presence had also put their hands up.
Meanwhile, The FA-APL pact also includes expanded club licensing responsibilities for FA, who now license Australian clubs for participation in the Asian Champions League, and from next season will regulate on-going participation of clubs in the A-Leagues.
FA recently appointed sought-after former CONCACAF executive Natalie Lutz as Australia’s club licensing manager.
“Natalie was a leading figure in the successful roll-out of club licensing throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean," said Johnson.
"Club licensing is inherently linked to discussions around access to competitions, so we are delighted to have someone with direct experience leading club licensing for Australian football."