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Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley: “It isn’t a national competition without a Tasmanian team in it”

Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley has been in the job since August 2018, and has had plenty of work cut out for him during a turbulent time in Australian football. He spoke to Soccerscene about his involvement in football, Tasmania’s A-League ambitions, and the future of the game in Australia’s smallest state.

Q. How did you become involved in football?

Bulkeley: I’ve been involved in football all my life, I started playing when I was about six or seven in the Hills district in Sydney. I played football probably until I was about 35, and was involved as a volunteer coaching juniors and seniors. I studied a sports management degree when I finished school and worked for about 10 years in cricket. The opportunity came up for an opportunity with Football Federation Australia in around 2005, and I took that role on and was with the national body for almost eight years. I had some other roles in between before coming back into football in this role. 

Q. What challenges has Football Tasmania faced in recent years?

Bulkeley: We’ve had similar challenges to everyone else in relation to COVID, The interruption of the season, and the need to reconfigure what we had planned to do. We were able to get away a season that was roughly two-thirds of a normal season, we didn’t play all of the normal games. We did get most of our players who ended up playing after the break, which was a good thing. When we did return it was a pretty good season. What our clubs found was that they had good interest, good attendance on game days. People enjoyed themselves, and after that lockdown, it was in a sense even more important people had football to forward to and bring themselves together again. What it did impact was that the National Boy’s Championship didn’t go ahead, so that cohort of players didn’t have that opportunity last year, which was disappointing for them with a bit of gap in their development.

In terms of other challenges, one of our challenges that has been fairly well documented is around facilities. We are the biggest participation sport in Tasmania in terms of team sports, but our facilities have not kept up with that demand. They are dated, they are all a similar age and until recent times that haven’t provided suitable amenities for females in particular, both in terms of the number of change rooms as well as their design. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years working with all levels of government and our stakeholders to try and unlock more funding in football and had good success with that. There have been commitments of $30 million-plus, maybe closer to $40 million after this last state election, and we are starting to see the fruit from that – better facilities, and more across the state.

Q. Has engaging with state government and politicians been a challenge?

Bulkeley: It has been a challenge, and I think that is because we haven’t been as coordinated as we could have been in our approach, and being able to put forward a needs-based business case on why football needs better and more facilities. We are the biggest sport, we are bursting at the seams, and have facilities that aren’t fit for purpose. On one hand, it was challenging, but on the other the case sort of speaks for itself in terms of outcomes in recent years.

Q. Is a boutique rectangular stadium an aim for Football Tasmania?

Bulkeley: Absolutely, as far as I know, we are the only state capital that doesn’t have a rectangular stadium of any kind. When we have high-level games, including the Western United games, they’ve been played on ovals which as you know isn’t as good of a spectator experience for everyone. It’s really important for our ambitions for having our own A-League and W-League teams, which we are confident will happen. The Liberal state government has been very supportive in recent times under the leadership of premier Gutwein, in terms of supporting those ambitions, and has been very positive around a rectangular stadium. We know that would be very important in terms of that missing link for sport in this state. 

Q. How important would it be to become the first football code to launch a professional team in Tasmania?

Bulkeley: I think it’s just important full stop that we have that pathway opportunity. One of the big benefits we see having a team will provide for males and females in that opportunity locally to play at the highest level in this country without leaving the state. We’ve still got people as young as 14 and their families having to decide to relocate, with half of them staying and half of them going, so this provides a local opportunity for those more aspirational players. Then obviously being the biggest team participation sport it provides that local high-level football opportunity for people to go and watch to get behind. We think we have the football community to support it, but also think it adds value to our community by providing local heroes for our young people to look up to.

Q. What hurdles does Football Tasmania in launching an A-League team?

Bulkeley: It is tied to further expansion to the A-League, and from everything that has been communicated from the APL (Australian Professional Leagues), that will occur. Then it’s working on the infrastructure part of it, ensuring we have government support, and that we work with club owners and put the case for having a Tasmania team forward as a strong environment for a further team to be based. It would add a lot to the competition, and our view has always been that it isn’t a national competition if it doesn’t have a Tasmanian team in it. 

Q. What challenges does Football Tasmania face going forward?

Bulkeley: I think one thing we have worked hard on, in the last period of time, is collaboration. We have and are committed to working very closely with our clubs and associations on the aspirations of football. We know we can only do it together. We’ve made some really good inroads in the infrastructure area. We are working hard on other areas of the game, continuing to grow the game, the female side of the game. We have the highest proportion of female participation of anywhere in the country of almost 29%, which we are very proud of but want to keep building on that. We want to keep providing more opportunities around coach education and development, and similarly with refereeing. So there are lots of opportunities and challenges for us to embrace, but we know we need to work together with our clubs and associations to do that.

Player sentiment up, average age down: PFA releases annual report

Sentiment is well and truly up for A-League players, according to the annual Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) report.

This time last year, only 33% of A-League players felt confident about the direction of their football careers.

According to the PFA’s latest annual report, that number is now 56%.

Of the A-League’s 312 players, 200 responded to the 2020/21 A-League survey, capturing 70% of the current cohort, with the results proving that even despite the ongoing turbulence and uncertainty of COVID-19, the majority of players feel much more confident about their futures within the game.

The report highlights that Australian players actively want to remain in the A-League, as opposed to seeking opportunities overseas.

The key numbers that demonstrate this include:

  • 55% of players said they would like to stay playing in the A-League next season, up from 45% last year.
  • 56% of players are confident about the direction of their football careers, compared to 33% in 2019/20.
  • Only 4% of players would move to an overseas league even if it was for similar money and/or playing standard.
  • Only 16% of players who would prefer to move to an overseas league would only do so if the money and standards were better.

Other highlights of the report include that the average A-League player is getting younger.

Over the last 14 years, the average age of the A-League player has consistently trended upwards.

In 2020/21, however, this changed and the average age trended downwards, dropping from 27.6 to 25.1.

The number of players utilised in the A-League who were aged 21 and under came in at 107, representing 35% of the 300 players who received A-League minutes during the 2020/21 season.

The youngest squads on average belonged to Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, with average ages of 23.6 and 23.9 years respectively.

Another highlight was the fact that of the league’s 312 contracted players, 300 received A-League minutes.

“These reports have been immensely valuable, helping the PFA and the players better understand the industry in which they are employed, monitor the application of high-performance standards, assess technical progress and survey the players’ experience,” PFA Co-Chief Executive Beau Busch said of the report.

“For the last five years, we have been able to utilise these reports to formulate evidence-based positions to improve the environments in which our members work through collective bargaining.

“Promisingly, after a period of significant uncertainty, the players have indicated that they are more confident in the direction of their careers and the future of the competition than this time last year, signifying a positive shift in the perception of the A-League.”

The report also highlights the fact that A-League attendances were the lowest ever in the competition, thanks in large part to COVID-19, with an average attendance of 5,660.

Foreign players in the league reduced by 12 to a total of 51, whilst the average salary in the A-League is $136,791.

Access the full report HERE.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 games across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

Harnwell:
I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

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