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.

A-League clubs to be given only $530k in funding for next season

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL) have confirmed the annual grants distributed to A-League clubs will be slashed close to 75 per cent for the upcoming 2024/25 season.

After an APL board meeting, clubs were informed that next year’s distribution would total to just $530,000, from $2 million the season before.

The A-League Men minimum spending floor is $2.25 million with a salary cap limit of $2.6 million.

For wealthier clubs such as Melbourne City, they would be able to cover the remaining costs to reach the minimum spending floor. However, this would leave smaller clubs in the A-League in a much more complex financial position.

Back in 2018, before separating from Football Australia, the annual club distribution was around $3.6 million.

APL Chair Stephen Conroy released a statement concerning the significant financial cuts.

“The decision, which has been under discussion with league and Board representatives over the past few months, aligns with the Board’s commercial review of the A-Leagues since the original three-year strategy came to an end,” Conroy said via the A-Leagues website.

“We are committed to right-sizing the A-Leagues which is why we’ve been focused on cutting costs across the leagues, growing our core football product and uniting the football pyramid to support the growth of our game.

“The Board, the Leagues and the Clubs are committed to continuing to deliver the best football possible. We have our eye firmly on the future. Our core metrics are positive, with three years of growth, which will position the league for revenue growth in the future.”

These recent deductions raise many questions about how the APL and A-Leagues ended up in this financial conundrum and where has their money gone over the last couple of years?

One of the main reasons the APL was forced to make these financial cuts was due to overspending on its website, KEEPUP.

Launched in 2021 during the peak of COVID, the former APL CEO Danny Townsend said the cost to set up the league’s digital content production arm was estimated to be around $30 million. However, the site was not popular with the fans who criticised the app and website for not solely focusing on Australian football.

Despite showing potential, the APL went overboard very early and now has to deal with the consequences of it.

Another key event that has contributed to the recent financial issues dates back to December 2022, where the league signed a controversial deal with Destination NSW to host the A-Leagues Grand Finals in Sydney regardless of which teams qualified. The deal – which was worth an estimated eight-figure sum – received a lot of backlash from fans leading to protests such as the infamous pitch invasion during the Melbourne Derby.

Even former Adelaide United player and Socceroo Craig Goodwin, who was involved in the promotional video for Destination NSW and the A-League Grand Finals, posted a tweet saying he did not support the partnership. However, the league eventually turned their back on the deal after just one season.

The A-Leagues has also struggled to gain revenue from its current TV-rights deal with Paramount+ and Network 10 due to the numerous targets that the A-Leagues must meet to guarantee funding from their broadcast partner. The initial deal which was signed before the 2021/22 A-Leagues season was worth $200 million over five years.

After one season these goals were not met, it led to the Destination NSW deal. Also the decrease in subscribers due to issues with Paramount+, such as the inability to pause and rewind as well as significant streaming issues, combined with the lack of popularity and publicity of the league resulted in the APL only taking $5 million from the deal last season.

With broadcasting deals being such an integral aspect of generating income in the footballing world, the fact the APL only received such a small sum from a deal where they could have received much more is a big reason for their financial difficulties.

Despite the APL chair Stephen Conroy claiming the reductions in central distribution has come as no shock to clubs, this is a worrying time for the A-Leagues. The APL will need to find quick and responsible solutions to combat their financial difficulties if they want the leagues to continue to be operational and have some sort of future to expand and grow.

Juventus Creator Lab: a novel strategy for football media

Over the years Juventus FC has had to endure substantial challenges on and off the field, however, they are making a robust return in the digital space. The club’s digital team is working diligently to establish new, stable revenue sources through the Juventus Creator Lab, initiating partnerships and launching new online platforms.

It is evident that the Italian giants have not been very forthcoming about their vision, strategy, and future plans for the club in recent years.

Considering the pressure they’ve faced after being docked 10 points by the Italian football federation’s appeals court, it’s understandable why they’ve been less communicative. This penalty resulted from an investigation into the club’s transfer activities.

The legal case remains unresolved, as the club maintains they have operated within the rules. Additionally, several executives were banned from football due to their involvement, leading to the appointment of a new executive team to bring stability to Turin.

One of the newer executives at Juventus Football Club is Mike Armstrong, who became Chief Marketing Officer in September 2021. The Canadian leader brings a diverse background in technology, having worked with Google and YouTube, and in advertising, with experience in fast-moving consumer goods brands like Kraft Foods and AB-Inbev, as well as in an esports start-up.

The Juventus Creator Lab is the birthplace of Juventus’ digital products, a fresh creative approach inspired by LA-style creator houses and gaming studios, designed to cater to a global fanbase.

The Juventus Creator Lab is designed to enhance accessibility and foster a closer connection across all areas of Juventus, including the men’s and women’s first teams, Next Gen, legends, esports teams, and even the innovative animated kids’ series dedicated to the younger fanbase, Team Jay.

With a rich background in corporate America, Armstrong objective is where the overarching aim has always been clear ever since he joined: to outpace competitors in growth while simultaneously enhancing profit margins.

This mentality is what Juventus and the entire football industry needs, a defined objective of consistently generating revenue to fund the development of a football team capable of competing with the world’s top clubs.

Armstrong talks about the instability within the industry via an interview for Off The Pitch, which he acknowledges as a fundamental aspect of sports. Success or failure in qualifying for competitions can cause substantial revenue fluctuations.

“For me, this is the approach we need to pursue. Players are always crucial, but they come and go, and their presence can be unpredictable. So, I believe all football clubs need to explore ways to make their business less susceptible to volatility. In my case, along with my colleagues, we confront a reality where players serve as key distribution drivers due to their social media followings,” he explains.

“However, recently, out of necessity, we decided that we had to develop a business model capable of ensuring substantial revenues even when major players departed the club. With this goal in mind, we’ve witnessed a significant transformation in our approach and operations, and we believe we’ve made considerable strides in recent years.”

With an annual revenue of $741 million, Juventus has faced difficulties in their digital operations after the departure of key social media influencers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Leandro Paredes, and Paul Pogba.

To determine the type of content creator you should become, it’s essential to understand your audience. Armstrong recognised that with 90 percent of Juventus fans living outside Italy and 40 percent of them being under 24 years old, the club needed to significantly rethink their approach.

They have achieved impressive milestones with 60 million followers on Instagram, 30 million on TikTok, and 7.5 million on YouTube. Armstrong mentions that they have exceeded initial expectations, and he anticipates substantial revenue growth from sponsors in the coming years.

A clear indicator of their progress is the addition of 2 billion more video views last season compared to the one before, and an overall increase of 159 percent in video views across their ecosystem over the past two seasons.

Simultaneously, they initiated several partnerships, including one with Celine Dept, a rapidly growing digital sports creator with 43 million followers. Juventus also partnered with 433, one of the world’s leading football communities boasting 115 million followers, and Wave Sports + Entertainment, which has over 130 million followers across its various accounts.

The difficult part for Juventus, as with all other clubs, is making sure they create content that connects with all their fans.

Looking at all this from a football landscape in Australia, it seems too good to be true to have a physical laboratory of where a clubs digital products are born, this would greatly benefit the Isuzu UTE A-League men’s and Liberty A-League women’s to enhance the clubs around the country not only on social media platforms but also both in a traffic and engagement aspect to be seen by global brands.

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