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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.

National Futsal Championships to return in 2022

Football Australia has announced today the return of the National Futsal Championships (NFC) in 2022.

Football Queensland (FQ) will host the 2022 championship, followed by Football Victoria (FV) for the 2023 edition.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson looks forward to growing futsal’s footprint in Australia after outlining a vision for a national program.

“As part of our clear strategic agenda, we outlined a vision to create a national program for futsal and beach soccer by working closely with our Member Federations in a unified, inclusive and collaborative manner,” Johnson said.

“With the culmination of this process, we are delighted that Football Queensland and Football Victoria will be hosting the National Futsal Championships in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

“There is a clear appetite throughout Australia for football to increase its imprint through futsal and beach soccer. Queensland and Victoria now have the opportunity to showcase this and bring it to life over the next two years, in a way never seen before.”

By granting the hosting rights to different cities, Football Australia believes the NFC will be a national tournament.

The Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre will host the relaunched tournament on the 5th-9th of January 2022.

“The National Futsal Championships are a highlight of the Australian football calendar, and we are excited to stage next year’s event at the state-of-the-art Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre,” FQ CEO Robert Cavallucci said.

Anthony Grima, Football Victoria’s Head of Futsal, believes the announcement was a step towards achieving FV’s futsal strategy.

“This is a huge win for Futsal in Victoria and one for me that should be dedicated to the many amazing individuals who are at the heart of the Futsal community here in Victoria,” Grima said.

“Hosting the NFC will leave a lasting legacy for Futsal and football in Victoria and inspire and enable more people to take up this amazing sport.”

The recently announced Home of the Matildas features a international sized futsal pitch, and it could host the championship.

Kimon Taliadoros, CEO of FV, said this news ensures that Victoria remains the home of sport.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the people of Victoria. By hosting the National Futsal Championships, we will further enhance the state’s ability to host events and tournaments and support the Victorian economy by bringing interstate visitors back to Melbourne to experience the wide range of products, services and experiences that this great state has to offer,” Taliadoros said.

“Futsal has been on the national agenda for some time now, with Football Australia recently having released the ‘XI Principles – for the future of Australian football.’”

The return of the NFC will allow a pathway for players to compete against the best talent Australia has to offer.

John Didulica: “Football can help Australia to navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation”

John Didulica

John Didulica’s insight into Australian football is entrenched in a broad and intimate exposure to the game from all areas of the pitch and beyond across many years of playing and working in the game.

His long-standing involvement in football has seen him take on a variety of roles including helping to usher in the Melbourne Heart in their inaugural years as Director of Football Operations, leading Professional Footballers Australia as their Chief Executive Officer and now as Director of Football for a Melbourne Victory side looking to rebuild in the A-League.

His chat with Soccerscene saw a whole range of topics covered, namely his efforts to help push the Victory into a new era, his impactful learnings from his time at the Heart and his recent efforts in helping to produce the ‘Football Belongs’ series with Optus Sport.

Didulica Photo

Obviously, it’s been a very challenging few years for Melbourne Victory’s A-League side with underwhelming performances on the pitch and difficulties off it, how was it for you coming into a club off the back of some difficult seasons?

John Didulica: I think it’s been an exciting time for me personally to be back involved with football. Melbourne Victory has had such a proud history in its own right, but equally the club has played such a big role in shaping modern Australian football. To be given an opportunity to work here is a great honour and privilege, like anybody who gets to work in football.

The fact that they’ve had a couple of lean years on the pitch doesn’t detract from all the great things they’ve done over the best part of two decades. Coming into the club, with that in mind, it’s not about re-engineering everything or discarding a couple of decades of history. It’s just about trying to more deeply understand what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and where we need to get better to ensure that we’ve got the right standards across not only the team but also all the other areas of the club.

And making sure that we start, day-by-day through our actions, showing that we want to be better. There’s nobody in the world who can come in with a magic wand and say “If you do ‘A, B and C’, you’re going to get a better performance on the park”. The key thing for us is, through our actions, to everyday try and be a little bit better. That’s certainly led by Tony Popovic – that’s the way he approaches his preparation of the team and I think as a staff that’s what we’re adopting.

Hopefully the results on the pitch will in-time reflect that, and restore the confidence of the team, the members and the club which has been tested in recent seasons and we need to show them that we can be trusted with their club.

For you, was it about coming into the club knowing exactly what needed changing or was it about listening and learning?

John Didulica: I think it always has to be about listening and learning. Absolutely that has to be the starting point. I’ve got some models and framework which I like to operate within, but populating that and identifying what needs to be done sequentially is very much about listening and learning.

It’s about seeing where we’re at now, what the acute areas that required immediate attention were, and in our case, it was pretty obvious. We had a brand-new coaching team that we needed to bed down; we had a lot of squad reconstruction that needed to happen; we had to reboot the entire medical department, so, there were a whole of things facing us right from the outset.

Counterintuitively, that’s helped us to build a lot of momentum as it’s forced us to get things done pretty quickly and in a really decisive way. And with a lot of new people on board there’s a lot of really good ideas being shared and I think overtime we’ll start bedding those things down.

But it’s certainly not about disregarding what’s happened over the best part of two decades just because of a couple of lean seasons. I think if anything, the lessons from 3-5 years ago are a lot louder because Victory’s lost its way in the last couple of seasons.

We’re still lucky to have people like Carl Valeri around who has been a great servant at the club for many years and who works in the role of Player Operations Manager. It can just remind us of what we’ve done well in the past and can ensure that we’re continuing to bottle the great things that Victory has done in the past rather than reinvent the wheel.

MVFC

With the acquisitions of Tony Popovic and numerous proven A-League talents, what are Victory’s objectives for the coming season on the pitch?

John Didulica: Our aspirations are absolutely to challenge for trophies, that’s our expectations internally and I’m sure they’re shared by the members as well. They want to see a team that’s challenging for Honours – that’s certainly Tony’s mindset.

We’re strategically focused on bringing elite Australian talent into the squad and that’s been our absolute priority. Chris Ikonomidis, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, to name a few, are all highly regarded elite proven international level players. So, to have those guys come in it’s a really powerful core and foundation for the club.

And, we might not get everything right in season one because we have so much to do, but I’m really confident that we’ve got a super strong core that will ensure we have a successful season and will only get better in the years to come.

There’s a seduction to going for a couple of big-name players and bringing them in and hoping that they can be a sugar hit, but I just don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t think that’s what we need at the moment. Because we’re going through so many changes, we need to be able to make as many sure bets as possible. I think with a lot of the players and coaching staff we know exactly what we’re going to get, and we know their history is decorated.

There has been a drive at the club to re-engage the Victory faithful who have ridden through the tough recent history. For Victory fans, what do you believe are the key values off the pitch that need to be reflected on the pitch?

John Didulica: The number one thing I think is for the administration team to match the ambition that the fans have for their club. Our fans at Melbourne Victory are hugely ambitious for what Melbourne Victory can be. Games like we had against Liverpool, that was a magical moment for a lot of people.

Building AAMI Park, something like that doesn’t happen without Melbourne Victory being a success. There’s huge moments and huge steps forward for the sport that are a consequence of Victory doing well. So, the fans see that and are proud to be associated with this club.

Where we need to get back to now is matching the ambition that the fans have for this club. And that’s what we’re committed to doing and I think the board’s demonstrated that by signing Tony Popovic, who’s one of the best Australian coaches and players that are very ambitious, so we know we’re going to get people who are just as ambitious as we want to be.

And I think that sits at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve – matching the fans’ ambition and energy for our club. And if we do that, I know we’re going to be successful. Because we’ve got fans who live and breathe the club and if we reciprocate that then I know we’ll be successful.

Popovic

You’re now coming into an A-League side that has been around since the beginning of the league’s creation, but taking it back over 10 years ago you spent a few years at the Melbourne Heart from their inauguration. What did you learn from your time at the side in their early years?

John Didulica: One of the things I’ve often learnt on a personal level is to be resourceful and resilient. We didn’t have huge budgets and we ran incredibly lean. We were up against Melbourne Victory who had had such great success as a club.

From my perspective it was great to add to the tapestry of football in Melbourne. The pressure of the Melbourne Derby was, for me, one of the real highlights in A-League history. Those nights have been fantastic regardless of whether you were on the red side of the fence or the dark blue side of the fence, they were great nights.

In terms of that experience [at Melbourne Heart], resourcefulness and resilience were key. What resonated with me during that period was getting a more acute understanding of what the implication taking shortcuts were. When you’re at a club that’s resource-poor, sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not sustainable.

So, very much coming into Victory it’s key that we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re going to make sure, to the extent possible, remove as much risk from what we do. That means bringing in high calibre people, servicing them effectively and having the right support around people. Even in those days at Heart we still managed to produce some incredible players; Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj, Curtis Good – these guys were all capped because of the opportunity they were given.

There’s a lot of lessons that I’ve taken with me about the capacity to run youth effectively and hopefully that can be something we can continue to build on here at Victory.

Melbourne Heart

A challenge for Australian football throughout its history has been its search for an identity in the midst of such a diverse sporting landscape. From doing such a deep dive with ‘Football Belongs’, what was confirmed about Australian football for you and what surprised you?

John Didulica: Ultimately, what I was investigating through that series was why is it that we’re not comfortable in our own skin. As football fans we’re always looking for some sort of external validation for who we are. And the more you unwrap football the more you understand the way Australia’s evolved, and therefore the role played by football in shaping modern day Australia and how deeply embedded football is in all of these key themes of Australian life.

And that’s something to be so proud of as a code. We don’t need external validation for what we are as football supporters, I think we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Projecting that forward, I think football has the power to help Australia become a far more progressive nation in the decades ahead.

In the same way football helped Australia navigate the influx of migrants has shown, with the likes of John Moriarty and Charles Perkins, it showed a genuine way of respecting Indigenous footballers. There’s a lot football can do about helping Australia navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation in the generations ahead.

As a sport, we need to take a leadership role in those areas. Anyone who is passionate about football knows it is more than just a sport. Nobody follows football for the ninety minutes on the pitch, as beautiful as that is, we’re all in it because it touches us far deeper. It’s about connecting to your ancestry and the broader community and being able to explore the broader world.

How many football fans would know the capital cities and flags of the world by virtue of their passion for football? Football is an incredible portal to the world and we need to celebrate that more. And it’s about having confidence in celebrating.

A club like Victory is a great segue in regards to ‘Football Belongs’, because Victory’s got a lot of opportunity to lead in a lot of those areas. We’re the biggest football club in the sporting capital of the world in the world’s biggest sport. If you bring those three things together, Victory is uniquely positioned to lead in an incredibly compelling and exciting way.

Asian Cup 2015

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