The transition from the National Soccer League (NSL) to the Hyundai A-League marked a significant new chapter in Australian football. Among the many major changes, there was a shift from the traditional style of community-run clubs to a privatised system.
With a national second division now a genuine prospect and many hoping for an eventual relegation/promotion system, Australia’s top tier may one-day see the resurgence of community managed clubs. While the viability of this remains to be seen in today’s ecosystem, many NSL clubs during the 1990s managed to achieve considerable commercial success – arguably none more-so than South Melbourne FC.
Former President George Vasilopoulos (1989-2002) and former Board Member Peter Abraam spoke exclusively to Soccerscene to discuss how the club professionalised its off-field processes while becoming a breeding ground for elite players, coaches, and sporting and event administrators.
Vasilopoulos joined the club’s board in 1977, a year where South Melbourne FC along with 13 other clubs formed the first iteration of the National Soccer League – more than a decade before any of Australia’s other major sporting codes went national.
“We were the first sporting code in the country to go national. Why? Because of the calibre of people who would contribute to running of the clubs and the League. The industry was full of people who were highly passionate about football and were able to plan towards creating a better future,” he said.
“In everything you build there needs to be a strong foundation, something solid. South Melbourne became a community and social outlet for many Greek immigrants, but also a lot of other people who loved football. There were some fantastic people involved with the club and then from 1989 onwards there was a shift. More university students and young professionals started to become involved which led to a major turning point.”
1989 marked the year where South Melbourne began its transformation into a true juggernaut of Australia’s sporting landscape, starting with former Real Madrid and Hungary superstar Ferenc Puskás’ appointment as Manager.
“We had a function scheduled with maybe 60 odd people scheduled to attend. Once Puskás was confirmed as manager we had more than 1000 buy tickets, he was an international legend. He was a great benefit for the players and future managers, like Frank Arok and Ange Postecoglou after him,” Vasilopoulos said.
As Puskás led South Melbourne to the championship in 1991, behind the scenes South Melbourne’s board took a progressive approach to refreshing its off-field team. Ex-President, Chris Christopher had pioneered tapping into the club’s young and educated community and the trend would continue.
“We wanted people from highly educated backgrounds to bring their fresh ideas into the club. People who specialised in accounting, marketing, architecture, law, and so on. The rest of the board and I thought this would help to bring a new perspective that would drive the club forward,” Vasilopoulos added.
The club’s existing leaders along with the new blood of young, passionate, and highly driven individuals helped to evolve South Melbourne FC into a commercial power.
Among the club’s new contingent was Peter Filopoulos, now Head of Marketing, Communications and Corporate Affairs at Football Federation Australia (FFA), and Peter Abraam, who has since served as CEO of Victorian Major Events Company and built a storied career as a senior executive and CEO of numerous domestic and international-scale organisations.
In his memoirs, Filopoulos reflects that by 1999 the club had announced a major sponsor deal worth $1 million over two years, a figure which at the time rivalled most AFL clubs. The ground-breaking deal, with Vivienne’s Collection, further paved the way for other lucrative sponsorships including NZI Insurance, Bob Jane, and Strathfield Radio Rentals.
To build the eventual success it reached, South Melbourne’s staff started by leveraging its fanbase as a marketing tool and professionalising its marketing processes.
“A great team armed with skills, new ideas and compelling marketing presentations helped us achieve significant growth. We went from being a community club at the start to an extremely professionally run organisation,” said Peter Abraam, former South Melbourne FC Board and Hall of Fame Member.
“The board worked extremely hard to ensure our Sponsors and Government partners were not taken for granted. Sponsorship fulfilment documents exemplified that the benefits they were receiving were commensurate with their investment and expectations. We tried to find businesses that already supported the South Melbourne community and scale up their involvement and networking opportunities so they would feel valued.”
A prominent example of this ‘added value’ was through the TV series Acropolis Now, where South Melbourne FC was referenced during this prime time series and the team-shirt worn by lead characters, which helped to build the brand and give major sponsor Marathon Foods exposure to thousands of viewers.
The strong relationship the board built with the corporate world also spilled into community leadership. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was crowned the club’s number one ticket holder in 1994, a relationship which became pivotal to South Melbourne’s landmark move from Middle Park to Bob Jane Stadium.
“The planning process took immense community consultation. I remember the board walking the streets of South Melbourne, handing out leaflet. We were trying to obtain planning permits at the time to build a new Social Club House at Middle Park and with great support from the government, we received that approval just prior to the Grand Prix’s move to Victoria being announced,” Abraam said.
The excitement from the club’s approval to build a new social club grandstand and the fresh signing of a 21-year lease for Middle Park was temporarily halted, as the board entered negotiations with Victoria’s officials to relocate its home ground – along with its planning approvals – to Albert Park Lake, a period which Vasilopoulos fondly remembers.
“Jeff Kennett called me prior to the announcement telling me it was going to happen, but we had been at Middle Park for 50 years. There was a lot of legacy and a lot of people who considered Middle Park our home, so we ensured we could negotiate the best possible deal for the club,” he said.
“We ended up negotiating a far better outcome than many had expected. The move to Bob Jane Stadium included quadrupling our seat numbers, a new grandstand, lights, and modern amenities of the highest standard and that we could be proud of – it was a tremendous result for the community and the club,” Abraam added.
Following the negotiations and the agreed terms of relocation, Vasilopoulos laughingly reminisced that Ron Walker, at the time Chairman of Grand Prix Australia, was so impressed with South Melbourne’s board during negotiations, particularly Peter Abraam, that after the deal’s conclusion, when he applied for the event’s Operations Manager role, he immediately offered him the job.
“It just shows the calibre of people that were involved with the club, and that came from building a board full of passionate and highly intelligent community members.”
While South Melbourne’s off-field team determined the commercial success of the club, the players and coaching staff more than held up their end of the bargain, winning championship titles in 1991 under Ferenc Puskás and back to back titles in 1998-99 under Ange Postecoglou.
As a generalisation, there is usually an obvious correlation between on-field and off-field success in any sport – the more a club achieves, the more marketable it becomes as a brand. For South Melbourne, the most lucrative windfall arrived at the turn of the century at the 2000 FIFA Club World Championship.
Having won the 1999 Oceania Club Championship final 5-1 against Fijian side Nadi F.C. South Melbourne FC booked a ticket to Brazil to compete in Group B against Vasco da Gama, Necaxa, and Manchester United.
“We went to Brazil in October 1999 for the draw. Sep Blatter took us out for dinner and told me by the time I arrive back in Australia there’s going to be $4 million in the club’s bank account,” Vasilopoulos said.
“The tournament earned $1.7 million for Soccer Australia (Now FFA) and $4.2 million for the club. To date, no other football club has ever contributed such a figure to the game here in Australia.”
Fast-forwarding to today, South Melbourne FC currently compete in Victoria’s National Premier League (NPL) along with many other former NSL members.
The club still enjoys a passionate, albeit downsized fanbase, but is optimistic that the discussions surrounding a National Second Division could lead to an eventual resurgence to Australia’s national competition.
With the A-League taking a privatised approach to ownership since its inception, a potential National Second Division could lead to the rebirth of community models in Australian football. Clubs such as South Melbourne have shown during the NSL era that this could work, but whether it would be feasible in today’s day and age remains to be seen.