Australian football has been historically divided, the moment of change is here

NSL

One of the fundamental and historical challenges faced by Australian football has been connectivity.

From as far back as 1880 when Wanderers, the first official Australian football club was birthed in Sydney, the game has struggled to form a unified face.

For near on 100 years, just like Australia’s more traditionally favoured pastimes of cricket, AFL and rugby league, the game existed as a predominately amateur endeavour. As that changed football lacked a cohesive and overarching structure that allowed the game to flourish in the way we still hope it can.

At the core of that division was race, culture and ethnicity. It would be nice to think that we have moved beyond that scenario in the 21st Century, yet the game still struggles to see itself as an all-encompassing beast, as opposed to a collection of individual components.

With post World War II immigration providing the driving force, the beautiful game exploded in Australia during the 1950’s and 60’s. Clubs built around the idea of community support networks became the norm and by the mid 70’s, the demand for a more formalised, organised and national competition had well and truly been born.

The Italian, Maltese, Greek, Yugoslav, Arabic and English communities longed for football to become a more significant part of their lives; just as it had been in their homelands.

That longing and demand was met casually on Saturday afternoons in amateur play before it finally began to take shape as a semi-professional league in the late 1970’s.

Founded in 1977, the National Soccer League gave voice and presence to the world game on Australian shores and as a five-year-old boy at the time, still remains something of a hazy and distant memory.

With a myriad of political issues existing between many of the clubs, some ethnic hostility and clear inter club tensions, division became the norm. So much so that as a little and pasty white Anglo-Saxon kid I was banned from attending NSL matches in the 1980’s.

My father felt I might get hurt and preferred to watch highlight packages of English football than risk life and limb at an NSL match. How wrong he was about so many things, including football.

We should all probably excuse him considering the negative media coverage the game received at the time; racist and inflammatory, the images and copy gave the game little chance to thrive.

Such coverage kept the game well and truly divided from the potential main stream interest of a keen and enthusiastic Australian sporting public. For nearly 30 years, football battled through re-incarnation after re-incarnation; desperately seeking acceptance that was not forthcoming thanks to internal division and external bias.

By the late 1990’s the game was hamstrung. Despite phenomenal growth in junior participation rates, division had led to stagnation. At the eleventh hour, the A-League was born. It was an attempt to bridge the divides, yet one that appears to have had little impact in drawing football together as one and may in fact have widened the chasm between the past and present.

There is no doubt that culture and community can indeed interact with professionalism, modernity and corporate football in Australia. However, the A-League has not proven to be the answer. Finding that answer is key.

Now, after 15 years of A-league play and a strengthening NPL competition that continues to highlight the lessening gap between the two, football may finally be on the cusp of morphing into one entity.

With the FFA Cup showcasing traditional and community based clubs and a newly independent A-league, the domestic game stands at the dawning of a new financial and collaborative football age.

If Perth Glory owner Tony Sage is correct and there is indeed an extra A$80 million to allocate towards the advancement of Australian football, one of the keys will be corporate connectivity. Moreover, a broad vision, driven by people with not just knowledge of football but knowledge of football in Australia and all its foibles, is paramount.

The game stands at a crucial juncture where vision and reality must combine in order to fund and develop the game at all levels. The women’s game requires investment, as do the immensely talented youth leagues from where our next generation will emerge.

Building clear connections between the traditional history of the NPL, women’s football and the now independent top tier is paramount.

The visionary decisions that need to be made require clear, corporate and unbiased minds; capable of picturing the long term future of the game, perhaps at the cost of some short term disappointment.

For decades, the game has been divided, a hodgepodge if you will. The moment has now arrived, where an independent top tier can take the lead and drive change. Change towards true promotion/relegation across the country, a transfer fee system that reflects the realities of world football and a connection to the women’s game that acknowledges the changing face of the sport.

If done well, the corporate interest in the game would increase, with the financial sector excited by a truly united and inter-connected game with immense promise and potential.

Both spiritual and financial connectivity are required. Let’s hope football has the vision to put the right people in place to achieve such a goal.

Staff Writer
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George Katsakis: Back in his element

George Katsakis’ 38-year coaching resume places him as one of NPL Victoria’s all-time greats.

From his playing career into the early stages of his coaching where he worked up the ranks at many clubs, there was always a passion for coaching at the highest level.

Of course, it’s his 18 years at Heidelberg United that cemented his legacy as one of the greats, where he won the 2017 NPL Victoria Men’s Coach of the Year award and spearheaded Heidelberg United’s golden era.

The golden era involved winning a coveted NPL Australian championship, a National Premier League title, a Charity Shield, a Dockerty Cup triumph in 2017 and securing a treble of NPL Victoria Premierships in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

In 2015, he led Heidelberg United to the FFA Cup Quarter Finals stage after a fairy tale run and managed to reach that same point two more times in 2017 and 2018. One of the most special cup moments for the Bergers was the 2017 FFA Cup run and the famous 1-0 win against Perth Glory at Olympic Village in the Round of 32.

In an interview with Soccerscene, Katsakis discusses his fantastic start at Bentleigh Greens, his philosophy on player development, the future of coaching in Australia and the attributes he had to become such a successful coach.

You joined Bentleigh Greens in March – it was a shaky start, but you have settled the ship. What brought you back to coaching through Bentleigh Greens?

Katsakis: This is my 38th year in coaching at all levels so first and foremost, I was missing it. I know it was only a short break, but I suppose what really inspired me to get back into it was the chain of events and the way I was released from Heidelberg that really made me think about where I am in football and where I need to be.

Obviously, I’m always aspiring to be at the top level but with Bentleigh Greens, I know the history of the club, I know their achievements over the last decade if not more and had some great teams, some great coaches.

After their phone call, they were convincing to me that they were looking to get promoted and back to the top flight, and I thought it was a no brainer. It inspired me to take a team that was struggling and hopefully steer the ship to a promotion or to a lot of improvement.

At the moment all we can say is that we’ve improved dramatically. Myself, the experience has come in and settled things that were not previously addressed earlier on and now obviously the results are flowing. It’s been a great transition for me.

In terms of player development, how do you go about that as a head coach? 

Katsakis: I think this is a great topic at the moment in Australian football. A lot of my emphasis at Heidelberg over the last 18 or so seasons was to try and introduce a pathway to players through the senior team but also paying a lot of attention to our u18 and u23 programs.

It was important to blend what I could foresee being the future of the club with the senior players, try and bring them in through that avenue and make sure they’re steered one by myself and my assistants and two and very importantly, by the senior players.

One of the fundamentals of kids developing is their environment and the people around them. If you have got the right group, as I did at Heidelberg for many years, there will be success.

I had a group who bought into our culture and accepted the fact that young kids were going to come through and help them through that development. There’s quite a few that I can possibly name that have taken the next level and next step.

Looking at the current coaching ecosystem, do you see players transitioning well into coaching and do you see coaching improving in the future?

Katsakis: It’s exciting because I now know of maybe 10 or more young aspiring coaches that are coming through. A classic example is certainly Andrew Cartanos, but I also have to mention the likes of Nick Marinos who’s taken the reigns at Port Melbourne, Luke Byles who’s become my assistant, Steven Pace is at Eltham Redbacks. So there’s quite a few coming through.

It’s great because they’re just added value, away from their coaching they can actually relive their football through those youngsters, and it makes them understand what it takes to make it at the top level.

After all the success at Heidelberg United, for any aspiring coaches, what were the attributes you had that made you so successful as a coach?

Katsakis: When I first got into coaching a very experienced coach from England said a couple of things to me that I took on board. The most important thing for me is to be humble and to understand that at any point in your coaching career, whether you’re a 20, 40 or 70 year old, you’ve got to be able to accept the fact that you’re going to learn every day.

Every day there is something new that you’re challenged with as a coach and accepting the fact that you keep learning until the day you retire, I think is very important.

We all learn from each other and generally in life as well as in football, we’re not born to know it all. Accepting that your philosophy, or someone else’s philosophy, or their techniques, or the way they coach, or their persona, whatever they bring to the table. If you can take a little bit from everyone’s leaf and add it to your booklet, it’s probably the most important part of coaching.

How the Liberty A-League can learn from the incredible growth of NWSL

As the A-League Women’s Grand Final approaches and season comes to an end, it is a time to reflect on a season of incredible growth and broken records.

Similarly to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) post-2015 Women’s World Cup, there was a popularity boost that translated into increased attendances and revenue for the league.

However, as the NWSL continued to rapidly develop, it seems as if the Liberty A-League struggled to consistently grow after a fantastic first round showing that involved a record-breaking 11,471 crowd for the Sydney Derby.

In the top 10 attendances of the regular season, eight feature games played before the new year despite the Matildas set to sell out a 14th consecutive home match before the Olympics commence in July.

The Liberty A-League crowd average is a little over 2,200 per match, which is a great benchmark for future growth but doesn’t do the participation and momentum justice.

The NWSL is a great case study to look at, with the league being formed only 12 years ago in 2012 and its first season started in the April of 2013.

In its formative years, the NWSL averaged an attendance 4,270, with a high of 17,619. A decent foundation but plenty of room to improve in the world’s biggest sporting market.

It wasn’t until the 2015 season where the league was forced into a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The World Cup, which was won emphatically by the USWNT also provided invaluable exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.

Instantly, teams such as Seattle and Washington who averaged 3,500 crowds per game were selling upwards of 6,000 to their next home game, an immediate resurgence.

So what did the NWSL do to fast-track growth using the World Cup?

Ticket prices

The NWSL, immediately after the 2015 Women’s World Cup pledged to keep the ticket prices consistent within teams, as it sat at $10-$15 USD (AUD $15-$23) across the league.

It was extremely cheap in a saturated and quite expensive US Sports market that allowed the league to use it as a point of difference.

It’s a simple solution that Melbourne City coach Dario Vidosic hinted at for this weekend’s Grand Final in his recent press conference.

Vidosic claimed that “If it was up to him, everyone would be let in for free for Saturday’s final.”

This is simply to create an exciting atmosphere that legitimises the league’s biggest game of the year on a national stage.

Breakaway from Men’s competition

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman made an extremely interesting point about the NWSL being its own entity.

Speaking to reporters at the Financial Times’ Business of Football summit in London, Berman said the “superpower” of the NWSL was its “independence” – notably from men’s clubs and leagues, which is not the case in Europe or Australia.

It certainly isn’t an overnight fix by any means but allowing the A-League Women’s to run separately from the A-League Men’s, even if it is just ownership could provide a difference that attracts more fans.

Maintaining local star players

Even in it’s infancy, the NWSL were able to show off USWNT stars like Lynn Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan during their ‘Golden Era.’

It collectively brought in more fans to the stands and increased the league’s exposure in the mainstream media.

It certainly isn’t as easy as that when the prospect of playing for more money and exposure in the US or Europe is a possibility now, but Cortnee Vine provides a great example of a star Matilda willing to be the face of the league to inspire young girls.

If the league are able to keep hold of exciting prospects like Daniela Galic or legends like Michelle Heyman for a few years, it would benefit the league greatly as an entertainment product.

Providing a great fan experience

There was an onus on the NWSL clubs and the league itself to make sure matchdays are an experience that brings fans back.

Two clubs in particular Angel City and San Diego Wave fans host tailgates pre-game near the stadium for anyone to join on top of other activations inside the stadium to connect fans closer to the team.

The WSW Women’s team are a fantastic example of an effort to build support, with their Wander Women program, school clinics, fan interactions and their own social media channels helping them grow slowly but surely.

It’s time the others follow suit in a collective attempt to maximise exposure.

To conclude, the NWSL used the 2015 World Cup as leverage to strike a quick deal with Fox Sports to broadcast 15 games for the rest of that season, cashing in on the national team’s success.

Now it boasts the biggest ever Women’s football media deal in history, with the recent four-year $240 million USD ($324 million AUD) domestic broadcast deal across four major streaming and cable partners.

It will be extremely interesting to see the direction the Liberty A-League takes before it renews its broadcast deal in 2026 as it simply cannot waste this golden opportunity it was presented.

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