Former South Melbourne FC President George Vasilopoulos has provided his insights into the National Second Division, stating he believes many issues which prevented its formation in the past still exist.
But despite the financial and geographic barriers, Vasilopoulos remains optimistic that the inception of a promotion/relegation system could reignite Australian football.
“People have been wanting to do it since the National Soccer League was established in 1977. Can you imagine how exciting it would be? People would fill up stadiums to see their team challenge for promotion,” he said.
“It would give football fans a new lease on life. There would be more sponsorship, more members, and more support.”
Reenergising the A-League is a current priority for the game’s leading administrators. With average crowd numbers stagnating over recent seasons despite growing participation, Australian football is at somewhat of a crossroads.
“The A-League started very well. I was so pleased to see large crowds attending the games but over time hit a bit of a downturn,” Vasilopoulos said.
“It takes time to build things and I am keen to see how it will play out, but recently crowds have gone down. This naturally leads to a reduction in sponsorship and money. Administrators have to work harder to find dollars which creates pressure.”
As an administrator for almost 30 years, including a 13-year period as President of South Melbourne FC from 1989-2002, Vasilopoulos attended many meetings to brainstorm a second division’s viability.
Unfortunately, the league never materialised, and he believes many of the issues that administrators faced then are still obstacles today.
“The second division has always been discussed. It would be a huge benefit for the sport, but the issues today are the same – there is a tyranny of distance in Australia and the key question remains, how will it all be funded?” he added.
“We could never come up with a legitimate strategy to make it work. Flying teams and their staff regularly over long distances is extremely expensive, not to mention accommodation and all of the other costs associated with it.”
The feasibility of a National Second Division may lie in modern solutions, with a conference style system touted to minimise travel proving a popular idea.
“Conferences with the winners playing off in a tournament is a brilliant idea. That would generate interest for fans and viewers who would know there is a massive prize at the end of it all,” Vasilopoulos said.
“You see how people react to knockout football with the popularity of the FFA Cup. There’s a lot of interest in seeing lower league clubs challenge for the cup but having a prize like promotion at the end of it would take it to another level.”
With a conference system a legitimate option to solve travel concerns, administrators are beginning to piece together a realistic model for the division. Although much work remains to be done, the formation of the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) Championship Partner Group will only bolster funding and support, with the group’s 35 member clubs aiming to launch the second-tier in 2022.
“Having these strong, historic clubs like Marconi, Sydney Olympic, South Melbourne, Heidelberg and so on supporting the division will only help to get it off the ground. Generating that interest in the grassroots is important but if these clubs want to go up, then someone must come down and creating a system that involves relegation may be a real challenge,” Vasilopoulos said.
“Relegation may make it impossible financially. There are a wealthy people behind these clubs who contribute a lot of funding. Would a person want to put money into a club, millions of dollars if they are at risk of being relegated?”
“It’s difficult because there is definitely merit to a second division with promotion and relegation, but clubs would need financial support.”
Vasilopoulos added that a short-term solution could involve promotion without relegation, at least in the interim to top up the league and build momentum before eventually bringing in relegation down the track once the system has matured.
“From this season there will be 12 teams in the A-League. If they want to bring in a system slowly, they could have promotion playoffs for the first few years without team’s in the top league facing relegation,” he said.
“In the old National Soccer League there were 14 teams. We could create a system where for the first few years the winning second division team gets promoted and builds the league’s numbers up. This would give FFA time to create a sustainable system over time.”
For more information on the Championship Partner Group, visit here.