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Football Australia CEO James Johnson: “There are strategic objectives to gain from a second tier”

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.

“It is a big opportunity for clubs to step up – and I am confident that they will.”

 

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.

“We’ve got a lot of big sponsors knocking at the door.”

 

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.

Johnson supports the idea of a national second division, but says the conversation is still largely conceptual

 

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.

Football Australia signs expanded partnership with rebel

Football Australia has announced a multi-year expanded partnership with rebel - Australia's largest sports retailer.

Football Australia has announced a multi-year expanded partnership with rebel, as Australia’s largest sports retailer has signed on to be the official sponsor of Football Australia and the Westfield Matildas through to 2024.

The partnership will support the growth of the women’s game and grassroots football across the nation. The news comes as the Westfield Matildas are currently in Europe preparing for international friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands this month.

The partnership matches the core business of rebel, who want to encourage Australians to live a healthy and active lifestyle doing the sports they love. Football Australia’s mission is to achieve gender parity in participation by 2027.

With Football Australia and rebel sharing similar values, they will focus on initiatives that inspire more females to play sport, as Football Australia aims to secure over 400,000 new female participants over the next six years.

The ‘Sport is Calling’ platform will be used by rebel to motivate women and girls to unlock health and social benefits of pulling on football boots for the first time – this inspires ambitious players to reach their potential by promoting Westfield Matildas’ training regimes.

The partnership links to Football Australia’s MiniRoos program, which will also include a content strategy to bring football fans and rebel customers closer to the action. There will be exclusive, money-can’t-buy opportunities on offer for rebel active members.

rebel General Manager Customer & Marketing, Jennifer Gulliver:

“rebel is passionate about supporting women’s sport and women’s football and to sponsor Australia’s most loved team in the Westfield Matildas is something the whole organisation is behind.”

“We can’t wait to inspire the next generation of girls over coming years, and perhaps help a few realise their dreams of becoming a Westfield Matilda in the future.”

rebel Managing Director, Gary Williams:

“In just two days’ time the Westfield Matildas will return to international action for the first time since March 2020, which will provide inspiration to thousands of girls and boys across Australia’s football family who are preparing to play the game at community and grassroots levels throughout 2021. This unique timing only adds to our excitement to continue our support of football in Australia.”

“With our ‘Sport is Calling’ mantra, rebel is committed to growing sports participation across the country, and this partnership with Football Australia will unlock exciting opportunities and offers for rebel’s football fans through an array of online, in-store, and in-stadia experiences.”

Football Australia Chief Executive Officer, James Johnson:

“We are delighted to have secured another corporate partner for Football Australia that believes in our long-term vision for the sport, including the enormous potential that exists in the women’s and community spaces.”

“rebel has been a long-term partner of football in Australia, and as Australia’s largest sports retailer, is well positioned to help football deliver positive outcomes across the country. As the national governing body, Football Australia looks to work with organisations that will proactively help us supercharge football’s growth.”

Host cities and stadiums for FIFA Women’s World Cup revealed

Details for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 have been confirmed, with nine host cities and 10 stadiums set to host matches for the tournament.

Details for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 have been confirmed, with nine host cities and 10 stadiums set to host matches for the tournament.

Australia and New Zealand will welcome the world’s best female players in just over two years’ time, which will prove to be an exciting opportunity for both nations – being the first co-hosted FIFA Women’s World Cup and the inaugural tournament to feature 32 teams.

The announcement of the following host cities and stadiums has seen six representatives from Australia and four from New Zealand:

  • Adelaide – Hindmarsh Stadium
  • Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau – Eden Park
  • Brisbane – Brisbane Stadium
  • Dunedin / Ōtepoti – Dunedin Stadium
  • Hamilton / Kirikiriroa – Waikato Stadium
  • Melbourne – Melbourne Rectangular Stadium
  • Perth – Perth Rectangular Stadium
  • Sydney – Stadium Australia and Sydney Football Stadium
  • Wellington /  Te Whanganui-a-Tara  – Wellington Stadium

While the exact fixtures are still to be determined, we do know that Eden Park in Auckland has been selected for the opening FIFA Women’s World Cup match, with Stadium Australia in Sydney the destination for the Final.

Speaking at a media conference on Thursday at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, Football Australia Chairman Chris Nikou was proud to see the latest progress leading into the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“This is an important day for the sport because now the hard work goes to the next level – it’s a watershed moment,” he said.

“The Women’s World Cup is a tournament like no other – not since the Sydney Olympics with the attention of the world.

“[We’ve seen] an increase in gross domestic product of $320 billion, over one million spectators & audience, 400,000 more women & girls playing our sport – as we work with our member federations on equality of participation by 2027.

“[There’s also] 6,000 upskilled people, 3,000 new jobs and 16,000 Indigenous community contacts internationally.”

Westfield Matilda and Melbourne City W-League player Jenna McCormick also shared her excitement for the landmark tournament.

“To have [the Women’s World Cup] in Melbourne as the sporting capital of Australia is really awesome,” she said.

“I know with this unique sporting opportunity that the whole city will certainly get around the event and I’m really excited to see the response from the community.

“[I’m looking forward to] having family, friends and the football world come out and support us in what will be a once in a lifetime tournament here in Australia and New Zealand.”

Today’s announcement also drew elation from member federations Football NSW and Football Queensland, as the two states will be key components for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Football NSW CEO Stuart Hodge:

“The Football NSW community welcomes FIFA’s announcement that Sydney has been selected as one of the cities that will host 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup matches. We are ecstatic that Stadium Australia will host the final.

“Female football is the fastest growing area of our sport, and today’s announcement will undoubtedly turbo charge further growth and boost the popularity of the sport.”

Football Queensland President James Richardson:

“It is fantastic news for our entire football community that the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is coming to Queensland.

“This is the biggest women’s sporting in the world. In the Women and Girls Strategy released last month, we highlighted the tournament’s potential to deliver immense benefits for all Queenslanders, particularly women and girls.”

The host cities and stadium selection was finalised after a rigorous eight-month process conducted by FIFA, together with the two host associations. It involved a series of virtual workshops and an assessment of infrastructure and facilities.

FA CEO James Johnson opens up on difficulties in the game and opportunities for the future

Speaking at Football Victoria’s Community in Business event on Friday, Football Australia CEO James Johnson reflected on his first 14 months in the top job of the sport, detailing the difficulties the organisation faced in 2020 and the opportunities it has in the coming years.

“I’d like to share with you what I walked into in January 2020,” Johnson told the audience in Melbourne.

“I walked into Football Australia and what I understood from the off was that the organisation had really lost a sense of unity. I believe the organisation had lost its connection with the community.”

Johnson criticised the focus of the governing body’s financial model, believing it was not looking after the best interests of the game overall.

“The business model was heavily centred on the A-League,” he said.

“That was what decision making evolved around, while other parts of the game, in my opinion, were neglected. The business model was disconnected, fractured and was inefficient. It was inefficient because of the duplication of administration. It wasn’t set up to foster growth for a thriving football ecosystem.

“The model denied the most significant part of our game, our identity, our community, our people, our stories, our diverse and multicultural base and our great national teams.

“In place of this identity, we’ve allowed a narrative to proliferate over the past 10-15 years that is divided, politicised, old soccer against new football, but this is not what our game is.”

Football Australia CEO James Johnson

The former Brisbane Strikers player admits that the game is far from perfect in this country and needs to address a range of issues.

“We have some really serious challenges ahead of us,” he said.

“We don’t own enough facilities for our growing base, we have too many players, we are turning children and families away from our code because we don’t have enough infrastructure around the country. This is a real issue.

“The performance gap that we released in 2020 tells us that the age group that plays the most minutes in our elite men’s competition (the A-League) is the age of 32. We are not giving enough opportunities for our players under 23. We also have challenges with our football pyramid, we must reconnect our pyramid so we can unleash this potential of an ecosystem.”

Since Johnson was appointed as CEO early last year, the governing body has shifted their business model allowing them to deliver strategic priorities and focus on initiatives such as: the implementation of the domestic match calendar, the proposed introduction of a domestic transfer system, a half slot to the ACL for the FFA Cup winner and more. Johnson believes factors such as these are vital to reconnecting Australian football’s national pyramid.

In his speech at the Community in Business event, the former senior executive at the AFC, FIFA and the City Football Group also strongly emphasised the importance of recognising the game’s history properly, something the game has continued to neglect in previous years.

“We have a rich history and it must be celebrated,” he said.

“There are moments in our game, that not only shaped the game, but they shaped the way that our country is. In 1974, we sent our first men’s team to the World Cup led by Rale, in 1993 Maradona came here, in 1997 Iran broke our hearts, in 2005 a famous penalty got us to our first World Cup in many decades and in 2020 we won the rights to host the Women’s World Cup.

“Our game is full of these moments and I think if you all think about those moments, people will remember where they were when they occurred. We forget that our clubs in this country predated federation. We forget that football was the first sport in Australia to have a national competition in the 70’s. We forget the first cup competition in this country was in the 60’s, the Australia Cup.

“We forget that women played football in this country as early as 1909. Nearly 42 years ago, our very first Matildas stepped out onto Seymour Shaw Park for the first Matildas match. Now, we are only a few years away from the biggest sporting event for women in the world coming to our shores.

“We forget that 99 years ago our Socceroos played their first match against New Zealand. We are one year away from 100 years.

“We forget the role that football played in the lives of indigenous children, like John Moriarty, Jade North and Kyah Simon.

“We forget that our national competitions have always been the hallmark of our game. The NSL for many, many years. Our history provides us with platforms to move forward to and to launch a bold, exciting future for our sport.”

Johnson addresses the audience at Football Victoria’s CIB event

Johnson sees the Women’s World Cup in 2023 on home soil as the perfect avenue to establish a strong future for the game.

“We are focused on creating that link between our national teams, in particular the Matildas and our community,” he said.

“Our base of 2 million participants is great, but only 22% per cent of our base are women and girls. There is a direct link between the importance and relevance of national teams and the base of community. With our national teams starting up again, you will see over the next 3 years (particularly with the Women’s World Cup) that our base will grow further and it will grow well.

Our ‘Legacy 23’ framework is an ambitious plan to maximise the opportunities that the legacy of the Women’s World Cup (WWC) will provide us. Legacy is not something that starts after the WWC, it started last month. We’ve got to try as best as possible to ensure the WWC has a long-lasting legacy, similar to what happened with the Sydney Olympics in 2000.”

The FA CEO concluded by calling on every single stakeholder to be open to change, including the governing body itself, and push forward to make the sport the best it can be.

“If we are to reach the potential of our game, each and every one of us, every stakeholder, Football Australia, Member Federations, clubs, leagues, our community need to be open to change,” he said.

“Change and innovation are the commodities that we must deal with in 2021. I’m under no illusions that Football Australia must continue to earn the trust and confidence back from our stakeholders and community. To do this, we need deeds not just words.

“Let’s seize this opportunity and put our best foot forward.”

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