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Heidelberg United: An infrastructure for the future

With Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ long retired and a lack of stars emerging to take their place, the debate around the nation’s footballing infrastructure has reached fever pitch. Although many blame a lack of investment, some clubs are managing to secure funding to support the development of the next generation and at a state level, few are doing it on the scale of Heidelberg United FC.

The ‘Bergers’ have enjoyed a period of sustained success, topping Victoria’s NPL for three consecutive seasons and lifted the trophy in 2018. Now, Heidelberg’s on-field ambitions are finally being matched off the park, with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of its Olympic Park precinct.

“One thing Heidelberg has lacked for a while is state-of-the-art, modern facilities. But now, thanks to investment and government assistance we are working towards creating that,” says Steven Tsalikidis, President of Heidelberg United FC.

Olympic Park was built to accommodate athletes competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The ground has hosted many notable events throughout its existence, most recently in 2015 when 11,372 people – the second largest FFA Cup crowd in history – flocked to see Heidelberg’s semi-final clash against Melbourne City.

But despite the stadium’s rich history and the team’s roaring success, the 64-year old complex was approaching a state of decay.

This led Heidelberg United’s board to work alongside the Banyule City Council to form the Olympic Park Master Plan, a four-step proposal designed to reinvigorate the precinct and establish Olympic Park as the premiere sports hub in Melbourne’s North-East. The plan fits FFV’s State Football Facilities Strategy to increase the quantity and quality of pitches across the state.

“We handed the ground over late last year so we could start the facility upgrade. Stage one was reconstructing the main pitch which includes four new LED light tower that are suitable for even A-League standards,” Tsalikidis says.

“We wanted to create facilities that allow us to potentially host A-League games. Also, in preparation for the B-League, if that ever comes about, we want to be in a position where we can be ready to compete from the get-go.”

Fundraising for the redevelopment includes a $2 million injection from the Andrews-led state government and $3.1 million from Banyule City Council.

While additional funding is required to complete the later stages of the plan, the government’s willingness to invest should strongly encourage football fans and those in the industry, many who have grown frustrated over recent years.

The frustration peaked in 2017 when Football Federation Australia closed its AIS Centre of Excellence Program, a pathway which famously produced many of Australia’s footballing icons. The program ultimately fell victim to funding cuts, running costs, and the desire to decentralise the youth development process through the growing influence of A-League Academies.

Since then, influential figures in Australian football have been outspoken on the issue, demanding more investment into the sport to aid the future of the sport. Only months ago Graham Arnold called on Scott Morrison and the Australian Sports Commission to step in, while last year former CEO of the FFA David Gallop stated that local clubs were capping numbers as there simply weren’t enough pitches to facilitate growing participation in the sport.

The growth Gallop referenced was quantified by official surveys. A recent AusPlay study revealed the world game had more than 1.76 million active participants in 2019 – officially making it the most popular organised sport in Australia.

With Australia’s youth increasingly turning to football, it is important for clubs at all levels to follow Heidelberg’s persistence and dedication to seek investment, particularly to help develop the next generation.

Creating more pitches gives more children the opportunity to play, raising the level of youth competition and cultivating more interest in the game. Furthermore, higher quality pitches and general facilities lead to a better standard of football. This is important as it can assist to create a long-term cycle where the overall standard of football improves, attracting more viewership, interest, and sponsorship for the sport.

The latter stages of the Olympic Park Master Plan comprise of proposals to feed this cycle. Stages three and four involve the construction of two additional high-grade soccer pitches to be furnished with drainage, irrigation, fencing and lighting as well futsal courts, cricket nets, basketball courts, and more. All of these improvements will filter down to the lower levels, encouraging participation and enriching the grassroots of the game.

While the club and council work together to raise funding for the final stages of the plan, talks that Victoria’s NPL may recommence shortly are beginning to gather momentum. After three consecutive top place finishes Heidelberg United is in a strong position on-the-pitch and nothing would please the club’s fans and personnel more than to celebrate the opening of their new stadium with another title charge.

Pararoos captain Ben Roche: “Football has the ability to start important conversations”

Ben Roche has played 54 times for the Pararoos – Australia’s only national team for people with cerebral palsy – and captained the team around the world. He spoke to Soccerscene about what the Pararoos have done for him, the future of the team after the exclusion of the sport from the Paralympic Games, and how the footballing community can further embrace the squad. 

Q: How has the exclusion of 7-aside football from the Paralympic games impacted the Pararoos?

Ben Roche: For us, it almost instantly had an impact. Obviously, for the young kids pushing to want to play for the Pararoos, their attention has turned to other sports, and for Pararoos players who are in the program who had the ambition to be Paralympians have chosen other paths, which means you can lose key players and things like that. We’ve had to work hard to grow the game and we are probably in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in, in ensuring that we qualify for the World Cup.


Q: Funding has been an issue for the Pararoos, where does most of it come from?

Ben Roche: We don’t actually receive government funding anymore, we used to get a little bit from the Australian Sports Commission, which was cut in 2015 because of their winning edge policy, which means if they don’t think you’ll win a medal funding will be cut or limited. Since then we have survived off donations through the Australian Sports Foundation. With the work of Football Australia, they set a fundraising page and we try to raise $200,000 plus each year to go towards getting a team to a tournament, a couple of camps, and hopefully a national championship to identify the next generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any sustainability for us, we are always pushing to raise those funds and take the program to the next level. 

Q: It is a pretty horrific way to fund Paralympic sport, isn’t it?

Ben Roche: Yeah, it came to light this week that the Paralympians don’t get any funding if they win a medal, like the Olympians who win do. The Paralympians don’t get anything for doing the exact same amount of work if not more, and that isn’t the way it should be.

Q: What brought about the change in funding?

Ben Roche: The Australian Sports Commission at the time, they have to allocate across sports, and they probably saw that the sports might be better allocated to individual sports which they thought could secure more medals, whether that is athletics or swimming, I don’t know. For me I am a big believer in football being the game played around the world, and cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability for children in Australia. For me that is perfect, you’ve got the world game and the most common physical disability, what a perfect format. We’ve worked really hard to get that message out there and show what the power of football can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from poverty, or having a disability, or having a different background, football has the ability to start important conversations. For us that is where our messaging comes into it, our goal is to create inclusive opportunities for people across the country. Not just for cerebral palsy and things like that, we want to lead the way for inclusive football in all versions of the game. 

Q: How Important has football been to you?

Ben Roche: It has shaped everything I’ve done. I joined the Pararoos when I was 12 years old, and it has taken me around the world. It’s been really eye-opening in terms of that, but it has also put me in front of role models with cerebral palsy and other disabilities who have successful careers, families, social lives, and all those kinds of things. Being able to see that at a young age really shaped who am I today, and gave me the confidence to go and do the things I’m doing. I love football so much that I’ve been working in it, I was working for Football Australia as a team manager because I wanted to be in and around football, and it’s something I am extremely passionate about.

Ben at his first tournament with the Pararoos in Argentina.

Q: How important is it to have visible role models like these growing up?

Ben Roche: It’s massive, for me it was meeting those role models that shaped me. I launched a few programs across the country for people with disabilities, and the conversations I get to have with kids, and the conversations I get to have with the parents as well, the amount the community means to them is huge. For me to see someone who has faced similar challenges doing great things is the best thing I could have come across. By us having a successful Pararoos program we can hopefully empower and not only support these young kids that may want to play football but support them in their careers and everyday lives.

Q: Could the wider football community better embrace the Pararoos? 

Ben Roche: I don’t blame them for not doing so, we weren’t really a common name and still aren’t among the football community, which has been a big push for us to put emphasis through social media and get our messaging out there, to include us in conversation along with the Socceroos and Matildas. I hope that when people do get to see it, it’s something they can get behind. The game is quite fast-paced, it can be high scoring, really physical and we don’t hold back. I’d love to see the Australian football community embrace it more – and I’m not saying they don’t – but the more we can get them behind us the bigger reach we can have.

Q: What is the future of the Pararoos program in Australia?

Ben Roche: COVID has made the last couple of years tricky, just in terms of being able to fundraise for the program. For us we are really interested in taking it to the next level, to not only further develop the men’s program but a women’s program too, which more information will come out for in the next couple of months. We are looking to really create more opportunities throughout Australia, not only have our state teams which are filtering into nationals but also launching academies and programs that will feed into inclusive opportunities. On top of that hopefully we can keep having important conversations around disability.

If you want to help support the Pararoos you can donate through their website.

Creating upside: Four lessons for Australian football from US investors in Europe

It is often said that the United States has the biggest and best sporting market in the world.

According to the latest number from Forbes, the average value of a franchise in the National Football League (NFL) is $3.48 billion USD, a 14% increase on 2020.

In the NBA, the average franchise value is $2.202 billion USD, having steadily risen year-on-year since 2015 which was the first year that the average value crept over the $1 billion USD mark.

Even in the much-maligned MLS, the average franchise value is a cool $550 million USD up from $319 million USD in 2019 – a remarkable 72% increase.

So, with such a booming sports economy on their own doorstep, why are American investors turning to European football?

That was the question The Athletic Football Podcast hosts, Mark Chapman and Matt Slater, sought to answer in the latest episode of their podcast.

In two revealing conversations with US sports investors Michael Kalt and Brett Johnson, there were some potentially interesting lessons for Australian football to learn.

Kalt, who rose to sporting fame as part of the investment group that helped transform the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Rays in the MLB, now leads consortiums investing in European football clubs with current investments in AS Nancy in France and Oostende in Belgium.

Johnson is co-owner of Ipswich Town and also the owner and director of Phoenix Rising Football Club, which plays in the second tier of US football.

So, what do they like about European football?

Why don’t they invest the same sizeable funds into MLS teams?

What can Australian football learn?

Below we highlight four key lessons.

Upside Counts

The majority of clubs that Kalt and his consortiums look at investing in are loss-making businesses.

They don’t make money.

So why, when you have significant investment capital and can invest in a booming domestic sports market, do you choose to take your money to Europe and put it in loss-making clubs?

For Kalt, there are three things a club has to have to prove its investment value.

  1. Asymmetric Upside via promotion or European qualification
  2. Room for commercial improvement
  3. Training profits (EG: Player Transfers)

On the first point, Kalt explains the uniqueness of promotion and relegation and continental competition created pockets of value in Europe that offered much lower costs of entry in Europe.

“Can you buy them when you’re up underlying your downsize risk, meaning you’re not paying full price for a club that is recently promoted or in the top league or coming off European competition and you’re paying full price,” he said.

“If you look at the clubs we bought, we’ve bought clubs like Nancy, historically a club that has been in Ligue 1 and bounced back and forth. It has the infrastructure of a Ligue 1 team. It should be a first division, mid-table club, so there’s headroom there and not a lot of downside risk.

“That’s the sort of situation we look for, where there is an asymmetric upside, either through promotion or European qualification in a smaller club where we think we can compete in the top four or five teams.

On what he termed, “Training Profits”, which most readers would refer to as player transfers, Kalt thinks it’s incredible that a club could generate a sizeable portion of its overall value simply by trading players.

“This is a massive mover in this,” he said.

“When you create that value in American sports, the only way to really monetize it on the player basis is to make like exchanges. To say, I have a player that has demonstrated his worth and the market will pay way more for him. He’s got three or four years left of club control … your only path to monetization is to keep that player and hope the club plays better and people show up and you generate more revenue in the stadium.

“Or you go and try and trade the player for younger, more controllable talent and hope that that talent does the same thing.

“In Europe, you create value, and the market comes to you and says ‘okay, today we’re willing to pay ‘x’ for that player, and, by the way, that ‘x’ might be some significant portion of what you played for the club!’

“That system, combined with analytics to create that value, which is how we started looking at this … is why it’s so intriguing.

“You reinvest some of that back into the club and you can reduce your downside.”

Europe’s football culture and ecosystem are, obviously, significantly more developed than that of Australia or the United States.

But what is interesting to take from the conversation is the factors that make for a worthwhile investment for Kalt and his ilk.

They want to invest in clubs that have room to grow.

None of this is to suggest that the incorporation of promotion and relegation in Australia is going to send a flood of overseas investors ready to throw their money at ‘B-League’ or National Premier Leagues clubs.

But it does inherently create potential upside in investing in the secondary tiers of Australian football, particularly for local investors.

We have already seen in the most recent round of A-League expansions that there was potentially a lot of money left on the table by unsuccessful bidders looking for a way into Australia’s top flight.

The implementation of promotion and relegation could unlock similar pockets of value in Australia.

The addition of a domestic transfer market will also go a long way to increasing the upside of clubs in the A-League and potentially below.

Franchises Limit Upside

When discussing MLS specifically, Kalt believes one of the major obstacles facing the growth of MLS was to be the American attitude of, generally, not being as interested in watching sports that are not “the best”.

But perhaps the most interesting thing Kalt had to say about the investment value of MLS franchises is that their value was largely being grown by the expansion of the competition and the prices being paid for new licenses, dragging the value of the existing licenses up by association.

“Valuations five, six, seven years ago you had a 50 or 60 million cost of entry, which – candidly – still seems a little high given the economics of these clubs,” he said.

“But when you see these club trading at 200, 300, 400-million-dollar valuations, it’s hard for me to get my head around and I know it’s hard for a lot of people in the business to get their head around.

“I think a lot of it, historically, was justified on, ‘well, you buy in now because the next expansion franchise is going to be worth ‘y’’.

“But you’re not going to have a league with 60 clubs, so you’re running out of the ability to do that.”

This sounds alarmingly similar to the A-League, where hopes for the growth of the sport are so consistently pinned on expansion.

They might equate to growth for the value of A-League licenses and the value for the investors who own them, but it’s not enough alone to drive true value in football.

MLS’ One Big Tick

It wasn’t all bad for the MLS. Kalt had to give credit to the MLS for at least one thing.

Infrastructure.

“The amazing thing that they’ve done is that they’ve created the infrastructure for soccer in the United States that never existed before.

“They’re not just sticking teams in and hiring a bunch of over the hill stars and having them play in football (NFL) stadiums and hoping they can sustain it.

“They’re doing the right thing and the league is sustainable, whether at half-billion-dollar franchise valuations is a more debatable proposition.”

This is a crucial lesson for the A-League.

Over 15 years into this journey and there remains embarrassingly little football-specific infrastructure.

There has been some good ground made in recent years by some clubs, but overall, after 15 years one gets the feeling there is very little to show for all the investment made in the A-League.

We’ve had some great seasons, some great matches and some great players grace the league…but if the league collapsed tomorrow, what proof would there be that the A-League and its clubs actually existed?

This has to be urgently addressed.

Gratification Bonus

Another reason cited as key for both Kalt and Johnson in their investment in European football was the sense of gratification of investment in clubs and their surrounding communities.

Now let’s not get carried away. No one is suggesting for a second that these investors aren’t backing in European football for humanitarian reasons.

They’re in it because they see value in their investment.

But can they make themselves feel good about making money in the process?

Well, that’s a bonus. The benefits for the community, however, can be very real and tangible.

Research from 2019 shows Manchester City’s involvement in the title chase with Liverpool was worth £220 million to Manchester’s economy.

According to the think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), spending on match-day tickets, merchandise, and hospitality can boost a city’s economic growth by 1.1 percentage points.

At the lower level, Ipswich Town co-owner Johnson felt there was a great sense of satisfaction to be taken from investing in the surrounding community.

“It’s critical to be engaged with the community,” he said.

“I view [these clubs] as beacons. In England, these communities live and die by the success of these clubs and it’s been painful for these fans have been watching this beautiful asset punch below its weight class.

“It’s not just enough to win, you have to try and make improvements broadly.”

A big part of Kalt’s model was being able to choose clubs with room for improvement because it would be easier to keep the fans onside as things improved.

“Coming into a club that is perfectly run as the next owner is not a situation I would ever want to be in,” he said.

“You want to come into a situation where there’s headroom … you want to have some goodwill built in.

“We’re going to stabilise this, and you know your club is going to be around in a year.”

The question for Australian football is, how do we create value and the feel-good factor around our clubs that encourage the investment they require?

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