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A new year brings optimism for Australian football

Stadiums have been forced to adapt during the pandemic, introducing new procedures and innovations allowing fans to attend matches safely.

As always in Australian football, 2021 is set to be a big year.

After a year which was continually disrupted by a global pandemic, the game’s future seems to be much brighter in 2021. Here are some of the reasons why:

An Independent A-League and W-League

After years of infighting, the A-League and W-League were finally unbundled from Football Australia on the last day of 2020.

A new organisation of A-League club owners, under the moniker of Australian Professional Leagues (APL), will now take over the operational, commercial and marketing control of both leagues.

Essentially, the league’s power brokers will now have more incentive to invest and market the leagues as they now have the impetus to attract and organise their own business dealings.

Chair of APL and co-owner of the Western Sydney Wanderers, Paul Lederer, spoke of the importance of the deal: “This is an historic moment for the future of football in Australia – for the fan, for the player, for the whole game.

“It’s now time to earn and deliver the future our game deserves. The handbrake on the game is off; owners can finally invest in what they own and create value for the entire footballing ecosystem.

“Players can plan their careers in Australian football, fans can reconnect with the game that they love, and clubs can create meaningful moments for the whole Australian football family.”

Domestic Transfer System

One of Football Australia’s ‘XI Principles’ outlined the need to stimulate and grow the Australian football economy, with the establishment of a new and modern domestic transfer system mooted as a proposed measure.

Last week Football Australia released a Domestic Transfer System White Paper, which will set the wheels in motion to revamp the current model into one which falls in-line with the rest of the global game.

It’s an area where Australian football is falling behind, with FIFA reporting in 2019 that Australian clubs only received US$1.9 million in international transfer fees, compared to other Asian nations like Japan who garnered US$29.4 million.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson has placed significant importance on the issue and the implementation of a proper domestic transfer system will finally reward a broad range of clubs across the Australian football pyramid.

“The establishment of a modern Domestic Transfer System in 2021 by Football Australia will seek to remedy the ‘gap’ that has been created in the Australian football ecosystem by providing opportunities to progressive clubs at all levels of the sport to generate new revenue streams which can be deployed into the ongoing training and development of players, and the clubs themselves,” he said.

“We believe that the implementation of a fit-for-purpose system will have transformational benefits for football in Australia and particularly our professional and grassroots clubs by reconnecting the game and stimulating growth,” Johnson concluded.

National Second Division

The Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) is set to release a report on the progress of their plans for a national second division in the coming days, in a move which should enthuse the Australian football public.

A national second division (eventually with promotion and relegation) will bring a range of benefits to the football system here and will be a unique identifier which separates the game from a range of other sports played on our shores.

There does seem to be some hesitance from A-League clubs however, to immediately green-light a national second division.

Chair of the APL, Paul Lederer, recently stated that a national second division wouldn’t eventuate within the next two years, claiming that expanding the A-League to 16 teams was a more urgent priority.

Speaking with Box2Box, AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas responded to Lederer’s comments. “It doesn’t really bother us much because I don’t think the issue will come down to Paul in the end. It’s not really about him”, he said.

“I was surprised to hear the comments, I’ve got to say, but equally had he said the opposite, it wouldn’t have mattered much either.

Ultimately, the decision will come down to Football Australia as the APL does not have the appropriate regulatory functions.

The current FA administration is much more willing than previous administrations to introduce a second tier, previously listing the need to continue the development of a framework for a national second division, in their ‘XI Principles’ document last year.

New Broadcast Deal

Fox Sports re-negotiated their TV deal with the A-League and other Australian football properties when the competition went into shutdown during the COVID pandemic.

The deal was reduced in both dollars and length, with Fox Sports paying just over $30 million for a one-year agreement which runs out in July of this year.

There is a possibility that Fox may pass on extending that deal, but that does present the game with opportunities to seek out a new broadcast partner or to take things into their own hands and build up their own streaming service.

The game’s TV deal with the ABC is also set to expire this year, with the need to find the right balance between free-to-air exposure and broadcast revenue becoming increasingly important.

New potential broadcasters that may be interested in striking an agreement include:

Optus Sport: Currently have the rights to competitions such as the English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, J-League and K-League,

Stan Sport: Recently entered the market by signing a deal with Rugby Union’s Super Rugby competition and are reportedly interested in securing the NBL rights in the future.

DAZN: Have started to dip their toes into the Australian landscape through other sports, after broadcasting football in multiple countries across the world.

Whatever the case, Australian football does seem to have options outside of Fox Sports, who have broadcasted the A-League for the past 16 seasons.

With many exciting possibilities to look forward to, the game should be in a stronger place by the end of 2021.

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Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Oakleigh Cannons well-placed to build on its competitive foundations

The Oakleigh Cannons are a club who are a staple of the top tier of Victorian football.

The Cannons have competed in the Victorian National Premier League consecutively for the past 17 years, gaining promotion when they lifted the State League One Championship in 2003.

Since then, the senior men’s team have won one minor premiership in 2006, however have fallen to three grand final defeats in 2011, 2012 and 2016.

After eight games this season, the club currently sits in fifth place in NPL Victoria and are well placed to once again be up there at season’s end.

General Manager at Oakleigh, Aki Ionnas, believes the club can finally break their grand final hoodoo this year.

“I do believe that we can win it,” he told Soccerscene.

“Chris Taylor has put a very good squad together; all the boys are fantastic. We’re confident these boys can take us all the way.”

If it eventuates it will be a great reward for the club, based on the events of the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like any other club, it was obviously hard,” Ionnas said.

“For players, kids, juniors, the committee…it was a hard season with no football.

“Kids are used to going to training and playing soccer, your supporters, your sponsors, your members are used to going down to the club, and before you know it, you’re at home in a lockdown.

“So, it was very hard mentally for a lot of people.”

The club was established in 1972 and currently plays its home games at Jack Edwards Reserve, a facility which seems like a perfect setup for a club who plays in the top level in Victoria.

The venue has a capacity of 4,000-5,000 people with upgrades over the years continuing to lift the overall standard of the facility.

“About six years ago our facilities got upgraded with a brand-new synthetic ground as well as a junior pavilion. That was done all through hard work from our chairman Kon Kavalakis, who was responsible in liaising with council and other key parties to get these facilities.

“We’ve recently had a state-of-the art scoreboard that’s gone up last year and started using it this year.

“There’s always work going into the improvement of facilities. Even though the synthetic ground was done six years, we’ve resurfaced it again only a year and a half ago to reach top FIFA standards.”

Ionnas revealed that the club was in the progress of talking to council in regards to further developing the ground, something that the AAFC partner club sees as a priority in the future.

Oakleigh’s General Manager is relatively confident that the club is ready to take the next step and enter a national second division when it eventuates.

“Look, it all depends once we see the final model that it’s financially viable,” he said.

“If it’s financially viable, then yes.

“It all depends on what the model is going to look like and what it’s going to cost. Speaking to a lot of clubs, that’s what they are all waiting for.

“We are an ambitious club, we would always like to compete at the highest level, we’ve got very good sponsors, very good backers, a very strong board who are all business minded and great infrastructure which we will eventually develop further.”

According to Ionnas, the strong affiliation the club has with the local Greek community has positively impacted the fortunes and finances of the club over their history.

“We’ve got very strong support obviously in the Greek community,” he said.

“We’ve had strong support for a long, long time. We’ve had a major supporter in Delphi Bank who has been our sponsor for 15 years I believe. It’s a massive thing for that to happen continuously.”

Ionnas hopes the club continues to be consistently competitive in the near future, across all aspects of the sport.

“Obviously, we want the club to be a strong club irrespective where it is playing, we want to be up there both on and off the park.

“Our chairman and president Stan Papayianneris have done enormous work, each in their own way, to get the club to where it is now. Oakleigh should remain a strong club because it’s got enormous support away from the field.

“We can’t thank everyone enough for supporting the club.”

Bobby Despotovski: “COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future”

Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia.

Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia. Having announced his decision to leave his role as head coach of Perth Glory’s W-League squad late last year, the 2005/06 Johnny Warren Medal winner has had a break from the pressures of the top job for a few months now.

A West Australian through and through, Despotovski is Perth Glory’s all-time leading goal scorer and second on their all-time appearances list. As coach of the club, he led Perth to two Grand Finals and was the recipient of the W-League Coach of the Year in season 2016/17.

Despotovski sat down with Soccerscene to discuss his love for West Australian football, his fondest memories from his time in the W-League, playing a hand in the development of Sam Kerr, Australian football’s future and the significance of the 2023 Women’s World Cup for Australia as a whole.

What was the reason for you calling an end to your time as a W-League coach for Perth Glory?

Bobby Despotovski: COVID-19. I would not be able to take weeks off to go into a hub as that would jeopardise my work. When COVID wasn’t present it was fine, but as soon as COVID-19 hit that was it. That was the reason I quit.

Through all of the challenges of COVID-19 there was a bright moment as it was revealed Australia would be hosting a World Cup with New Zealand. Being that you’re such a vocal champion of football down under, particularly in Western Australia, what was your reaction to seeing that Australia was set to host a Women’s World Cup?

Bobby Despotovski: Obviously I was happy for Australia

A tournament of that stage coming to Australia is great because it’s going to put football in the mainstream of the Australian public and they’re going to see how big football all over the world is.

To be quite honest, it is going to open eyes in the media and in the wider public in terms of getting them to appreciate the wider game of football and how big it is worldwide.

World Cup bid win

That’s a great point, it could be a really significant moment in terms of bringing football into the mainstream.

Bobby Despotovski: 100%. It happened in Japan and it happened in America. Specifically, America [is a good comparison], because the American and Australian [football] market is similar in terms of our football not being the mainstream game. And then all of a sudden as soon as they had their Men’s and Women’s World Cups it becomes a mainstream sport.

So that needs to happen here in Australia as well, so that people can appreciate the game and have their eyes open to something else.

Being that you were the Perth Glory W-League coach for five years, what do you believe have been the greatest improvements in the W-League from your start to now?

Bobby Despotovski: [When I came in] we put into place a five-year plan.

Because as soon as Europe started becoming stronger, I sort of knew that all of the best [W-League] players from the Australian market are not going to go anymore to America, they are going to go to Europe. It is very hard because the European leagues go for a lot longer than the American league.

So, I knew that we were going to lose all of the best players and that’s why we started a five-year plan. About four years ago we, the Glory, started up that all the local good footballers had a career path to go through. We were right in the thick of it and we had a good squad of young players coming through, in fact we had seven young players that had actually represented Australia in the younger levels.

So, we were in a good space to be knowing that none of the clubs will attract international players because Europe is the market now.

That’s great, you & the club actually set out to evolve the club and to give Western Australia a platform to have these players come up. It’s important that you put in place a strategic direction. But, have you seen that with the W-League as a whole?

Bobby Despotovski: Not really because [for example] we’ve seen Melbourne City struggle big time this year because they invested heavily in overseas players and the best Matildas players. And realistically, what happened in the A-League happened in the W-League.

What is going to happen to the Matildas has already happened to the Socceroos, unless we make changes.

Australian football, in general, is very good at watching what they develop without having a second plan to develop more players that need to come after. And that was evident in the Socceroos with the Golden Generation disappearing, or retiring, and there was nothing after.

I think that Australian football is the only nation in the world where you can be twenty-two years of age and have represented the Olyroos, but you haven’t played three games in the A-League. Which is unheard of in football terms across Europe, South America and wherever else.

Bobby Despotovski thinking

Where do you think Australian football as an industry is at in the present?

Bobby Despotovski: It’s in the crossroads to be honest. The A-League has obviously suffered because of COVID, which is evident. And obviously COVID is not a good thing to have happened to the world, but COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future.

And why I’m thinking that is because we’re not going to be spending any more money on the 38- and 40-year-olds coming to Europe for their retirement funds here, we’re now going to invest in our kids here to start playing. Maybe in the short-term the league might suffer until these kids grow up to become footballers, but you’ll have a sustained program going forward for the long years ahead.

You can see with Australian football at the moment there’s a direction being taken towards alignment. Do you endorse this as the next step for Australian football?

Bobby Despotovski: Absolutely. We need a second division but who’s going to fund that?

People have to understand that you have a lot of regulations in the A-League. There is a collective bargaining agreement, which is a $72,000 minimum wage for the footballers and once you go into the second division, is that classified as a full-time professional? So, if you have a minimum squad of 23 its over $1.6 million. You tell me who has $1.6 million to pay their players in the second division? Or for that matter here in Perth.

We’re talking about our second division without our first division, the A-League, being sound. We [currently] don’t have a television deal [past July] and we’re talking about the second division being broadcast.

If you start the second division [in the next few years] it’s going to impact the A-League crowd wise. At the end of the day, you have to think about the longevity of the league. There’s no point in introducing a second league, because say South Melbourne, Sydney Croatia or Marconi Stallions want to go in there. We need to think about how its going to impact football around Australia.

Bobby Playing

Comparing the NSL era to now, are there major differences in terms of the standards at clubs?

Bobby Despotovski: The clubs are full-time, all of them are full-time, but playing wise it is not much different. When you look at it, the players that you used to have here now are your imports from overseas. Now you have a player like Diamanti whereas before we had Paul Trimboli. So, at the end of the day, you’re now paying for the quality and that in itself shows you where Australian football went.

What are some things you look back on fondly in your career as a player?

Bobby Despotovski: The whole lot. Especially when the clubs started and we were unknown and we would just have a good time. We could go and play football, have a couple of beers and go out and then jump on the flight back home. That’s what I look back on

I don’t remember many games and things like that, because that’s hazed. But you meet wonderful people along the journey and the friendships stay. And that’s the most important thing that you get out of the game.

What do you see as your greatest achievements in your time coaching at Perth Glory?

Bobby Despotovski: Putting the steps in for the club’s longevity and creating a right path for the girls. I could talk about a grand final or Sam Kerr, but even with that we only played a small part in Sam Kerr’s development.

Probably about 5-6 years ago there were a couple of interviews that I gave when I was calling that if she started scoring a few more goals that she was going to be one of the best players in the world and everybody laughed at me. That was our target to teach Sam Kerr to start scoring a lot more goals and we changed her position from winger to striker.

Now people are taking the credit for her development which is fine, I don’t care about that. I’m just happy [to] see Sam Kerr doing what Sam Kerr does, because she’s a wonderful human being.

Glory Celebrating

What have been your own most significant learnings about Australian football in your many years of contribution to the sport here?

Bobby Despotovski: I quickly learned what Australian football is and what the character of an Australian footballer is. They were very fit, could run, tackle, hassle and could do all of that, but they were not technically sort of gifted. So, the technical abilities of the players were neglected and the physical attributes were prioritised. Which is fine, I don’t dispute that but somewhere along the line we lost that hardness.

This is where the 4-3-3 system came into play and the technical people from Holland came and disregarded everything that categorised an Australian footballer. They took that all away and focused on developing skills.

So, what I’ve been saying for the last ten years is that nothing categorises an Australian footballer now. An Australian footballer is in between being hard and being half-fit with a new skill level. That’s why we see a lot of Australian footballers coming back from Europe because they are not gifted technically and the physical attributes have been taken away from them.

Is it then a case of the development of Australia’s footballers being a microcosm for the sport’s wider struggle to find its identity?

Bobby Despotovski: Put it this way, from the old NSL, a majority of the players who went overseas played in the Premier League and they didn’t come back.

The players who go there and come back claim to be homesick, how untrue. They are not good enough. Let’s admit that we are not good enough and then start working on that. The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. Let’s admit what we are not good at and then start fixing it, but don’t take away what we are good at.

We lost two generations of kids and that’s why the youth national teams are struggling. 20 and 21-year-olds are not playing competitive games.

Owners of clubs want instant results as well, and so there is not an emphasis on developing footballers for Australian football because it’s a private entity. And I am not blaming owners of the clubs as they have to put in the money and their hands in their own pockets, but there has to be an emphasis on developing young players and young players getting opportunities.

Australian football hits the broadcast market: Where will the rights land?

Crunch time is fast approaching for Football Australia and the APL, with new broadcast deals set to be struck independently in the coming weeks.

Football Australia have regained the broadcast rights to all Socceroos and Matildas internationals, Asian Cup qualifiers and World Cup qualifiers according to the SMH, and are now looking to on-sell to broadcasters.

“There are a lot of national team games because of the backlog of the calendar in the lead-up to Qatar 2022 and Australia and New Zealand 2023. We will go to market with even more national team games than what we have had in the past and I think that is a very attractive market in this competitive environment that we have in broadcast today,” FFA CEO James Johnson told SMH.

The APL are also in the process of negotiating a new TV deal for the A-League and W-League which will look to secure the future of the professional game in Australia.

Whilst there will likely be a free-to-air component for each deal, here are the companies that may stump up the majority of the cash:

Stan Sport

Stan Sport are a relative newcomer to the sport media rights landscape in Australia. They recently secured the rights to showcase Super Rugby matches on their platform, with Rugby Australia also signing a free-to-air deal with Channel Nine, who are owners of the streaming service.

A similar type of deal may be attractive to the APL or Football Australia, as Channel Nine also owns major newspapers across the country such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

A positive media narrative is something the game is crying out for after years of negativity, and a partnership with Stan and Channel Nine should guarantee an increase in media visibility for Australian Football across a range of channels.

Stan is interested, with a need to add to their low portfolio of sport at the moment, as they look to continue to build up their Stan Sport add-on service.

Fox Sports/Kayo

Fox Sports have had the broadcast rights for the A-League since the competition’s inception and shown some of the Socceroos’ and Matildas’ biggest moments over the past 15 years.

Their current on-air talent includes the likes of Mark Bosnich, Archie Thompson, Robbie Slater and Robbie Cornthwaite.

Fox also has the Australian rights to the Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, English Championship and more across their platforms.

Over the past few years Fox have been disappointed with the linear TV ratings of the A-League and have axed magazine shows,  as well as holding back on overall production values for their broadcasts.

Despite this, the company is still interested in brokering a new deal, but there are question marks around their coverage.

Constant technical issues have plagued the broadcast of W-League games this season on Fox and they continue to focus the majority of their energy and investment around NRL, AFL and Cricket.

Optus Sport

As of February 2021, Optus Sport had 868,000 subscribers to their service.

The streaming platform currently have the Australian rights to the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, FA Women’s Super League, J League, Euro 2021, Copa America 2021, J League and more.

Current on-air talent includes the likes of John Aloisi, Michael Bridges, Mark Schwarzer and Kevin Muscat.

The company have produced a range of different programs that go along with their high-quality production of pre-and post-game shows for the UEFA Champions League and English Premier League. This includes the Football Belongs podcast and Women’s Football Oz Style.

Optus Sport are well within its rights to say they are the home of football in Australia; however, the addition of A-League/W-League and Socceroos/Matildas content rights will leave no doubt.

Sports Flick

The Sydney based start-up streaming service have a range of unique content on their platform including the rights to the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the K-League. They have reportedly done a deal that has seen them grab the UEFA Champions League rights off Optus Sport from next season.

Will they look to Australian football properties for more content?

Others: DAZN, Amazon

Let us know where you want to see the rights end up, join the conversation on Twitter @Soccersceneau.

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