James Johnson has faced unprecedented challenges during his first 11 months as Football Australia CEO.
But despite the global pandemic impacting almost every facet of the game, the code appears well-placed to thrive under his leadership moving into the new year.
In an exclusive interview, Johnson spoke with Soccerscene to discuss the unbundling process, the state of sponsorship, infrastructure challenges, and the growing push for a national second tier.
Q: With the unbundling process nearly finalised, how is Football Australia planning to reform its business model, and what will those reforms look like?
James Johnson: So, we’ve principally unbundled but have not formally unbundled. The clubs are operating the leagues and the league is already responsible for its own sponsorship deals, so the unbundling is already happening day in day out.
The actual written documents – we call them longform agreements – have not been signed yet, but they are close. We have agreed on all the main points principally, but there is still negotiation the fine details of the agreement. We are very close to being able to sign this off and very confident to get this finalised in time for the beginning of the A-League/W-League season.
It is going to be a different model post unbundling. It is a model that is not complicated, but sophisticated. It demonstrates that the sport is maturing.
Football Australia’s role post-unbundling will be as the regulator of the professional game. This means we will regulate the transfer system, the player status rules, we will regulate club licensing, and the domestic match calendar.
We will still have a very important role, but the league will become the operator of the competition, so all of the operation matters will be for the clubs to run.
This has been a long journey for clubs, and it is a big opportunity for them to step up – and I am confident that they will. I think they will do the game proud and will be there to regulate the competition but also to support and grow the competition.
Q: Has Football Australia considered partnering with private enterprise to develop football related infrastructure projects to combat the shortage of grounds, but also prepare for the Women’s World Cup?
James Johnson: Infrastructure is key to us. If we go back to our 11 principles, infrastructure is an important part of that vision.
Infrastructure for the game across the country is a challenge. At the top level of the game, we have some issues of non-football specific stadiums, which affects the elite level, but the bigger challenge for us is actually at the grassroots.
We have such as large base of participants that simply, there is not enough fields for children to play, and that’s not ok. But it is a challenge that we recognise. Our opportunity is to leave a legacy in relation to the Women’s World Cup for our infrastructure at community level.
We see a big opportunity for participation growth in the women’s and girl’s space. Currently, girls make up only circa 22 per cent of the overall participation base, but we believe this is going to grow substantially over the next seven years. We believe that by 2027 we can achieve a 50/50 split, which would see a considerable growth of our base.
This means participation will rise, but there is no point in these numbers rising if we do not have new facilities to support children to play the game.
This is going to be a key part of our ask to government. Football is the biggest participant sport in the country and our children, in particular our young girls, need support as they will be playing more football, more often.
Q: Due to the recent decline of sponsors as reported in the Australian, could we see an expanded footprint of commercialisation opportunity?
James Johnson: With the unbundling occurring in the league, our business model will change. If we look at broadcast, the most economic value in the broadcast revenue stream is through the professional leagues, which provides the most content to fans week in and week out. Post-unbundling, the league will be licensed the rights associated with the professional leagues. Naturally, Footballl Australia’s own business model will change.
Football Australia won’t be as reliant on broadcast as we have in the past. This will be something for the clubs and the league as that will be their big revenue source. It means we will change and have a bigger focus on two key focus areas, sponsorship, and government.
To touch on sponsorship, it’s at an interesting point. As a result of COVID-19, we are seeing a lot of interest in investing into the community and investing into women’s sport. This is because businesses want to be seen as being part of the resurgence of the community post the pandemic.
On top of that, we have got the Women’s World Cup coming to our shores in 2023, so there is huge interest in sponsoring the women’s game, particularly the Matildas. We’re very excited about the sponsorship space, it’s a different market today than what it was eight months ago and we are well-positioned due to the strength of our community and brands of our national teams, coupled with the interest of the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
We have really focused on creating strong links between our national teams, in particular, our Matildas and our community – this is a great strength of our sport and positions us well against other sports in Australia.
We’ve got a lot of big sponsors knocking at the door. We announced a deal with Priceline just last week and we’re looking forward to announcing several new sponsorship deals by early 2021. We are very confident and very well placed in the sponsorship space.
Q: How can Football Australia utilise digitalisation and O.T.T to improve revenue streams for the game?
James Johnson: This is not a new discussion. When I was at FIFA a few years ago, there was talk of moving to O.T.T platforms and when I was at Manchester City last year, we were talking about it with other European Clubs.
It is going to happen one day within the industry, the question is when. We are developing the knowledge inhouse, so we are ready to go when the transition in the market starts. Whether that is this year, next year or three years’ time, that is a question mark at the moment.
If you go back to the 11 principles, it is in there. We spoke about potentially creating a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for the purposes of trying to bring capital into the sport because O.T.Ts require substantial investment. The SPV was a practical consideration on how we get money invested in the creation of an O.T.T. This could be something we could partner our new professional league with or it could be something we look at ourselves.
What we’re doing in the meantime is really pushing our digital networks. We saw a big opportunity during COVID, while there was no professionalised live sport, to really push great historic matches and other content.
The overall approach resulted in record numbers across Socceroos and Matildas digital channels, with over 48 million video views across the network. We believe we can build on that in 2021, with Australian national team fixtures coming back online across the globe.
Q: What is your opinion on the growing momentum for a National Second Division, and has Football Australia done any modelling as to how the division may look?
James Johnson: A second tier competition on a national level can work. Circa 75 per cent of the 211 FIFA National Associations have second tier competitions, so it should work, but we have some very specific challenges in Australia. We are similar to countries like the United States, Brazil, and India. We live on a continent so the logistical costs for a competition are extremely high.
If I look at the A-League budget, there is a lot of spend on travel and accommodation. There is a huge cost to run national level competitions in Australia. So, there are challenges with having a second national competition in Australia, but there are certainly opportunities as well.
We want a second-tier competition, we think at the moment it is still a theoretical conversation, a conceptual conversation. Where we want to get to with this conversation – and this is our continual message for the clubs that would like to participate in a second-tier competition, as well as the AAFC – we want the conversation to be practical. We need to see how this can work in a practical sense.
We want work to be done around how much each club can put on the table, not only to run a second-tier competition, but also how much additional funds can clubs put into centralising the administration. We are yet to see this practical work.
It can work. I hope we get there, and I think that we will, because there is a lot of strategic football objectives to gain out of a second tier.
There are more opportunities for players, coaches, referees, and administrators, and more meaningful match minutes.
This is what we want but we need to crunch the numbers and we need to make it practical. That’s what we haven’t done as a code yet.
We have taken a strategic decision this year (in 2020) to really focus on the unbundling process, and that’s almost done. That will then free us up, because the other competition related time has been spent on changing the FFA Cup, because these are existing competitions and they’re good competitions, because it is the only open national level competition in our country
I think a lot of the interest in having a second tier we’ve started to shape within the parameters of the FFA Cup. Things such as having access to the Asian Champions League and the open draw. These are all very football purist dreams and we’re already starting to realise them through the FFA Cup.
We are an organisation that has established and operated competitions in the past. Thus, as we get the FFA Cup up and running again in 2021 and as we unbundle the A-League, we are going to have time and resources to focus on the practicalities around a second tier.