Football Victoria President Antonella Care: “It’s been terrific to broadcast on a dedicated platform”

2022 has seen football’s consistent return across Victoria, in a greatly changed environment following two seasons largely ruined by Covid-19. Nearing the end of the NPL Victoria Men’s and Women’s competitions, Football Victoria President Antonella Care spoke with Soccerscene on the health of her organisation, and the state of the game moving forward.

We’re over 12 months into your tenure as Football Victoria’s President, a period which has been largely defined by football’s return post-Covid-19. In addition to this, what do you consider the strongest success of the organisation during this time?

Antonella Care: Prudential financial planning and management through the Covid period and two cancelled seasons was really critical. I’m really proud of the strong commitment and support we gave our clubs during that period, and the fact participation in 2022 is almost at pre-pandemic levels is good evidence of that. Robust governance has been something that I’m equally proud of and think is a good success of the organisation.

We’ve also developed a greater awareness and sharper focus on gender equity, and as the first female president of Football Victoria, it’s a badge of honour that I wear. Under my stewardship I’m able to bring a greater focus to that, noting that our 50-50 focus has been adopted by Football Australia, so it’s now a national objective.

The home of the Matildas will serve as a built institution and legacy for football in Victoria. It’s really important that we’ll receive the greatest funding attributed to the round ball in this country. It will lead to a strong focus on female participation, and ensure that we as a board, especially post-Covid, have a strong focus on grassroots, and support our clubs to recover with prosperity for football.

Could you please expand on robust governance?

Antonella Care: Without speaking out of turn, I think football in Australia has historically been the recipient of people who have influenced the game, over and above what is best for it. When I say strong governance, we have implemented a governance review of football, and we’re in the throes of determining the best strategy of putting that forward. We’ve had a really good look at the standing committees and communications, and there is some interesting information that has come out of those reviews that will start to take effect into 2023.

I think, too, with the constitutional review that’s taken place, and the committee that’s been leading the charge on that, we have a good cross section of advice and information that will inform the constitutional reform changes that will hopefully, again, be showcased later on this year. All these things are leading to a stronger ecosystem, leading to decisions that are made on balance and not influence.

We’re nearing the end of the return seasons of both the NPL Victoria Men’s & Women’s campaigns. Do you feel the return has been successful? Other than participation numbers, are there any other means you’ve used to quantify this?

Antonella Care: It’s been hard, but there’s no doubt interest in our top tiers is strong, and certainly the streaming numbers have shown that. Victoria has been one of the greatest recipients of the NPL.TV platform in particular, with over six million minutes of football consumed. Our stakeholders have been extremely willing and well positioned on the back of Covid, so I think that’s had a significant impact on our success as well. Victoria has had to pivot far greater than everybody else and our resilience has shown that, so they’re probably the key things.

In hindsight, is there anything you feel you could have carried out differently in returning from the pandemic?

Antonella Care: The position Victoria was in as a closed state for such a lengthy period was something we will hopefully never see again. We probably could have communicated more frequently [when resuming post-Covid] – I think everybody spent so much time trying to see what we could do to reinstate football and get people back on the park, and we had to pivot so many times through those challenges because the numbers, rules and protocols were constantly changing.

If I had my time over again, our focus would have been greater communication, and a lot more discussion around resilience and mental wellbeing. These are the things our game doesn’t always do well; I would put some more emphasis around that.

We did introduce some really good opportunities and collectives in getting our community together. Like everybody else, the transition into Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms got better as the pandemic got longer.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing football in Victoria, and the game in Australia more broadly?

Antonella Care: Covid-19 continues to present the single biggest challenge to our sport both locally and nationally, and the compliance and continued requirements for social distancing is still having an impact. Everything from return to play protocols to financial pressures have changed the way people engage in organised sport, potentially forever, and I predict those financial impacts will continue. That comes from people who lost their jobs or were stood down over the period, to the way we now spend our money differently, and it’s also impacted who chooses to play organised sport. 

The other obvious thing is the added challenge of attracting volunteers. Like all sports, we’ve had a significant loss to our volunteer base; whether people who are older are now more afraid, or who through their own requirements after a two year hiatus have decided to just go and watch rather than actually volunteer. It’s a hard job, and they’re what make or break our game day experiences.

We’ve also lost a lot of referees, and I don’t think that’s a big secret to anybody – that’s been challenging. Finally, ongoing education; we’ve lost and forgotten how to be respectful of each other, and of the people helping us through game day experiences.

Returning to your partnership with Cluch.TV to provide NPL.TV – in your opinion this has been a success, nearing the end of your first season with them?

Antonella Care: It’s been terrific to broadcast matches on a dedicated platform. It has the ability to play live matches, integrated highlights, all of that has been thrilling. We’ve welcomed new faces to the commentary team, including some really amazing new female voices. It’s a solid product, it has multiple ways you can access it, and there’s an opportunity to further commercialise it.

One of the major benefits of Cluch.TV is the opportunity for our clubs to feature their partners with 20% of the advertising inventory going back to them, so again it’s a monetary opportunity. That said, obviously nothing beats attending a match in person – you want to soak up the atmosphere and be part of your community. So we see our streams as a supportive product to create exposure for people who aren’t necessarily lovers or frequentors of football; it’s a growth opportunity for new people to come into our fold.

Does Football Victoria have a position on the regulation of private academies? Is there interest in building a membership-based framework that incentivises participation, but also promotes compliance in certain areas across the board?

Antonella Care: Academies reflect what is a strong demand for football, 12 months of the year. We’re always looking for opportunities where we can work with our stakeholders, there is no doubt we need to improve our game. Football Victoria does work with clubs who have dedicated private academies or associations with private academies, and it’s been successful, especially in our junior NPL programs.

I think with some good governance frameworks along with Football Australia, we can continue to have solid and successful relationships with all providers. There is enough there for everybody, and this is really about ‘the game’, it’s not about capitalising on every front. As stated in our strategy, it’s ‘football any time, any where’, and academies provide another opportunity for that.

I think we can work together, and it’s important to have good relationships with our stakeholders. As seen with bringing futsal back into the fold, it’s provided a good governance opportunity. Some of the systems out there are fantastic and don’t need ‘intervention’. For those that perhaps want assistance and guidance we are happy to provide it, but we don’t need to be all things to all people.

Does Football Victoria have a position on the potential development of a national second division? Has there been any consideration towards potential vacuum effects should top clubs ascend out of the current NPL structure?

The continued development and growth of our game is important, in whatever form that takes. I don’t think a second tier will create a vacuum necessarily, I think it will continue to grow our development pathways. Football Victoria remains committed to the successful launch of the second division, and I would say to any clubs who are selected, that we will be more than happy to support them in that process. We have so many strong NPL clubs in our state, that any potential vacuum won’t materially affect any clubs that choose to stay in the NPL system either.

Allambie Beacon Hill United FC’s Steven Gravemade gives account of the Local Sport Grant process and its benefits

Two historic clubs from the Manly Warringah Football Association – Manly Allambie Football Club and Beacon Hill Football Club – have amalgamated to create Allambie Beacon Hill United FC (ABHUFC) in the 2024 season.

Since the decision last year to merge together, the Club has been busy streamlining and preparing its operations in its inaugural campaign.

As part of their expansion, the ABHUFC have recently been approved by the Local Sport Grant Program form the NSW government.

They have successfully received two grants, helping to get a new coffee machine for the clubhouse and new flags for the numbering of fields costing just above $7,000.

With the new fields and more club members, these purchases have become important cogs in the building of this new Club’s culture.

Soccerscene spoke to ABHUFC’s grant advisor Steven Gravemade who saw a great opportunity arise through the grant.

How did you find out about the grant?

Steven Gravemade: I usually find them posted on social media adverts and many committee members forwarded stuff they find from social media.

We always need to keep our eyes open for any grant offers.

What was the process to get the grant?

Steven Gravemade: You need to start with the right documentation especially invoices and quotes for the products, such as the expected cost, and what they are needed for, club info.

Then you need to complete a lengthy online form with the details of the grant on the app called SmartyGrants.

This grants app then forwards the information to whichever grant program is requested. Us being the Local Sport Grant Program.

The Senior Men facing Narrabeen.

Was it a hard process to go through or straight forward?

Steven Gravemade: It was not lengthy and not hard. You need to know what you are doing in the sense of creating a quote for the grant and following a similar well-created format. You do have to work methodically through the form.

There was positive correspondence for 3-7 weeks before it hit the accounts. This means we can go out and purchase the products now and keep the invoice.

The final stage of the grant is putting back into the app system the purchase, and this should finalise the whole process.

It is dependent on the grants, these were smaller grants than others. Though we did two separate grants which added time but overall, a similar experience and therefore a fluid task.

There is obvious difficulty added when you are applying for grants that involve infrastructure zoning as it takes many months and is very taxing,

You’ll have to go through other systems as well including the local council and this naturally makes it a longer process.

Whereas with this grant it can be done just by the club without the association or council involved. Just through the app.

“Now he’s done it a couple of times for both infrastructure and smaller grants. I think we’ve become pretty efficient.

Do they think the funding was a good amount and adequate for the Club?

Steven Gravemade: In this particular case, it was exactly what we requested,

The form also asks if you are willing to contribute which can help gauge the grant, but for us, it was more than adequate and perfectly suited to what we had wanted.

How do you think this will benefit the club overall?

Steven Gravemade: These grants are a big help and help save valuable fundraising, that can go elsewhere.

For example, it was a big bonus in helping us with the processes that needed other funding such as our completely new purple kits, training equipment, updating facilities and club image.

It’s a massive help to the club and to the budget. Every little bit helps.

ABHUFC’s Women’s First Grade team against Manly Vale.

For the bigger picture and first-hand experience, do you see this program as a positive plan for grassroots football?

Steven Gravemade: Yes, we feel supported through grants like this as a club. You obviously need to work hard to get it.  Though the process was fluid and for our club, any grant is appreciated.

On this topic, do you think enough clubs/associations are aware of these grants?

Steven Gravemade: They do pop up, where mailing systems are also around and the main way to know of these grants and how to get them, a lot of clubs I presume are on them.

However, you still need someone proactive in the clubs to get the ball rolling such as a grants officer.

This one came up before the start of the season so maybe many weren’t looking then”.

We found out and applied for this one before the start of the season.

Also, if you look at all the grants there are a lot given out to all sports clubs, and they only show the grants that got accepted.

You can only guess how many actually applied for a grant and maybe could not be accepted.

However, I think a lot also don’t apply in the end. Overall, for me, I think these grants are beneficial.

ABHUFC’s mixed grading day in February.

 

The Local Sports grant was a massive project from the NSW government to help fuel the growth of the many codes within NSW.

The positive effect this has is massive on the infrastructure for the game and the quality and experience of grassroots sports.

The grants also show that the NSW government is invested in the growth of community football and wants to actively encourage and financially support the ambitions of these grassroots clubs.

How the J.League rose from 10 clubs to 60 across Japan’s islands

Starting as a modest 10-team league, the J.League has expanded into a formidable three-tiered structure, boasting 60 professional clubs spread across Japan’s islands, stretching from the southern reaches of Okinawa to the northern city of Sapporo is an achievement to be proud of.

They adopted the traditional aspects of European football, envisioning a unified pyramid structure where any team could aspire to reach the pinnacle. Simultaneously, they excelled America’s emphasis on commercialism and merchandising, aiming to establish a football powerhouse in one of the world’s rapidly expanding economies.

In this interview with Soccerscene, J.League Media Officer, Hisao Shuto discusses the dream that Saburo Kawabuchi had envisioned in the early 1990s, the collaboration with Optus Sport, the approach for developing homegrown players and how the J-League promoted its community based-clubs in J2 and J3.

Japan Football Association General Secretary Saburo Kawabuchi had a dream of creating a “social revolution,” can you please explain to me what that involved?

Hisao Shuto: In order to improve the standard of football in Japan and to promote widely, it was thought that professionalisation was necessary. It was also considered necessary to establish sports clubs, following the example of European sports clubs, to create a culture in which all generations can enjoy their favourite sports, not only football, whenever they want, and to build a safe and comfortable sports environment with stadiums where they can experience top-level games and grass fields.

In addition, to contribute to friendship and exchange in the international community through football, which is played all over the world, these are the missions of the J.League.

What challenges did the J.League come across in that period of time?

Hisao Shuto: To make J clubs an indispensable presence in each hometown. To share the importance of social contribution in each hometown with the clubs and to expand their efforts. Another challenge was to stabilize the management of the clubs after the J.League’s inaugural boom had passed.

What do you think about the collaboration with Optus Sport? Has it been a success overall?

Hisao Shuto: Since 2020, Optus Sport has provided a valuable platform for the J.League to reach audiences in Australia, and we’ve appreciated the opportunity to engage with a new audience in the region and promoting the league outside of Japan. We are proud of our collaboration which has been beneficial for both parties and successful in driving new fans to the sport.

 

Can you please explain to me how the promotion and relegation setup is run across the three division? Has it been a success in your opinion?

Hisao Shuto: According to the annual ranking of J1, J2, and J3 (20 clubs each), three clubs in each category will be promoted or relegated. For promotion from J2 to J1 and J3 to J2, the top two clubs are automatically promoted, and the remaining one slot is decided in a playoff.

The promotion playoffs will make the league more exciting until the last day of the season, as many clubs will still have a chance to be promoted until the end of the season. The promotion playoffs have been a success with large spectators at each stadium.

One of Japan’s greatest successes in football has been its breeding ground for home grown players, what was the approach by becoming a hub for developing these kind of talented players?

Hisao Shuto: Prior to the start of the J-League, high schools were the primary training fields. The national high school championships, which attracted crowds of 50,000 for the finals, have long contributed to the strengthening and targeting of teenage football players.

After the establishment of the J.League, each club was required to have its own academy division for the purpose of raising the standard and promoting the spread of football. Academy players continued to compete in a selective environment, and the J.League has followed the European model by setting and managing standards for academy departments and allocating funds to support their activities to all clubs.

Each club academy created the position of academy director to clarify the role of development. In addition, many opportunities were provided for the academy generation to compete in cup competitions, league matches, and overseas tours.

Other measures included providing learning opportunities for coaches and subsidies (up to 4 million yen per club to promote the creation of opportunities for players and coaches to go overseas). We have also worked with the Japan Football Association (JFA) to invest in development activities, exchange information, and hold Elite Youth Course A coach training workshops.

We believe it is necessary to continue our development activities through ongoing learning for leaders such as academy directors and coaches, and by providing opportunities in the game environment.

What is Japan Professional Football League doing to increase the viewership so that more people from around the world tune in to watch the matches?

J.League recognises the importance of growing our global audience, and we are implementing various strategies to achieve this goal. These efforts include organizing friendly matches between J.League clubs and overseas clubs, activating on-ground promotions overseas, and actively engaging with fans on social media platforms in multiple languages. By enhancing accessibility and promoting the excitement of J.League football, we aim to attract more viewers from around the world.

Was there any type of barriers to overcome in creating J2 and J3? If so, what were they? if not, what did the Professional Football League do so well to not have any obstacles?

Hisao Shuto: There were no major barriers. The establishment of J2 was a natural step, as the creation of J.League clubs throughout Japan had been a goal from the beginning, and many clubs wanted to join the J. League after the establishment of J1. Many clubs thereafter wanted to be part of the J.League, and J3 was created to meet their needs.

How did the Japan Professional Football League promote the clubs in the J2 and J3 to the fans, considering a lot of clubs are community based? 

Hisao Shuto: J.League activities would not be possible without the support of each hometown. Therefore, since its inception, the J.League has emphasised social contribution activities in each hometown. These activities include not only the promotion of football, but also the promotion of other sports in the community, health promotion activities, and cooperation with government activities.

J.League also develops “Sharen!” program to address social issues (education, diversity, generational exchange, etc.) in cooperation with three or more parties, including companies and local governments in the hometown.

In addition, since last year, Club Support Division has been established within the league in charge of working with clubs to increase media exposure in their local communities to attract even more fans and supporters in each hometown.

What was the way for clubs to maintain their budget financially in the J2 and J3? Was it successful? Have any clubs been removed due to financial instability?

Hisao Shuto: J.League provides each J. League club with an equal allocation for each category.  In addition, a club license system has been in place since 2012 to ensure that clubs do not run beyond their scale of business and maintain sound management. This club licensing system aims to continuously improve the competitive and facility standards of football by setting standards in terms of competition and facilities, and to stabilize the management of clubs and improve their financial capacity and reliability by setting financial, personnel, legal, and other standards.

At the end of 1998, Yokohama Flugels was merged into Yokohama Marinos, which also has Yokohama as its hometown, due to the mismanagement and withdrawal of the investing company, but since then, no club has been removed due to financial instability.

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