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Fixing Australia’s youth development starts with revamping the Y-League

A lack of consistent talent-production has cast the spotlight over Australia’s youth pathways in recent years, a topic that has generated robust discussion in football circles.

With many in the industry calling for change, it was a welcome sight when in July, Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its ‘XI Principles’ discussion paper. The document was generally well-received and among the key issues James Johnson and his team addressed was the requirement for a systematic revamp of Australia’s youth system.

According to principle five, FFA will seek to ‘Create a world class environment for youth development / production by increasing match minutes for youth players and streamlining the player pathway.’

Reinvigorating Australia’s youth football pathways will require a long-term, systematic approach to be successful but one thing is certain – young players simply need more competitive minutes.

And that starts by revamping the Y-League. As it stands, 10 clubs make up Australia’s national developmental and under-23 reserve league, forming two conferences.

In principle, the league fits a purpose, but in practice the system is not providing anywhere near enough high-level football for youngsters, certainly not since structural changes were made that hamstring the progress of Australia’s youth prospects..

Gary van Egmond was appointed Young Socceroos manager after the team failed to qualify for three consecutive Under-20 World Cups.

The 2015-16 season saw a new format introduced whereby the Y-League’s regular season was reduced from 18 games per team to a meagre eight (with potential for nine including a grand final).

Part of this reduction in games was due to budget cuts, another part due to FFA’s desire for players to use the NPL system as a developmental tool. On paper this seemed reasonable, but it has proved counterproductive, as talented youngsters are often torn between multiple commitments, causing a severe lack of continuity.

Although A-League clubs can enter their academy teams into their respective state’s NPL competition, elite players are playing a mixture of Y-League, NPL and the A-League games, the latter usually in a substitute or benchwarmer capacity.

This lack of consistency is creating a massive void in player development during what are some of their most critical years.

Earlier this year, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) published an extensive report reviewing the national youth competition through historical analysis and player surveys. In an interview with pfa.com.au regarding the report, Guinean born Australian youth-level star John Roberts had the following to say.

“The Y-League is only eight games, and sometimes you don’t play eight, maybe it’s just four or five because you’re trialling with the first team or you’re the 17th or 18th man and you don’t get to play. In my opinion, for young players I think the youth league needs to go to a full season because I just think it will benefit us young players, it will give us more opportunity when we’re not playing.”

“But after the youth league finishes, you have to wait a while and then play NPL1 or NPL2 or just wait for your opportunity in the A-League.”

“You have to play regularly in higher competitions. If you’re playing NPL1 or NPL2 and you get called up into the A-League, the intensity of the game is too different because you’re not used to that and you don’t play in a high enough competition.”

The full interview with Roberts can be found here.

Striker John Roberts spoke about the limitations of the Y-League.

Among the notable results published in the report were that 90% of players believe the Y-League season should be extended and that only 20% of players who have graduated from the Y-League over the past five years went on to make an A-League appearance.

The findings led PFA Chief Executive John Didulica to state “In its current format the Y-League does not meet the needs of the players, A-League clubs or Australian football.”

The lack of youth production has predictably influenced the national setup, with Australia’s Under-20 team failing to qualify for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for a record third consecutive time.

With the Y-League’s structural changes in 2016 clearly not having their intended impacts and FFA’s 2017 closure of the AIS, changes need to be made.

The solution may simply involve favouring the decentralized, academy-first approach which FFA has created but designing an environment which complements it. Something akin to the National Youth League of 1981-2004.

Extending the Y-League to run parallel to the A-League as a genuine reserve grade competition would allow players to fully commit to their academy side. This would mean ample minutes, plus a guarantee of continuity that does not currently exist for players who are forced to rebound between Y-League, NPL and occasionally A-League clubs.

While in theory this could harm NPL teams if their talented youngsters are poached by academies, it could create a perfect opportunity for FFA to implement new rules and regulations surrounding player transfers and compensation that would form part of an improved transfer system.

This is something the federation has stated it wishes to achieve through principle number three, in which FFA states in intention ‘To establish an integrated and thriving football ecosystem driven by a modern domestic transfer system’.

Designing a formal compensation system to parallel a legitimate under-23’s full season competition would kill two birds with one stone, rewarding grassroots clubs for producing talent while giving young players the consistent exposure to competitive football

There are undoubtedly factors, mainly commercial, which would dictate the validity of these ideas, but the game’s top administrators do need to act, or Australia will face the risk of losing its next generation and fading from international football relevance.

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.

Does the A-League need a Big Bash style experiment?

The fans roar as the fireworks explode – with music blasting a Mexican wave engulfs the stadium. Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL) has succeeded in attracting families to their sport, which is something that the A-League could look to replicate.

The A-League could learn from both the failures and successes of the Big Bash League to rejuvenate football in Australia, with a BBL style concept to attract consumers and fans to the A-League in a unique manner.

However, an approach into a BBL style experiment would have to be taken carefully as there is a fine line between creating a product that is viewed as a serious competition and creating a product that is looked down upon such as AFLX.

The BBL’s peak was on January 2, in 2016 when 80,883 fans packed into the MCG to watch a match between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades.

While the Big Bash has been in a supposed decline in popularity since, the league has still been able to produce some large attendances.

54,478 people attended a Melbourne Derby on January 4 earlier this year – the third highest crowd for a BBL game in the league’s history.

Meanwhile the A-League’s highest crowd before COVID-19 interrupted the 2019/20 season was 33,523 people at October’s draw between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City.

Cricket Australia’s success with the BBL came from creating an experience geared towards families and children – with pump up music, fireworks and flamethrowers that were suited to T20 cricket with its high scoring, exciting and shorter format.

Former Liverpool star Craig Johnston has suggested an idea of what an A-League version of the BBL would look like.

“Four quarters, 15 minutes each, rotating substitutes, sin bins, all the things you’re not allowed to do in soccer,” he told The Daily Football Show in 2019.

“So effectively in midfield, you could take a touch, get past a player and you could shoot for goal. Then the goalkeeper’s either saving that shot or it’s a goal.”

“We’re utilising the same players but we’re taking out their midfield and we’re giving the players and the consumers four times more of what they want in the quarter of the time.”

Johnston believes that a Big Bash style format should be adapted by Australian football with A-League teams.

“The big idea is the Big Bash of soccer, but then the kids copy it at their training grounds,” he said.

“It is professional six-a-side with A-League teams. The A-League teams split in half, red versus blue, they play against each other.”

“The Big Bash and the One Day series is the best thing that ever happened to cricket in terms of engaging young minds and future minds.”

If the A-League was to try BBL style product it would need to make sure the best players are available – a weakness of the Big Bash has been that some of the biggest names in Australian cricket do not play regularly in the competition as the league clashes with international fixtures.

An A-League Big Bash competition would also be taken more seriously if the best players were playing regularly.

Perhaps the naming rights sponsor of the competition could provide a cash prize to the winning club, to entice clubs to field their best players.

One lesson that the A-League could learn from the Big Bash is that it has been made too long, something that even stars of the competition like Glen Maxwell have admitted.

“I think the length of the tournament when it was 10 games, I think we all really enjoyed that. I think it was the perfect amount,” Maxwell told SEN in early 2020.

“I just think 14 games is just a little bit much. It just makes for a very long tournament and probably goes for a touch too long.

“With school starting again it makes it a bit more difficult to keep the interest levels going until the end (of the season).”

The Big Bash was at its best when there was a limited number of games played predominantly in the school holidays.

If each A-League team played each other once in a new competition it could have an 11 game season plus a short finals series.

Ideally the A-League Big Bash concept would need to have as many games broadcast on free-to-air as possible – in order to easily accessible to fans.

There seems to be a lack of momentum coming into the 2020/21 A-League season, which is just under a week away. An Australian football version of the BBL could potentially be played as a lead in tournament to the A-League season, bringing attention and hype to the beginning of the competition.

The initiatives Australian football could adopt

In a competitive sport media landscape, Australian football needs to adopt initiatives to remain relevant and gain advantages on its competitors.

La Liga are an organisation that has introduced several initiatives this year – the latest of which is a FanCam.

Last weekend the FanCam was launched, which captures the goal celebrations of La Liga players. Without fans in attendance players have been encouraged to celebrate towards the camera to connect with their fans.

The cameras will also be installed in all La Liga Smartbank (second division) stadiums.

“FanCam is another step towards improving and personalising our audiovisual product,” the director of La Liga’s audiovisual department, Melcior Soler said.

“With it we are going to give fans a much more personal and genuine view of the players, seeing up close how they celebrate their team’s goals.

“We trust in the players to realise the importance of celebrating their goals in front of the FanCam, because this puts them in direct contact with their fans.

“That’s why we are so convinced that their use of FanCam will increase, to the point that it is used all the time.”

Without further outbreaks fans are likely to attend A-League matches next season, however a FanCam could be still be introduced to add to the broadcast experience.

The goal celebrations would also be likely to be popular across social media and could be easily shared across platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

Clubs could also fully embrace other platforms such as YouTube.

While there are currently no Australian football streaming series and it is not viable for A-League clubs to make full length documentaries – shorter content focusing on the pre-season or a series of matches during the season could be released on YouTube, to give fans a closer look into their favourite teams.

Head of Media and Communications at La Liga second division club RCD Mallorca, Albert Salas spoke about the importance of quality communication to the club’s fans.

“In La Liga, especially in the second and third divisions, clubs don’t normally have the resources to create content such as behind-the-scenes documentaries,” he said.

“We’re trying every week, every month to create content that communicates to our fans better than anyone else. Quality is key in the communications of the club.”

RCD Mallorca might be an unknown club to many Australian football fans, yet their YouTube channel was incredibly successful during the last season.

They did this by making the most of their opportunities, the club focused their content around player Takefusa Kubo, which saw a rise in Japanese fans of RCD Mallorca.

“We were the third club in La Liga with close to 2.4 million views, only behind Real Madrid on 4 million and FC Barcelona on 10 million in June 2020, thanks to a strategic plan based around him,” Salas said.

Augmented Reality is another area where several football leagues and broadcasters are introducing new initiatives to improve supporters experience from home.

BT Sport recently launched AR features for its broadcast of Premier League matches which allow for real time statistics to appear on pitch during the live match broadcast.

A 360 degree view option was also introduced alongside a ‘Stadium Experience’ giving supporters the opportunity to take virtual tours of stadiums.

BT Sport Chief Operating Officer Jamie Hindhaugh told SportsPro that the new products were not gimmicks.

“I hope you agree that all of them give you something that replaces the fact you can’t physically be there. I think that they are all credible products and they are all future-looking,” he said.

“I think that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are able to do here, collectively – both for our audiences and also our own production.

“Combined with our brilliant remote 4K HDR [programming] and, alongside the [mobile] features that we now have in place, I think it’s a phenomenal offering. We don’t over-index on these things either. What this is about is augmenting the fan experience.”

Football Federation Australia doesn’t necessarily have to be innovative, there are major leagues and organisations worldwide in football that are launching new concepts and ideas. However, the A-League and FFA should be watching what these organisations are doing and introduce initiatives that have the potential to be successful in Australia.

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