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George Vasilopoulos: How the NSL became a breeding ground for elite players, coaches, and administrators

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.

Ange Postecoglou alongside Ferenc Puskás.

“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.

SMFC in front of a full house at the newly built Bob Jane Stadium.

“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.

Bob Jane Stadium, now known as Lakeside Stadium, provided SMFC with far greater facilities to its old Middle Park home.

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.”

SMFC’s squad after being crowned champions of Oceania.

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.

Why an Australian football Netflix series is needed

Netflix boast just under 200 million subscribers worldwide and have released several sports documentaries over the last few years. However, we are yet to see an Australian football Netflix series – an opportunity that should be taken advantage of.

There is a market for these types of documentaries as Netflix is not the only streaming service that features sport docuseries. Amazon Prime has produced also produced documentaries on Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

One of the most popular football docuseries has been Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die. The show which provided a behind the scenes view of the club was one of the most watched programs on Netflix in the UK during the week of the release of the second season.

Sunderland has received global recognition off the back of the popularity of the show.

Stewart Donald, owner and former chairman of Sunderland told ChronicleLive that there are lots of reasons why the documentary is good for the club.

“My initial thought with it was, there aren’t many football clubs that can have a global brand, but if you’ve got a Netflix documentary and it goes right, you can get that out to the world and maybe you might get a few people who come along and get emotionally involved in Sunderland who otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said.

“If our name goes out to 20 or 30 million people on Netflix, or however many it might be, that can only be good for the club.”

There are several possibilities for an Australian football docuseries. The show could follow a single A-League club’s season, in the same vein to the Sunderland or Manchester City programs.

Other documentaries have focused on a season of a series or championship as a whole. Netflix’s Formula 1 docuseries Drive to Survive involves several different teams and features a different storyline each episode.

One million households streamed Drive to Survive within the first 28 days of season two’s release according to research agency Digital-i.

An A-League version of this could cover the biggest storylines and moments of the season.

Documentaries have also focused on the national team of a sporing organisation such as Amazon Prime’s The Test which documents the Australian cricket team’s redemption following the ball tampering scandal in 2018.

A series that follows the qualification process of an Australian team for a FIFA World Cup would be a particularly interesting documentary series given the high stakes involved.

The exposure gained from an Australian football Netflix series could be a great opportunity to either introduce people to Australian football or reinvigorate their love for the game.

Drive to Survive has seen an increase an interest for the sport in the US, which is not a traditional market for Formula 1.

Earlier this year Renault Formula 1 Driver Daniel Ricciardo appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah where he discussed the impact that Drive to Survive has had in the US.

“I definitely feel F1 is becoming much more of a thing here in the States. Drive to Survive put it on the map,” he said.

“I spend a bit of time in the States, and up until a year ago, not really anyone would say ‘Hi’ to me – not in a bad way, but they wouldn’t recognise me for being an F1 driver.

“And now it’s all: ‘We saw you on Netflix, it was great, Drive to Survive.’ We wear helmets, so not many people can see our faces a lot of the time.

Given the younger demographic of streaming service users, a docuseries could create a new generation of fans for football in Australia. Depending on the success of the series, it could even inspire more young Australians to play the world game.

At an event for 188Bet in March 2020, F1’s Managing Director of Motorsport Ross Brawn, said that the Netflix series had seen positive impacts for the sport.

“What we’ve discovered is it’s been very appealing to the non race fan: in fact it turned them into race fans,” Brawn said.

“Some of the promoters in the past season have said they’ve definitely measured the increase in interest in F1 that has come from the Netflix series.

“And while Netflix in itself wasn’t for us a hugely profitable venture, in terms of giving greater coverage for F1, it’s been fantastic.

While Football Federation Australia, the A-League and its clubs would not be able to demand the millions of dollars that other clubs and organisations are paid for their participation in a documentary, it could provide a cash boost for the organisations.

Ryan Reynolds has partnered with fellow actor Rob McElhenney to purchase Welsh soccer club Wrexham AFC, who compete in the fifth tier of English football, the National League.

Part of Reynolds and McElhenney’s takeover bid involves plans for a documentary series that follows the events of the team.

Bloomberg spoke to Ampere Analysis analyst Richard Broughton, who said that it would not be unreasonable for a streaming service to pay several hundred thousand pounds per hour for the broadcast rights to a show.

An Australian football Netflix series would be extremely beneficial for the sport in this country.

CrowdedVENUE makes stadium safety simple 

CrowdedVENUE focuses on visitor safety, revenue generation and user experience to create a secure stadium event for all.

CrowdedVENUE focuses on visitor safety, revenue generation and user experience to create a secure stadium event for all. 

They have become a unique combination of IoT hardware and a purpose-built software application that collects, transmits, analyses and presents the behaviour of pedestrian/crowd movement without any need for manual processing during or after study. 

CrowdedHUB sensors merge together the very best in physical identification, including Wi-Fi scanning, Bluetooth scanning, Thermal and 3D imaging of environmental sensing to create a valuable collection of unique data that is independent of any infrastructure. 

 

CrowdedVENUE’s boasts an incredible data gathering hardware system that is regarded as the most secure in the industry, with automated anonymisation at the source and a multi-layered security application. 

Crowded uses the very best in technology to offer an accurate and cost-effective pedestrian movement analysis solution that addresses the growing demands of both the private and public sectors. 

A network of independent sensors are able to accumulate over 90% of individuals in most areas. That information is then sent directly to Crowded who will automatically generate data relevant to the venue or location. 

The CrowdedVENUE software application continually accesses each sensor on their own to safely extract anonymous data and perform detailed analysis, maps and charts to display all the results. 

The following areas are covered in data collection extending to both inside and outside the venue: 

  • Volume per location 
  • Dwell times per location 
  • Most popular locations by visitors,  
  • Most popular routes by visitors,  
  • Top routes by direction with average journey times 
  • Safest route analysis 
  • Event-based predictive evacuation strategy 
  • Visitor heatmap 
  • 3D imaging 
  • Raw.csv Download 

CrowdedVENUE is related to the PoC’s belonging to stadia and other high-profile indoor venues. CrowdedRAIL and CrowdedCITY are two of the other sectors under the Crowded umbrella where they are predominantly utilised by the public sector as part of a multi-faceted range of consultancy services.  

However, CrowdedVENUE has been developed to help the end-user more directly in a manner that is extra simple, clear and easy to use. This approach enables the client to improve visitor safety whilst increasing revenue generation. 

 

The CrowdedVENUE service creates an increased level of value compared to its core function. By providing the stadium the means to transcend all current data collection and football monitioring solutions in favour of a real-world IoT “smart” service, it has everything required to become the global standard in crowd safety and visitor experience tools. 

“CrowdedVENUE is one of several services in the range that offers seamless integration into existing infrastructure via its API function.” they said.  

“Crowded is a fantastic solution for new works as a standalone service, but when a major venue already exists, such as a stadium, it is usual for that environment to be operating a proprietary app for visitors, usually based around experience.  

“The CrowdedVENUE API gives you the best of both worlds, allowing you to retain the control and familiarity of your current services, whilst seamlessly integrating the entire value proposition of Crowded.  

“For venues that do not have a current consumer-focused application, CrowdedVENUE is again the perfect choice for you.  

We will guide you through the design, installation and testing phases of installing a visitor app and the Crowded back-end analysis package, helping you to maximise value for both the venue and its visitors, with minimal operational impact.” 

Crowded not only tracks movement of crowd behaviour accessible, robust and cost-effective, but does it in a manner that is safe and secure, making sure that personal information of all visitors is protected. 

With Data Protection and Privacy Law being such a growing concern, Crowded was built specifically to protect the personal information of visitors alongside the integrity of the data the service gathers.” they said. 

“Any potential personal information is anonymised at source, by the hardware itself. This ensures that no personal information is ever in our possession. 

“In addition to this, Crowded provides the user with all the raw data gathered in .csv format. This gives each user the opportunity to observe the integrity of both the data set and the analysis performed by the application.” 

With a variety of data capture services available, CrowdVENUE presents as the ideal point of call for the safe recommencement of fans to stadiums with COVID-19 slowly easing in Australia. 

For more information on Crowded, including extra details on each individual sector, pricing packages and contact, you can find it here. 

Chelsea the first EPL club to partner with Chinese social media giant Weibo

Chelsea F.C have announced a strategic partnership with Weibo, a Chinese social media platform which records more than 520 million active users per month.

The West London club already have more than eight-million followers and will produce content specifically designed for the Chinese audience. This includes employing a Chinese fan reporter at their Cobham training ground.

To add to the ventures into the Chinese market, Chelsea has also launched Chelsea FC China TV, a regular weekday series that features interviews, discussion, highlights and other football related content.

Chelsea Chief Executive Guy Lawrence was delighted to announce the news, citing the strategic partnership will help the club to build a stronger relationship with its Chinese audience.

“Delivering high quality, quick-to-market content and bringing our Chinese fans closer to the club are two key aims of Chelsea’s China strategy,” he said.

“Through this strategic partnership with Weibo, we will be able to grow our offering of original and China-specific content across the country.”

Chelsea were the fastest-growing European soccer team on Weibo last season, according to an official release. As of the end of August, they were the fourth most followed club on the platform, behind only Barcelona, Manchester City and Manchester United, who boast more than ten million followers.

Zhan Sheng, General Manager of Sina Sports, the company which owns Weibo, echoed Lawrence’s sentiment.

“Having already successfully worked with Chelsea on a number of projects, Weibo and Chelsea FC will continue to collaborate further. The key areas of our focus moving forward will be on delivering bespoke multimedia content formats, operating fan communities, as well as new and upgraded commercialisation models.”

“Weibo has continued to increase its investment and support in the sports industry since the inception of its vertical sports platform. With an increased impact in the sports industry in recent years, Weibo has now formed a comprehensive ecosystem linking event organisations, clubs, athletes, media, and KOLs. It’s a unique style of social media communication on Weibo which will provide Chelsea FC with the platform to increase fan participation and commercial monetisation.”

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