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Australian NPL clubs persevere through COVID restrictions
The COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on football clubs worldwide, and Australia is no exception. From stop-start seasons, stifled player development, and clubs being put under financial stress, National Premier League (NPL) clubs have faced some of their biggest challenges.
Bentleigh Greens are one of many clubs hit by lockdowns and postponements, as they have seen the second NPL Victoria season in a row disrupted by the pandemic. Bentleigh Greens President Trifon Rellos has seen his team heavily affected by this.
“Financially game takings are gone, canteens are gone. Now with the junior programs, we have with the mini roos and NPL kids we don’t know the parents are going to ask for, whether they want their money back,” he said.
“The impact has been massive, but not just financially.”
Not every club and league has been heavily impacted. Edgeworth Eagles Football Director and Treasurer, Warren Mills, explains that the Further Northern New South Wales region has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.
“Newcastle has been a lot less impacted than others. Last year was pretty horrendous obviously, we started later but we managed to get in a competition, playing our competition plus finals,” he said.
“This year we’ve got two rounds to go. To be fair we’ve been much luckier than others.”
In contrast with other clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, Warren believes that the amateur status of the Newcastle clubs has helped weather financial strain.
“Financially it hasn’t been a massive drain on us. We are more amateur than Sydney or Melbourne, in terms of wages paid out. Its smashed those clubs a lot more.” he said.
The season will be completed once restrictions in the Hunter region are eased, with one advantage they have over other areas being that they rarely share grounds with summer sports.
“I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t have their own ground in Newcastle,” he said.
“We have the potential to host the grand final this year, and we’ve just got a new 1.1 million dollar clubhouse. Newcastle is very lucky that way.”
Football Victoria recently agreed to a ground-sharing agreement with Cricket Victoria, in an attempt to alleviate this issue if the season is restarted.
For regional NPL clubs in Victoria, they have been in and out of lockdown more than anywhere in the country. For the Goulburn Valley Suns, their season has been disrupted by not only state-wide lockdowns, but also a major outbreak within the city of Shepparton.
Goulburn Valley head coach Craig Carley believes that players at the club are uniting together through the hardship.
“We don’t know what’s going on at the moment, but we need to try to tick over. Previously we were able to do that as a team because the metropolitan area was in lockdown, the last couple of weeks it’s been individual training,” he said.
“We’ve got players posting times on runs and activities that they are doing. It’s been good from a team point of view with players pushing each other and staying connected, even though everyone is in lockdown. The longer that goes on the hard that is going to get.”
Rellos fears that these disruptions could cause setbacks for some of the most talented players at Bentleigh Greens.
“It’s a sad situation that we are in for our children, and our young senior soccer players. We need to remember that the boys that are playing under 16s and 18s and talented, and they are just about to break into that senior team,” he said.
“I think this year is worse than last year. Those boys and their careers have been cut short by coronavirus. These kids need to break into the senior team, god knows if they will. Some might lose interest and not come back as football players.”
For others, they can only appreciate that their seasons and clubs have only had minor disruptions.
“In Newcastle, we’ve been so blessed. I don’t know how we’ve hardly had a case while we are so close to Sydney. It hasn’t the impact on us that a lot of areas have.” Warren said.
Every state has had different challenges they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For NPL clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, some are facing the biggest in their history. Most are looking forward to next season, hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel following these hard times.
Before becoming Brand Director of Nike Pacific – an organisation he’s been part of since 2015 – Nick Atkinson knew very early on that he’d be working in football.
Growing up in Wales of the UK, he was brought up through the school, college and university system that paved the way for his passion to come to life.
From starting off with his first training session at Wick Dynamos in West Sussex, football has been a consistent part of his life.
In this interview with Soccerscene, Nick discusses his role of Brand Director in more detail, Nike’s involvement with the Matildas, working with Sam Kerr and giving back to the grassroots level.
As Brand Director, can you outline your role in helping promote football?
Nick Atkinson: I’ve been involved with Nike since 2015 and even before becoming part of the swoosh family, football has very much been something I am deeply passionate about.
I remember during the final round of my job interview for Nike, I was asked why I wanted to join the team. I didn’t give a great answer, but I had said that I wanted to work on a brand that propelled the game of football and had close ties to the World Cup. And I feel that my love for the game really shined in that moment.
Since taking up the role I’ve been fortunate to be part of so many firsts – seeing how football can uniquely unite and inspire people and nations.
With Nike’s level of global impact, I am aware of the responsibility and part I play in shaping how our athletes are seen, and leading this work on home soil has been a dream.
The Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for example, was a major project that I led. It was Nike Pacific’s most significant investment in a sporting moment yet – from unmissable out-of-home, a world-first tiktokumentory, football accelerator legacy programs to the first female football-led retail door – the Dream Arena.
I’m immensely proud of what we, as a team, achieved to build a better game for all. It makes all the work we do behind-the-scenes so satisfying when we know it means that the next-gen athletes will have new-found heroes to look up to.
On a local level, after personally playing eight to nine seasons in Victoria’s state and metro leagues, I knew I wanted to get Nike involved as there was so much potential for impact at that level.
Seeing so much success in the sport both at the domestic and international level is a true highlight.
Nike proudly sponsor the Matildas; how do you reflect on FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023?
Nick Atkinson: I’ve worked with both our national teams (Matildas and Socceroos) for many years and have had so many amazing moments – I even remember a free-kick competition with Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano in 2016 on ANZ Stadium!
If you look at the Socceroos performance in 2022, you can say it’s the ‘greatest assist’ before the 2023 Women’s World Cup because they had set that benchmark for performance and awareness across the country and reignited football.
This year’s tournament has undeniably been a generational moment for sport and culture, having the global tournament on home soil and the home team of the Matildas was the moment to accelerate sport into the future – we know sport creates change, and this was the largest accelerator of women’s sport and culture for the next five years.
The Matildas post tournament are now household names and have shown the world the power of women’s sport. From record-breaking crowds, jersey sales and viewership – the Matildas continue to inspire us all with their captivating performances and genuine love for each other, their fellow athletes and the game.
It felt like it’s been a while coming, but we saw the nation finally galvanise and get behind our national teams – and without a doubt, we’ll look back on the 2020’s as the greatest decade of women’s sport.
Living and breathing football in both my professional and personal life, I can say that we’ve got such a unique Australian football identity. We’re in arguably the most dynamic period that Australian football has ever seen and we’ve opened the sport up to the most diverse audience, which is so exciting and refreshing.
What did you make of user/social media engagement throughout the World Cup – was there anything significant you or your team saw in relation to aspects like shirt sales?
Nick Atkinson: We started working on our plans almost the day after the bid win got announced, so we were 100% ready going into the Women’s World Cup.
We have so much equity and history to elevate women’s sport at Nike, so this wasn’t new for us and has been a journey we’ve been on for a very long time.
When you look at a Matildas match, it is so different compared to the Socceroos. For example, lots of school trips and big groups of young fans, so that is really amazing.
One of the things that we anticipated was going to happen, was the emergence of new voices wrapped around this game. We knew this moment would be successful because it opened opportunities to grow and nurture these new voices in the game. That was one of the rewarding elements, to see different sections of the media and social platforms emerging to give us a new and youthful perspective on the sport.
Our partnership with TikTok saw the creation of 1000 Victories – one of the most successful pieces of media that we worked on through the Women’s World Cup.
This was co-created with a young generation of fans who emerged with a point of view on football and women’s sport. That enriched the game and really took it to new heights, making it bigger and more diverse and gives people a bunch of ways to be involved.
Sam Kerr is hugely popular in Australia and overseas – what was it like building her brand campaign?
Nick Atkinson: It’s been amazing, this is something I’ve personally worked on for a really long time, I’ve enjoyed and am so proud of.
It’s not only Sam but the whole group that we’ve had a relationship with for so long now and that has allowed us to get to know who they are as individuals as well as athletes.
To build a brand plan, you do need to have that full understanding of a person or team to work out how to best approach it.
I placed Sam in her first brand campaign for Nike in 2017 for the launch of the Mercurial Superfly 360 boots. That was at a time where she had just came off winning a Golden Boot in the NWSL and we knew at that point, we had a superstar on the rise.
We featured her in the launch campaign for the boots using billboards and the like, as well as an athlete experience at Rebel. We had an incredible turnout, not only from supporters but across the entire community.
At that time, it was clear that Sam had that star power to take her even further which proved to be the case. Fast Forward and she’s shared a few Mercs with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe.
I’ve had the privilege to get to know Sam over the many years of collaboration and it has helped us build a strong, authentic platform and brand around her journey.
There’s nothing that we believe in more at Nike than listening to the voice of the athlete and doing work that resonates with them – such as their values and beliefs, and what they stand for. An example of this is something we’ve always told Sam, “We’ll get it right on the pitch first and then build from there.”.
The journey has been amazing and to be part of that is truly special. Our goal is to support Sam and build her brand while she’s delivering ground-breaking performances on the pitch and creating an unbreakable connection with fans.
More broadly, at Nike we believe that it’s not a one-person team with the Matildas by any stretch.
We have an incredible roster of athletes across the Matildas such as Elle Carpenter, Steph Catley, Kyah Simon, Alanna Kennedy, Mackenzie Arnold, Hayley Raso and more, and we’re focused on supporting and elevating the whole roster.
Our brand investment in the Women’s World Cup was the single biggest investment we’ve ever made in this country to elevate the team. We were prepared, we started early and I believe played a critical part in connecting the fans and the team.
You are also supporting Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club – what is it like switching back to the grassroots level and giving back?
Nick Atkinson: Football would not happen without volunteers at the grassroots level – it’s an area of the game that we really believe in and want to have a positive impact.
I shared my story coming through the UK, starting out in grassroots football, and being one of those kids that had to hustle for rides from other people’s parents, or ride my bike to games with my brother, and wear my boots until they fell apart, I know what a huge enabler it can be for kids. Getting involved in Fitzroy Lions has been a real personal love of mine.
We’ve been partnered with Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club since 2018 – they are an incredible organisation where many of the kids come from refugee families and football plays a critical role in uniting that community. It’s where you really feel the power of the world game.
Our relationship started simply, going down to training sessions to meet the team and see what they’re about – they are a rare team in Australia that offers a route into structured league football for kids whose parents can’t quite afford it normally, in a sport that can be quite expensive to play. Through the time spent with them, I really got to know the kids and their families.
It was so enriching and an awesome experience where the club simply provides the opportunity for everyone and eliminates those barriers that people face when looking to play.
So many of us at Nike live and work around those communities so it’s a great opportunity to directly support people related to what we do. We’re proud to be part of something like this and seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they’re playing on the field is a real highlight in my career.
Excitingly, like many other grassroots clubs, they have seen a 200% increase in girls participating this season which is so encouraging.
In addition, we’re in the fifth year of naming rights for the Nike FC Cup and recently announced the Nike FC Accelerator Program. This is a four-year commitment with Football Victoria to drive gender equity in the sport by increasing the number of female coaches and giving better access to football at The Home of Matildas.
Overall, we want to provide equal opportunities and this is the legacy that Nike wants to leave in the long run to drive the sport forward.
Image credit: Bigandt Photography via Shutterstock
Northern NSW Football’s (NNSWF) annual census results have showed that the region is quickly expanding in all the important areas of growth.
The census, which included information from July 1 2022 to June 30 2023, highlighted that the Total Registered Participants number reached 82,018, a 19% increase, whilst registered players were 73,766 with a 20% increase.
Miniroos and Youth participation, which was a main focus for Northern NSW in their 2021-23 strategy plan, both saw a 9% rise, whilst the 19+ senior age group rose 4%.
Importantly, registered volunteers were up 19 per cent with registered match officials increasing eight percent meaning a better foundation is created at the grassroots level for it to run as efficiently as it can.
There has been a nation-wide effort, headed by Football Australia’s strategy plan, to try and bring 50/50 gender parity for grassroots football, and the census results suggest that 74% of participants are Male which is a 5% swing on the 2022 numbers.
There is a long way to go to achieve this goal but after the recent Women’s World Cup and record numbers for participation and Liberty A-league attendance, there’s no doubt this will continue to swing towards parity for 2024 and beyond.
NNSWF General Manager of Community Football Ross Hicks expressed his delight for what the results mean for the region.
“It is really important that our numbers within our competitions continue to increase,” Hicks said via Northern NSW press release.
“The number of registered winter players is up by eight per cent with a total of 54,358 which is significant. This increase is crucial in helping the game continue to grow and we hope that we see these trends continue to help build the future of football within northern NSW.”
NNSWF CEO Peter Haynes was similarly pleased with the results and overall growth.
“It’s fantastic to see the participant numbers across our game in northern NSW increasing,” Haynes added via press release.
“These numbers are not just a result of the job NNSWF are doing but the immense strength of our game and the high-quality experiences delivered by our member zones and clubs throughout our region.”
There are plenty of positives coming out of the annual census results for Northern NSW Football and it certainly highlights an element of growth and sustainability for the near future where the future of the sport seems brighter than ever before.