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FFA CEO James Johnson: “We have many challenges in front of us as a sport”

James Johnson FFA CEO

Is James Johnson the trailblazer Australian football needs?

When James Johnson, the FFA CEO, attended his first press conference in mid January, he could never have predicted the enormous challenges facing Australian football.

Significantly, he was the first CEO in the history of the FFA to have a football background, having played for Brisbane Strikers at youth and senior level in the NSL and also being an original member of Les Scheinflug’s Joey’s squad of 1999 which performed so gallantly to reach the final in New Zealand before succumbing in a penalty shootout to the mighty Brazil.

In late March, mainly due to the impact of COVID-19, it seemed the sky was falling when 70 per cent of the FFA staff were stood down and there was extreme uncertainty about Fox Sports’ commitment to A-League coverage.

Fortunately, Johnson demonstrated all the negotiation skills he had gained in his senior roles at the PFA, Asian Football Confederation, FIFA and the City Group since 2009 to carve out a deal which ensured A-League backing from Fox for the remainder of the current season and to the end of next season.

He also played a major part in Australia and New Zealand securing the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and was the main architect behind the selection of the Starting XI and the proposed XI Principles which are designed to lead football into a new era.

Nevertheless, despite his track record and excellent credentials, Johnson has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport as he tries to unite the stakeholders of a game which has always exhibited major political divisions.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, James Johnson discusses all things football in his attempt to take the game to a new high in the Australian sporting landscape.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your views on the current state of Australian football?

JAMES JOHNSON
We have many challenges in front of us as a sport, intensified by COVID-19. These include the economics of cost and funding, as well as many football challenges, for example rankings in senior men’s national teams and not producing the same number of players competing in leading overseas Leagues. Also, our youth teams still find it hard to qualify through Asia in both the men’s and women’s game so this has to be addressed.

However, there are many opportunities, including capitalising on the large participation rate, local and global ownership, NPL clubs with an amazing history which has to be tapped into, and great products in the Matildas and the Socceroos, with the Tokyo Olympic Games, and World Cups, including one on home-soil in 2023, to look forward to.

ROGER SLEEMAN
Which of the Proposed XI Principles deserve major priority?

JAMES JOHNSON
They are all important as they include a vision, a narrative and definition of who we are. These philosophical football principles must be reinforced by commercial well-being of the game so real change can be implemented. Critically, changes in all parts of the game are required to realise the principles.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What is the state of progress in the efforts to fund the game, in light of the competitive marketplace and sponsorship dollars foregone?

JAMES JOHNSON
The traditional methods of business are broadcast, sponsorship, gate receipts and player registration fees. Undoubtedly, post COVID-19, broadcast revenues will be more difficult to obtain and sponsorship will be more competitive. Due to globalisation of the game across the world, the sponsorship funds go to bigger Leagues and clubs. Therefore, in Australia we need to look at new ways like O.T.T. and digitalisation of the game to produce more reliable revenue streams. Capital investment from the private sector and government also has to be increased.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What is being done to engage the general media in lifting the profile of the game within print, radio, television, and internet mediums?

JAMES JOHNSON
Firstly, we have to identify how our supporters are absorbing content. Our ongoing market research shows the A-League supporter is between 16-30 years of age and they are obtaining content through digital means, for example social media, especially Facebook. We have to capitalise on this further, but we shouldn’t ignore traditional and mainstream media. The Women’s World Cup can be very important in leading the transition to gain increased coverage through this medium. Also, we have to identify people in mainstream media who support our game and can influence the decision makers. In this regard, I recently met with Karl Stefanovic from the 9 Network who played youth football in Cairns and whose father played for West Ham. We have to be smart and find such people to put their hand up and make a statement for the code.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your plans to revamp the youth development system?

JAMES JOHNSON
In this space, there are significant challenges and it takes a long time to develop pathways. Some of our recent failures to qualify in both men and women youth tournaments must be reversed and we have to find ways to invest in youth development and pathways. Ideally, a transfer system will be an incentive for NPL and A-League clubs to focus on player development which will guarantee rewards and reinvestment in the game.

ROGER SLEEMAN
There is a distinct absence of technical players in Australia and very few playing regularly in the world’s top Leagues. What are you proposing in this area?

JAMES JOHNSON
The improvement in technical skills is a major priority for our game and we are discussing this in detail with the Starting XI. Regarding the fewer Aussie players in top Leagues, the freedom of movement of players in Europe sees more players moving across borders which increases the talent pool and can limit the opportunities for our players.

ROGER SLEEMAN
The selection of the Starting XI with former star players like Mark Viduka, Paul Okon and Mark Bosnich was an innovative step but what about former players who have achieved at the highest level in the game and in business but are not given a chance to contribute, e.g. Jack Reilly, Peter Katholos, Danny Moulis, Alan Davidson, Craig Johnston, Gary Marocchi, Glen Sterrey, Richie Williams, Manny Spanoudakis and Dave McQuire to name a few.

JAMES JOHNSON
The Starting XI is a football advisory panel and they have provided a lot of feedback already, including on the transfer system. Certainly, we have to listen to other football people to assist the game’s growth, and we are very open to doing so.

ROGER SLEEMAN
The game’s history reflects a lack of recognition for former players to be involved.
Your comment.

JAMES JOHNSON
I reiterate, it is important to draw on the expertise of former players and perfect examples are (Zvonimir) Boban and (Marco) Van Basten with FIFA and (Dejan) Savicevic at UEFA. The appointment of Mark Bresciano and Amy Duggan to the FFA Board last year was a positive move and former Socceroo and Newcastle Jets CEO, Robbie Middleby, is making a big difference at the FFA. Sarah Walsh, a former Matilda, is also a member of our senior management and works in our participation and grassroots space.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your thoughts on the proposed change of season from summer to winter?

JAMES JOHNSON
Obviously, the practical reason for a change is the late finish in August, rather than May this season. We have flagged the 2020/21 competition to start in December which will allow a fair time for the clubs and players to re-set and provide the opportunity for us to assess the benefits of A-League, W-League, NPL and grassroots playing simultaneously. This will also test the alignment of more grass-root supporters to become fans of senior football.

ROGER SLEEMAN
Many people believe the decision of the Board to deny the Southern Expansion an A-League license was a major mistake, particularly in light of their commitment to put down $15 million dollars on the table immediately and their Chinese backer’s intention to purchase Shark Park from Cronulla League’s club.
Your comment.

JAMES JOHNSON
I can’t comment because I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I can say, there is a solid commitment in the XI Principles for our Professional Leagues to be expanded.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 2 with Gary Cole interviewing Steve Corica

Corica FCA

Steve Corica is Head Coach of A-League Men at Sydney FC, where he narrowly missed out on three A-League Championships in a row, losing to Melbourne City in the Grand Final last season. What a remarkable start to his first senior head coaching role!

He played his junior football in Innisfail in North Queensland, before heading to the Australian Institute of Sport and playing just under 500 professional games in Australia, England and Japan.

Steve’s preparation for coaching began while he was playing, and he started to gain his coaching licences before taking on an assistant role with the Sydney FC Youth Team.

He served a seven-year apprenticeship at Sydney with the Youth Team and then as an assistant to Vitezslav Lavicka, Frank Farina and Graham Arnold before taking on the Head Coach role in 2018. He learned from each of these coaches and also learned, like most ‘he didn’t know, what he didn’t know’ when taking on the Head Coaching Role.

Steve believes that team and club culture are key to success. He understands that while he is the driver of the culture, that buy-in from all of the players is integral to behaviours being demanded from the playing group of one another.

Steve’s ‘one piece of wisdom’ was ‘to be yourself’. Know how you want to play, the style of football you want to play. Be strong when you do get setbacks, but believe in what you’re doing, stay strong and keep believing in the style of football you want to play.

Please join me in sharing Steve Corica’s Football Coaching Life.

A-League supporter numbers grow – but 2 million football fans still unattached

Despite attendances dropping in A-League matches over the past few years, supporter numbers across the board have grown in the past 12 months, according to a recent Roy Morgan report.

“A-League clubs have enjoyed a substantial increase in support over the last year in line with the increases seen for other football codes such as the AFL and NRL,” Roy Morgan Industry Communications Director, Julian McCrann, stated.

“Over 3.6 million Australians now profess support for an A-League club, an increase of over 1 million (+38.3%) on a year ago.”

“As we have seen across other football codes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sports to be played in front of empty stadiums but live on TV to supporters stuck at home in the many lockdowns we have seen over the last 18 months around Australia.”

Sydney FC have the biggest supporter base with 640,000 fans according to the report, a 32% increase on last year’s numbers.

Melbourne Victory were also well placed on the supporter ladder, slightly behind Sydney with 632,000 fans, an increase of 46% on a year ago.

A-League Men’s champions Melbourne City and expansion side Macarthur FC also saw impressive numbers of increased support.

“Another big winner over the last year has been Melbourne City which won its first A-League Men Championship earlier this year after defeating Sydney FC in the Grand Final (between Melbourne’s fourth and fifth lockdowns) in late June,” McCrann said.

“Melbourne City’s support has increased by an impressive 50.9% on a year ago to 249,000 to have the highest support of any A-League Men expansion team.

“The newest club in the A-League Men, Macarthur FC, has had a successful first season in the league with a finals appearance, a victory in an Elimination Final, and a loss to eventual Champions Melbourne City in the semi-final.

“Not only has Macarthur FC performed strongly on the pitch but they have already attracted 84,000 supporters to rank in tenth place overall.”

Whilst all A-League sides saw an increase in supporters in 2021, Central Coast Mariners experienced the largest percentage rise from 2020 – with fan numbers growing by 90%.

In regards to television numbers, over 1.5 million Australians watch the A-League Men’s competition.

However, the report states that 3.5 million Australians watch any football match on television, including leagues such as the English Premier League or international tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup.

This represents a huge untapped audience of around 2 million Australians, something which should be capitalised on.

“Looking ahead, the challenge for the A-League will be to continue to grow the league in an increasingly competitive sporting market and find a way to connect with the millions of Australians who love their football but don’t presently engage with the A-League,” McCrann said.

“There are over 2 million Australians out there who watch high quality football competitions, such as the English Premier League, who are yet to become fans of the A-League. This at-hand market of 2 million Australians is a significant market for the A-League to target during the recovery from Covid-19.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the new body running the professional game in this country, have continually emphasised in their messaging that they want to target football fans of all types to engage with the local elite competition.

The organisation’s investment in a $30 million digital hub is set to play a big part in converting these fans into A-League supporters.

“It is the biggest single investment football has made in itself. It’s a $30 million investment into digital infrastructure and data infrastructure that will serve the football fan. It won’t be the home of Australian football; it will be Australia’s home of football,” Danny Townsend, Managing Director at the APL, recently told FNR.

“What it will deliver is content – audio-visual, editorial and everything else you need.

“Part of the reason we are doing that, and investing in what we are calling APL studios, is ensuring that by organising the football community in one place we are able to deliver the utility in their everyday lives and focus on how they choose to consume football. If you do that – they’ll keep coming back.

“You put great content in there, you serve it, and you will continue to understand that fan and all of their preferences.”

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