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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.

Paramount Plus must pounce on EPL rights in Australia

ViacomCBS have begun broadcasting Australian football content in the past several weeks across the 10 Network and its free streaming platform 10 play, in the opening stages of the company’s $300 million investment deal into the game.

The majority of content, such as Socceroos, Matildas, A-League and W-League matches, will eventually be broadcast on the company’s SVOD service Paramount Plus in the coming months.

A revamped presentation of the game will be implemented across the new TV deal, as highlighted by the recent announcement that the Saturday night A-League broadcast shown on Channel 10 will also feature live crosses and a ‘goal rush’ type innovation involving the other simultaneous match, something which is currently seen in top league broadcasts around the world.

Fresh ideas such as this are welcomed, but ViacomCBS may need to look at further options to build rapport with fans of the round ball game in Australia.

One of those opportunities they should pursue, and strongly, is looking to secure the EPL rights off Optus Sport.

Optus Sport have held the rights since 2016, after beating out Foxtel at the time.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, English Premier League officials have begun talks with local media companies in regards to the broadcast rights to one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions.

Optus Sport’s existing deal ends at the conclusion of this season, with a blind auction in November set to decide who will show the league in the coming seasons.

ViacomCBS’s Paramount Plus is considered to be one of four candidates who are reportedly in the running to land the EPL broadcast rights, alongside current rights holders Optus Sport, Amazon Prime and Stan Sport.

The rights are expected to cost as much as $80 million a year, but that figure may be higher if there is a strong competitive process for them, which looks likely.

If the EPL was to be secured and shown on Paramount Plus, there would be significant benefits across the board for ViacomCBS and also for football in Australia.

Having both the EPL and A-League on the same service would place Paramount Plus as a must have service for the large majority of football fans in Australia.

The acquisition of the EPL would add a huge amount of value to Paramount Plus as a streaming product and bring over those fans who would not commit to the service for just A-League and W-League matches.

Their subscriber numbers would grow substantially, and a free-to-air EPL game on Channel 10 may be a strategic possibility, to draw even more people to sign up for the subscription service.

Alongside the original entertainment programming that they have on their service, Paramount Plus with the EPL and A-League rights, will go close to rivalling the bigger streaming platforms such as Netflix and Stan.

For Australian football, having both leagues together in the one place would mirror similar benefits the A-League had on Fox Sports when they also showcased live EPL broadcasts.

Most Australian football fans will remember Matchday Saturday on Fox Sports with great fondness, where A-League matches would precede EPL matches in what was a feast for football fans every week, all in one place.

The A-League peaked in popularity around that timeframe, and it’s plausible that a larger quantity of fans tuned into the local domestic competition before they would also watch EPL matches later in the night.

Administrators from the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) will be hoping a sense of deja vu occurs again, on a different platform this time around.

Packaging up the two leagues would provide cross promotional possibilities to continue to lift the profile of the A-League and may eventually convince fans of overseas clubs to also support a local team.

Turning general fans of football into A-League or W-League supporters is something that the APL have noted they are focusing on in the years to come, after unbundling from the FA.

Utilizing the advantages of having the Premier League rights on the same service may fast track those outcomes, but that is dependant on the willingness and commercial factors which decide ViacomCBS’s next moves.

However, for growth prospects in the local game and also in their own Paramount Plus streaming service, ViacomCBS may find this opportunity too good to refuse.

 

K-League’s beneficial partnership with La Liga: A blueprint for the A-League?

Late last year, the Korean K-League and Spain’s La Liga signed an MOU to advance the collaboration and communication between both leagues and mutually grow their competitions.

At the time of the announcement of the three-year partnership, matters that the two leagues were set to focus on included the development of sport projects, different training programs, addressing anti-piracy issues and creating an economic control mechanism for the K-League and its clubs.

Since last December, the leagues have conducted a wide range of joint workshops and campaigns on these different agenda items.

For example, La Liga has offered multiple training sessions to coaches and K-League staff based on the experience of the La Liga Sports Projects team in their initiatives across the globe. These sessions are held virtually (with a scope to return to face-to-face if COVID allows) with Spanish clubs such as Valencia CF and Elche participating in them, and is set to continue deep into the 2021/22 season.

Similarly to what has been done with coaching education, both leagues have held virtual training conferences on financial control to ensure the viability and long term growth of the K-League and its teams. Using an offline format, a mechanism which has allowed La Liga clubs to reduce their debt from €650 million in 2013 to €23 million in 2020 will also be explained this coming season.

A prominent area which the two leagues looked to address in the initial months of the agreement was the fight against audio-visual piracy. The K-League have launched the “Protect K-League” campaign and alongside the technological advancements developed by La Liga’s anti-piracy branch, this seems to be a high priority for the two competitions.

The eSports field will also be targeted in the coming months, with the K-League and La Liga to carry out joint projects and activations. Both countries have seen the importance of the gaming world and have grown significantly in this sector in recent years.

Yeon Sang Cho, general secretary of the K-League, spoke about the advantages of the arrangement with La Liga.

“Since the signing of the agreement last December we have seen how our relationship with La Liga has gone from strength to strength and how we have worked together to overcome such a difficult situation,” he told the La Liga Newsletter.

“We are impressed with La Liga’s commitment.

“Thanks to it we have been able to adapt to the limitations imposed by the pandemic; carry out virtual training meetings for K-League coaches and their clubs; and also an in-depth analysis of economic control mechanisms, which are key to creating a sustainable professional football industry. Here at the K-League we are very happy with the progress of the relationship and we look forward to a future where these ties become even stronger.”

Sangwon Seo, La Liga’s delegate in South Korea, spoke of the early success of the partnership.

“For us at La Liga it is a great source of pride to be able to count on such an important ally as the K-League and to share our knowledge and experience with them,” he told the La Liga Newsletter.

“These first months since the MOU was signed have been very productive and we have experienced a very enriching exchange of knowledge that has allowed us to move forward despite the global pandemic.

“At La Liga we face this season with great enthusiasm, and a desire to deepen our relationship with the K League and to bring our joint projects to fruition.”

It’s a great move for the K-League to improve their operations through help from one of the world’s top leagues, something which the A-League should envy.

Because of initiatives like this they are setting their clubs up financially for the long-term future and accessing training methods that are of a world class standard.

The A-League should be looking at this example of the collaboration between these two leagues if they want to become a more prominent competition in Asia.

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