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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 set to honour Socceroos 100th anniversary

Socceroos centenary

Football Australia will celebrate the Centenary of the Australian men’s national team on June 17 of this year.

The date marks the 100th anniversary of the Socceroos’ first ever match when a team coached by Alf Morgan – and captained by Alex Gibb – took on New Zealand in Dunedin.

Players from New South Wales and Queensland were chosen for the tour which consisted of 14 games, including three ‘Tests’ against New Zealand. New Zealand won the first game of the series 3-1, with the history books highlighting that William Maunder became the first man to score for Australia when he found the back of the net shortly before half time.

Throughout the remainder of 2022, Football Australia will be acknowledging this significant milestone in Australian sport with a program of activities, events, and initiatives, including the possibility of hosting a celebratory match featuring the Socceroos and New Zealand’s All Whites later in the year.

“The Socceroos are arguably Australia’s most identifiable and popular national sporting team, both at home and abroad, uniting the nation like no other sporting team,” Football Australia Chief Executive Officer James Johnson said in a statement.

“2022 marks the Centenary year of the Australian men’s national team, and since formation, the Socceroos have embodied the spirit of Australia, a local team forged through hard times and adversity, always punching above their weight on the global stage who pull on the green and gold jersey with great pride and a steely sense of responsibility.

“Throughout 2022, Football Australia will pay homage to the players and personalities involved in the Australian men’s national team over the past one hundred years through a series of initiatives, including the unveiling of the Socceroos’ Team of the Century.

“The Socceroos are Australia’s team, and we hope that the Australian football family and supporters alike join Football Australia in celebrating the rich history of the Australian men’s national team during this special Centenary year.”

The first item to be unveiled as part of the program of activities is a coffee-table book titled, “Socceroos: 100 Years of Camaraderie and Courage”, curated by Are Media Books in connection with Football Australia.

Football Australia’s and the Socceroos’ websites and social media channels will also pay tribute to both past and present Socceroos, with an ongoing series of digital and written interviews and features, podcasts, galleries, and interactive experiences to be shared throughout the year.

James Johnson on how the Club Licensing System is critical to progress of Second Division

On Thursday, Football Australia released their reformed Club Licensing System Regulations that will increase standards at clubs across the top three tiers of Australian football – as a key part of broader structural reform they are engineering to take the game forward.

Reforming the Club Licensing System was an agreed responsibility Football Australia took on during its unbundling of the A-Leagues to the Australian Professional Leagues in December 2020, and is something Football Australia CEO James Johnson sees as critical to unlocking standstill issues facing the game, such as the proposed National Second Division (NSD) and Domestic Transfer System (DTS).

“We have challenges in the sport, namely around player development at the moment, and right at the very heart of the Club Licensing System are standards and requirements that really need to be reviewed on an annual basis. So we’ll continue to lift the standards in club football with a particular focus on youth development,” Johnson, who oversaw the Global Club Licensing Program while at FIFA, told Soccerscene

“That’s going to align very well with some of our other initiatives, like a Domestic Transfer System that has player development at its very core. It’s something we need to fix now; it’s something I don’t think is an opinion, it’s a fact.

“These measures – Club Licensing, a transfer system, the second tier competition – are all designed to improve the level of our players, the benefit of which we will see in the years to come.”

Club Licensing has historically been managed by the Asian Football Confederation as a means of ensuring minimum standards for clubs to compete in Asian club competitions. By taking it into their own hands, Football Australia can now raise and specify standards for clubs at not just the professional level, but the levels below it.

The regulations include certain criteria that must be met to compete and continue to compete in certain competitions, broken into five categories: Sporting, infrastructure, personnel and administrative, legal, and financial – with variations in each to reflect multiple levels of the pyramid. 

“First and foremost, this new Club Licensing System will be a set of criteria that needs to be fulfilled in order for all clubs to participate in Asian club competition, but also for all clubs in the A-Leagues to continue their ability to participate in that competition,” Johnson said. 

“The second part, the more strategic football development angle, is that it is designed to become a strategic plan for club development and enhanced governance of clubs throughout the country. It really sits right at the heart of key decisions clubs would take, and how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”

The new system is designed to cater for clubs at the professional (A-Leagues), semi-professional (NSD) and state-league (NPL) levels, providing an overarching set of standards to promote uniformity between clubs and divisions. Theoretically, it could also prepare clubs for movement between divisions if promotion and relegation were to come into effect.

Johnson sees that uniformity as vital to the game moving forward, given the three tiers will be administered by three different organisations: The A-Leagues by the Australian Professional Leagues, the mooted NSD by Football Australia, and the NPL competitions by their respective Member Federations. 

“You have to set different standards for different levels of football. As we roll out the second tier competition in the coming years, Football Australia would licence clubs to participate in that competition because it would be the competition administrator,” he said.

“The next step would be to go down the pyramid. There’d be a continual evolution of the Club Licensing System where we’d set a strategic framework that the competition administrators, the Member Federations, would ultimately work under, in order to create their own criteria for participation and access to the state level competitions.

“That framework that the Member Federations would operate under would give each region across the country a good level of specificity to develop their own criteria to access their own region.”

Concerning the level of football not currently in place – the proposed  second tier – Johnson stated the Federation had the backing of the AAFC, the representative body of the clubs looking to step from the NPL into the second tier of competition, over the new Club Licensing System.

“The AAFC are very much aligned with the direction Football Australia are wanting to go. Their interest in licensing is concerning the NSD, and I don’t think there would be any issues there provided we set the criteria as the right levels,” Johnson said.

“What we’ll get once the system is implemented is the ability to analyse clubs all around the country. We’ll be able to benchmark how clubs in Victoria are performing on and off the pitch, against teams in Brisbane or Hobart or Perth.

“One of the big values of a CLS is it’s a measuring stick that helps us understand which areas clubs around the country are strong in, and which areas they need more focus on. Ultimately, that’s how we grow club football.”

Tasked with overseeing the licensing reform is Natalie Lutz, who Football Australia hired as their Club Licensing Manager in January. Lutz has considerable experience in the field, having previously overseen the rollout of club licensing across the CONCACAF Federation. 

“Natalie knows what she’s doing, she’s very experienced, she was responsible for the roll out of a Club Licensing System in 40-odd countries in the Americas. We have her in the business now, which is why this project is evolving,” Johnson said.

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