Is the A-League prepared for sportswashing?

This month, Newcastle United became the richest club in world football – due solely to majority ownership by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Wealth Fund. With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

World football has a problem with ‘sportswashing’ – which the Macmillan dictionary defines as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation” – as exemplified by the purchase of Newcastle United by the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government.

This same government assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consul in 2019, and now they have been allowed to purchase a football club in the world’s most-watched sporting league to rehabilitate their reputation on the world stage.

The World Cup in Qatar might be the biggest sportswashing event of all. The host nation of the 2022 tournament has a horrid reputation with human rights abuse, and over 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since the World Cup was announced, with the total number likely significantly higher.

Countries like Australia will have no qualms sending their national teams – helping legitimise Qatar on the world stage and sportswashing away the human rights abuse and death toll that the event has created.

Australian football – and the A-League – will face a reckoning with sportswashing in the future, the question is how can it be combated?

Australian football has fought its fights against possibly malicious owners, both domestically and foreign. Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler promised the world, but left the Gold Coast without a club – and the Newcastle Jets penniless respectively.

Clive Palmer left Gold Coast United in ruin.

Foreign owners have also done their damage. On January 4, 2021, Martin Lee’s ownership of the Jets was terminated after he failed to inject any money into the club since October 2019, while also failing to pay any of the club’s debts.

ABC’s Four Corners revealed a director – Joko Driyono – for the company that owns the Brisbane Roar with the Bakrie family – was jailed for 18 months for match-fixing Indonesian football matches.

According to Indonesian business records, he remains the president director of Pelita Jaya Cronus, the holding company for Brisbane Roar.

Joko Driyono, director of Brisbane Roar’s holding company, spent 18 months in jail for match-fixing.

Does the ownership model of the A-League create accountability for owners, and do Australia’s corporate regulators do enough to ensure that malicious owners can’t drive clubs into the ground for personal profit or gain?

Take the Martin Lee example. Under the current franchise model of the A-League, he has no personal liability for the debt accrued by his ownership, and faced no repercussions for running the club into the ground before the A-League took back the license.

Former Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee was forced to hand back the club’s license.

He simply abandoned the club after it was no longer of use to his business interests in Australia, and returned to his home country.

The A-League must avoid this as an example, while also ensuring that promises of rich domestic benefactors are balanced against the likelihood that it could be too good to be true.

The current franchise model does have its advantages, in regards to the Australian Professional Leagues having the power to take back the license of a runaway club like in the case of Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, or when an owner fails to inject money like Martin Lee.

Currently, the vast majority of NPL clubs are run by a board of directors who are personally liable if funds go missing, or the club goes into severe debt.

Melbourne Victory is the only publicly listed company in the A-League, and that ownership model brings responsibility to shareholders and liability for directors.

Foreign investment at the A-League is at an all-time high, with five of the 12 clubs being either foreign-owned or controlled.

One club, Adelaide United, has its ownership completely hidden from the public. The Australian footballing community currently has no idea who finances the only professional club in South Australia.

A transparent fit and fairness test must be implemented for A-League ownership, one that keeps potential malicious actors away from the game, while protecting fans and clubs.

One way to achieve this would be to ask corporate regulators to take a more hands-on approach with A-League entities during the purchasing of a license.

The downside of this approach would be that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is capable of auditing companies’ finances, but foreign entities like Martin Lee’s businesses and Pelita Jaya Cronus can easily circumvent scrutiny.

Personal liability for owners and directors would force them to create sustainable businesses. While it might scare away some bad investors, those with good intentions will embrace the concept of a more stable A-League.

Another way to combat sportswashing would be to introduce the truly membership-based model championed by clubs in Germany.

The 50+1 model means that the majority of the club must be owned by local fans of the clubs, and if this was pursued in the A-League it would grant huge protections against owners who don’t act in the best intentions for the club long-term.

The Australian Professional Leagues need to ensure that those who want to invest in Australian football are doing so for the right reasons, instead of purely personal gain.

A true fit and fairness test, one that examines whether the owner is financially, ethically, and morally capable of owning an A-League team (or second division team) with the utmost accountability will be one of the best investment’s the APL can make for Australian football.

Without it, it will be a wild wasteland of Palmers, Tinklers, and Lees for years to come.

Uncertainty looms around National Second Tier’s future

The highly anticipated National Second Tier (NST) in its proposed format is set to be postponed by Football Australia, with the body looking to find alternative ways to include these NPL clubs into a similar structure that would be more financially viable.

Vince Rugari of the Sydney Morning Herald broke the news on Tuesday claiming the highly ambitious second tier was likely going to be put on hold after the original plan was to have 10 to 14 foundation clubs forming a separate league, without promotion or relegation to start.

There was a very high financial threshold that the eight foundation clubs needed to reach in order to be granted a licence and unfortunately with rumours of some in the eight sceptical of its viability, other NPL clubs with a proposal in the original plan have backed away from the idea for the time being.

For what is meant to be a ‘national competition’, having clubs from NSW and Victoria only is quite restricted but the search for a financially strong club outside of the two states, willing to take that massive financial risk, is a task that is too difficult in the country’s current state of football affairs.

There has been a lack of a clear message from Football Australia across the past 12 months. The eight foundation clubs were left on standby about important information like the correct format, whether it was going to expand to 10 or 12 teams that Football Australia promised multiple times, or when the league would actually kick off in winter of 2025 or beyond that considering the shaky A-League finances being the main subject of discussion surrounding the initial success of the NSD.

After the A-Leagues controversial call to reduce initial funding of top tier clubs to $530k a year from its usual $2m a year, a properly run second division seems like a task too far down its priority list despite the positive feedback it has received from fans and clubs about implementing a ‘transformative’ system mirroring European football.

An idea being floated around as a possible solution to the unviability of a separate league is to add existing A-League teams to the ‘Champions League-style’ second division, which would essentially be a more exclusive version of the existing Australia Cup.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson told The Asian Game exclusively that “we will have a (national) second tier it will exist,” but the home and away format played during the winter is a long shot and the foundation clubs are left in limbo wondering what their immediate futures are considering the heavy financial investment they will have to make if it goes ahead.

This whole saga has been a case of Football Australia pushing away the problems that quickly arose from this ambitious idea and being too reactive when it comes to finding a solution that would be fair for the foundation clubs financially.

The NSD must wait and not force itself into a fragile Australian football landscape that has many more issues it must worry about in the top flight before building a second division that could financially damage some of the most historic clubs in Victoria and NSW.

In a world where Australian football needs authority and structure, the collapse of the original idea of the NSD proves there is a long way to go and communication towards the clubs and fans involved has to improve.

Newcastle Jets’ new owners add key pieces for upcoming season

Newcastle Jets’ new owners, Maverick Sports Partners, have hired Ken Schembri as General Manager of Football and Ben Hawes as General Manager of Commercial, Digital and Marketing for this upcoming season.

The appointment of Schembri and Hawes reaffirms Maverick Sports Partners’ intent to invest in high-quality resources, which should excite Newcastle fans for this upcoming season.

Schembri had previously worked with the reigning champions, the Central Coast Mariners, being an essential part of establishing the Central Coast Mariners Football Academy and their Centre of Excellence when he joined in 2014.

Schembri will manage the A-League Men’s roster, oversee player performance and development, and handle recruitment for all football departments.

The Mariner’s Academy has produced many young and exciting Australian talent including Garang Kuol and Max Balard who have all gone to join clubs in Europe after their time in Gosford. Schembri has most recently played a key role in Central Coast’s recent success as Head of Football.

Maverick Sports Partners Director Maurice Bisetto commented about the new additions.

“We are excited to have both Ken and Ben join the Newcastle Jets team. They will be integral to the strategy and direction of the Club’s New Era, providing expertise and support, on and off the pitch,” said Bisetto in a club statement.

These two joined the Jets after the club were bought by the Australian company only last month.

Hawes has prior experience in Sponsorship, Marketing and Content roles at the National Rugby League, Sportsbet, BlueBet and Sydney FC.

Hawes will focus on expanding and diversifying the clubs commercial revenue streams which includes growing the sponsorship portfolio. He will also deal with commercialising the club’s digital channels as well as implementing new marketing and fan engagement strategies.

Due to these recent moves, Newcastle have the potential to produce exciting Australian talent and grow its brand across the league which will help the club continue to improve both on and off the pitch and ultimately strengthen their stability for future seasons.

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