On Thursday, Football Australia released their reformed Club Licensing System Regulations that will increase standards at clubs across the top three tiers of Australian football – as a key part of broader structural reform they are engineering to take the game forward.
Reforming the Club Licensing System was an agreed responsibility Football Australia took on during its unbundling of the A-Leagues to the Australian Professional Leagues in December 2020, and is something Football Australia CEO James Johnson sees as critical to unlocking standstill issues facing the game, such as the proposed National Second Division (NSD) and Domestic Transfer System (DTS).
“We have challenges in the sport, namely around player development at the moment, and right at the very heart of the Club Licensing System are standards and requirements that really need to be reviewed on an annual basis. So we’ll continue to lift the standards in club football with a particular focus on youth development,” Johnson, who oversaw the Global Club Licensing Program while at FIFA, told Soccerscene.
“That’s going to align very well with some of our other initiatives, like a Domestic Transfer System that has player development at its very core. It’s something we need to fix now; it’s something I don’t think is an opinion, it’s a fact.
“These measures – Club Licensing, a transfer system, the second tier competition – are all designed to improve the level of our players, the benefit of which we will see in the years to come.”
Club Licensing has historically been managed by the Asian Football Confederation as a means of ensuring minimum standards for clubs to compete in Asian club competitions. By taking it into their own hands, Football Australia can now raise and specify standards for clubs at not just the professional level, but the levels below it.
The regulations include certain criteria that must be met to compete and continue to compete in certain competitions, broken into five categories: Sporting, infrastructure, personnel and administrative, legal, and financial – with variations in each to reflect multiple levels of the pyramid.
“First and foremost, this new Club Licensing System will be a set of criteria that needs to be fulfilled in order for all clubs to participate in Asian club competition, but also for all clubs in the A-Leagues to continue their ability to participate in that competition,” Johnson said.
“The second part, the more strategic football development angle, is that it is designed to become a strategic plan for club development and enhanced governance of clubs throughout the country. It really sits right at the heart of key decisions clubs would take, and how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”
The new system is designed to cater for clubs at the professional (A-Leagues), semi-professional (NSD) and state-league (NPL) levels, providing an overarching set of standards to promote uniformity between clubs and divisions. Theoretically, it could also prepare clubs for movement between divisions if promotion and relegation were to come into effect.
Johnson sees that uniformity as vital to the game moving forward, given the three tiers will be administered by three different organisations: The A-Leagues by the Australian Professional Leagues, the mooted NSD by Football Australia, and the NPL competitions by their respective Member Federations.
“You have to set different standards for different levels of football. As we roll out the second tier competition in the coming years, Football Australia would licence clubs to participate in that competition because it would be the competition administrator,” he said.
“The next step would be to go down the pyramid. There’d be a continual evolution of the Club Licensing System where we’d set a strategic framework that the competition administrators, the Member Federations, would ultimately work under, in order to create their own criteria for participation and access to the state level competitions.
“That framework that the Member Federations would operate under would give each region across the country a good level of specificity to develop their own criteria to access their own region.”
Concerning the level of football not currently in place – the proposed second tier – Johnson stated the Federation had the backing of the AAFC, the representative body of the clubs looking to step from the NPL into the second tier of competition, over the new Club Licensing System.
“The AAFC are very much aligned with the direction Football Australia are wanting to go. Their interest in licensing is concerning the NSD, and I don’t think there would be any issues there provided we set the criteria as the right levels,” Johnson said.
“What we’ll get once the system is implemented is the ability to analyse clubs all around the country. We’ll be able to benchmark how clubs in Victoria are performing on and off the pitch, against teams in Brisbane or Hobart or Perth.
“One of the big values of a CLS is it’s a measuring stick that helps us understand which areas clubs around the country are strong in, and which areas they need more focus on. Ultimately, that’s how we grow club football.”
Tasked with overseeing the licensing reform is Natalie Lutz, who Football Australia hired as their Club Licensing Manager in January. Lutz has considerable experience in the field, having previously overseen the rollout of club licensing across the CONCACAF Federation.
“Natalie knows what she’s doing, she’s very experienced, she was responsible for the roll out of a Club Licensing System in 40-odd countries in the Americas. We have her in the business now, which is why this project is evolving,” Johnson said.