As an industry, Australian football has the opportunity to pull off the most stunning and successful transformation in a post COVID-19 environment.
Whilst governments, business and other sporting organisations consistently speak of things eventually returning to normal, football as a whole should in fact be steering its ship on a completely new course. In fact, seeing the Australian version of the round ball game return to exactly what it was prior to the world pandemic, could in fact be fatal.
The fundamental contemporary problem in the Australian game has been the creation of the top-tier A-League, at the expense of maintaining connections with the past and those beneath. In essence, not enough people care about the new league and asking “Why should they?” is a reasonable and fair minded question.
Thousands of football fans across the country have little or no allegiance to the ten Australian based clubs in the A-League competition. Most prefer to remain active within and connected to their community based clubs and hence, the growing interest we have seen in NPL play around Australia.
A-League club membership numbers generally run at around 100,000 per season; an astonishingly low figure when near two million men, women and children play the game each year. Having just 5 per cent of active footballers as members of Australia’s fully professional clubs is an appalling ratio and remarkably different to other countries, where clubs engage far more effectively with fans and players.
A study by Statista.com found that between 2007 and 2016, of the 11 million footballers regularly playing the game in England, somewhere just short of 20 per cent were active members of football clubs. It ought to be noted that those figures are not only memberships of the big and powerful clubs but also smaller ones across all levels of England’s domestic game.
Even a doubling of Australia’s paltry percentage would bring the most stunning increases in revenue, attendance and corporate involvement. Getting an additional 100,000 active footballers to support and join an A-League club in Australia should not be a particularly difficult task.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rather fortuitously created a scenario that, if grasped correctly by a well informed and daring governing body, could re-connect many of the severed ties within the game. Football will no doubt be back and perhaps sooner than many people originally thought, as the curve begins to flatten and case levels drop. However, it must come back reformed and restructured.
When it does return, after what will hopefully be a stunning make-over, football has the potential to instantly re-establish connections between grass roots clubs, semi-professional play in the NPL and the game at an elite level.
Financially, the industry will be in ruin, most sports will be, with the financial bottom line in the corporate sector looking grim and making vast and new investment opportunities unlikely. As such, A-League salary caps may well be halved or even scrapped, yet that could in fact be the blessing in disguise required to truly nationalise the game and implement promotion and relegation across the country.
As things stood until recently, new licenses handed out by FFA were the only means by which a new club could enter the A-League. With the clubs now bound to be cash-strapped, NPL1 clubs that lacked the financial clout, stadium or infrastructure to demand promotion to the top-tier, would find that transition far easier.
FFA should announce that the 2020/21 season will see the current eleven clubs compete once again for the A-League Championship. Next winter, when NPL1 champions are confirmed around the country, promotion play-offs should be played. Two clubs would earn the right to play A-League football in 2021/22, at the expense of the two demoted from the top tier.
Some adjustments would need to be made to scheduling, with NPL1 needing to be completed in time for the promotion play-offs to take place and the newly promoted clubs given at least two months to prepare for a new season. Players would need to be signed prior to an A-League October kick-off, yet if NPL play was to be completed in July, rather than late August, as it is across much of the nation, there would be enough time for a club to prepare.
Once the initial incarnation of promotion/relegation is complete, all tiers of football would then move to a spring to autumn season. The machinations of promotion/relegation in the lower tiers of NPL play would take place as usual and uniformity within the game would finally be achieved.
Ironically, it would be a shattered and torn industry, one filled with unpaid players and staff in limbo that may well afford Australian football the greatest opportunity it has ever had. It would undoubtedly be difficult yet also rewarding in the long term. Taking a step back before taking two forward may well be the smartest thing the game ever does.
Attempting to build interest and growth in the game at the elite level has not worked, as the A-League continued to tread water. Perhaps, in the face of tragedy, the time is nigh to return the Australian game to the base, within a framework that takes everybody along for the ride.