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.