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New A-Leagues, work still to be done

Australia’s top-flight A-Leagues is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

Australia’s top-flight football competition is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

The clubs are no longer driving from the back seat, and they have wasted no time and spared little expense in committing to a major makeover to Australia’s top-flight competitions, A-Leagues Men and Women.

A glossy new look, an inclusive new name that bundles the premier men’s and women’s competition, sleek new graphics, a bumper free-to-air deal as well as a new streaming service and dedicated football news platforms all represent solid wins for the Australian Professional Leagues ahead of their debut season on the back of a mountain of preparation that has gone into the promotion of the competition.

Whilst only the most naïve will have expected the efforts to deliver an instant return, the sobering numbers from the opening round of the 2021/22 A-Leagues Men season demonstrate just how much work lies ahead.

Not even the gloss of all the stellar exertion put into revamping the look and feel of the A-Leagues and the fantastic efforts that went into broadcasting the competition to Australia’s audience could completely deflect from the real issues that football continues to face in Australia.

Put simply, they are the same issues that have plagued the sport in Australia for decades, including infrastructure and failing to connect with every part of the Australian football fraternity.

The embarrassing relocation of Macarthur FC’s opening round clash with Wellington Phoenix due to the dire state of the pitch at Campbelltown Stadium will have resonated with hundreds, if not thousands of football administrators all over the country who rely on third parties to maintain their playing surfaces.

It’s one thing for a third-tier state league team to have to relocate a game due to a bad pitch.

It’s another thing for it to happen in the top-flight. Put bluntly, it’s completely unacceptable.

The issue serves as an urgent reminder for the needs of football owned and operated infrastructure.

The sub-10,000 attendance figures at four out of six games highlight the top-flight’s ongoing struggles to get bums in seats and build genuine support for expansion sides.

Off the back of a championship-winning season, Melbourne City would have to be disappointed with a crowd of 7,213, whilst the 8,210 who turned out for Western United’s home game against Melbourne Victory were largely supporters of the away team.

The relocated 1-1 draw between Macarthur and Wellington attracted a touch over 1,000 people, with a contingent of the people in the ground having stuck around following the earlier F3 Derby between Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets – a fixture which was attended by less than 7,000 people.

They are numbers that must concern the clubs involved, regardless of the various mitigating circumstances that have been offered as explanations.

Macarthur’s relocation to Newcastle for the weekend was undoubtedly a major issue. However, excuses in Melbourne that with lockdown over, people have other priorities will not hold up in the long run.

The reality is that the pool of ‘new fans’ without attachment to an A-Leagues team or another club is dwindling in an extremely competitive market and this is not something that the APL will be able to expand its way out of.

For football and economic reasons, there is no denying that the A-Leagues needs more teams – as Adelaide United coach Carl Veart passionately advocated for last week. The methods for adding those teams is a critical component of the discussion moving forward.

There are clubs that exist today all over Australia that bring comparable, if not larger, crowds to Macarthur FC, Western United and at times Melbourne City.

Surely, at some point, these clubs deserve an opportunity. One of the biggest obstacles to making this happen is undoubtedly football’s first big problem – infrastructure.

Encouraging further investment in existing football infrastructure through the carrot of opportunities to access the top-flight could be a turnkey solution that will help solve both of football’s biggest issues.

The main short-term issue that was highlighted in round one was the varying quality of stream quality on Paramount+.

Personally, this was not something I experienced watching at least parts of every game via the Apple TV app on my television.

I did notice what seemed like a slightly reduced quality when simulcasting the Western United v Melbourne Victory game on my phone whilst watching the Sydney Derby on TV, but the second half seemed to be an improvement on the first.

Of course, it’s not all bad.

Technical streaming issues are nothing new when it comes to new services launching their live products.

We all remember the hugely frustrating buffering issues many users experienced when the Premier League first arrived on Optus Sport and the issues faced with the 2018 World Cup in times of peak demand.

Optus Sport rose to the challenges remarkably well and at this point, there’s no reason to doubt Paramount’s ability to do the same.

Elsewhere, a sell-out crowd packed into HBF Park to watch Perth Glory’s entertaining 1-1 draw against Adelaide United.

No doubt many of the 17,198 who attended the fixture were attracted to the game for the chance to get a glimpse of former Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool star Daniel Sturridge, highlighting the power of genuine marquees in attracting a crowd in Australia.

A healthy 23,118 at the Sydney derby at Commonwealth Bank stadium bodes well for two of the competition’s big teams in a crucial market, too.

The derby also attracted a free-to-air audience of 146,000. On face value alone, that’s not a hugely impressive number, but it is a number that bodes well for the competition according to industry experts, with well-known sports industry commentator @footyindustryAU suggesting that the number was “almost certainly” the highest-rated non-final A-League game in the last five years.

Like most things in life, the marketing gloss will never hide every flaw and the flaws don’t necessarily mean the world is coming to an end.

Round one 2021/22 represents progress and steps forward for Australian football.

The steps forward, however, are on a journey that still has miles to be walked.

Matthew Galea is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas: “I’m very gratified the A-Leagues are now supportive of us”

In the five years since their formation in March 2017, the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) have steadily carved out relationships and influence among Australian football’s key stakeholders. Initially derided by some as little more than the latest fanciful uprising looking to pull off the impossible task of implementing a National Second Division in Australia, they’ve progressed to a point where Football Australia CEO James Johnson has publicly acknowledged their consultation in driving towards that very concept. 

Following the February release of their ‘Final Report’ into a NSD, AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas spoke to Soccerscene about the organisation’s relationship with those key stakeholders, the preferred second-tier model of NPL clubs, and their future as a representative body should they achieve their aims. 

We’ve just moved past the fifth anniversary of the AAFC’s formation, and for much of that time your battle has been one of gaining public legitimacy. Football Australia clearly sees you as legitimate, as was evident when CEO James Johnson told ESPN in November that you had been consulted regarding a National Second Division that he said ‘will happen.’ Do you feel the last six months has seen a shift in the broader football community’s opinion of your legitimacy as an organisation?

Nick Galatas: Our original formation was in March 2017, and we moved to an elected board from an interim board that July. Rabieh Krayem was the chairman, and the state directors were all elected. Because there’s been a lot of focus and attention on the NSD element, which is understandable, some of the other things we’ve done and pressed for have been in the background in terms of the public’s perception. For example, we played a major role in the removal of the National Club Identity Policy, which has been implemented by Football Australia. 

What we are is a representative body for NPL clubs, and that’s our primary objective – to give them a voice. NPL clubs came together to form the AAFC precisely because they weren’t taken very seriously, in their view. The next step was to gain legitimacy, a voice, and progressively we’ve done that. 

We did that initially by responding to events out of our control. The first of those was the then-FFA’s congress review, and you might recall FIFA was invited to Australia to review it, which then had the nine member federations and the A-League as the ten members. That was one of our major initial involvements at the back end of 2017.

Since then we’ve responded to a number of events, and there’s been Covid in between. The NPL clubs were not being sufficiently considered, their ambition was perhaps not understood by the governing bodies back when we formed. It’s true that as we have advocated for a number of football issues, including the NSD, NPL reform, representing the clubs in licensing discussions, the Domestic Transfer System, Domestic Match Calendar. We have demonstrated to all governing bodies that we’re a serious organisation and that we legitimately represent the interests of NPL clubs.

That’s where I think we have gained ground. As the issues we’ve advocated for have gained importance, we have also, in responding to them responsibly and effectively, achieved the level of respect and legitimacy that we deserve.

Former Football NSW Chairman Anter Isaac has been employed by Football Australia to liaise with the AAFC and in your words: ‘bring this NSD to life.’ Could you please discuss that relationship and the work being done there?

Nick Galatas: Sports management consultants Klienmann Wang, through Anter, are the appointed resource by Football Australia to assist in bringing the existing FA management team in bringing the NSD to life. Anter’s been engaged by Football Australia to focus on its delivery. I’ve known Anter from those 2017 congress review discussions when he was with Football NSW. We’ve established a good relationship, I think there’s respect both ways. We’ve recently liaised as part of the NSD development process and our relationship is a good one, it’s robust.

What about the AAFC’s relationship with the APL? A-League clubs are theoretically the stakeholders with the most to lose if the NSD was to be implemented, so where does their involvement sit at present?

Nick Galatas: I disagree with the proposition that the A-League clubs have the most to lose, I think they’ve a lot to gain. I think they see it that way as well. Of course, there are many different club owners and I don’t know what each of their individual views are, I haven’t spoken to them all individually. But I have spoken to Danny Townsend, and my relationship with him is a good one. I think he recognises the value of what is being proposed, he supports it, and I don’t think for a moment the A-League has anything to lose, they have a lot to gain.

What’s emerging in the current football landscape is that these very substantial clubs that have existed for decades that we represent, that have survived a lot, are again coming to the forefront. They form a very important part of the football fabric in this country. They’re now being viewed as a potential source of A-League expansion and as the link to bridge the whole of our game, and the gap from top to bottom. I believe as soon as the start of the NSD is announced there will be great impetus for the game as a whole, and the A-League clubs stand to gain an enormous amount from that.

We’re keeping them informed with what we’re doing and with our thinking – we can’t control what they do, nor do we seek to, so in one sense what we do is independent. But in another sense it’s interlinked, and I’m very, very gratified that the A-Leagues are now supportive of us. They’re now engaging with us, and that’s what’s really changed in our relationships with everybody: we now speak to the APL and Football Australia regularly, and that’s a positive. The NSD will not operate in a vacuum, we see it as being an integral part of our football environment. I look forward to engaging with the APL, the PFA and others in developing our thinking and shaping our clubs as the NSD starts and develops.

Have you had any engagement with the PFA? They are one year into their five-year collective bargaining agreement with the APL, so if an NSD was to be functioning next year, is it assumed that you’d need their cooperation in some capacity?

Nick Galatas: It’s clear from our perspective that we can’t see how the commencement of a new competition will be one where players are full time professionals, and we’ve made this known to everyone. Given we haven’t had a NSD and given these NPL clubs have had their ability to perform to their potential restricted by rules outside of their control, it’s a bit much to now ask them to just step up to a professional division.

Our whole approach is to look at what’s achievable through the clubs that will comprise the NSD. We represent the resource for the NSD. We canvassed and researched that resource, assessed its capability and potential, and put it to Football Australia in our report. Stripped down to its essence, it says: ‘this is what you have available, this is what we think you can escalate it to to begin with, and this is the best the clubs can achieve.’ At this stage, that amounts to what is available and required for the competition to be financially stable and viable, and the clubs to be financially sustainable within it.

We’ve said: ‘let’s start as part-time professionals; we don’t expect players to step into a 40-hour a week environment from day one, most of them still have jobs, there needs to be a transition period. Our aim is to put the bones of a competition that is viable and can grow together, and then the players can move into a full-time professional environment as they go along. This is what we’ve told the PFA, and I think they understand and accept that.

We respect the fact that the players are a key part of our game and therefore the NSD, and if you don’t have a good relationship with the players you’ll have all sorts of problems. To that end, we see our relationship with the PFA as complementary, because they represent the players. It would be counterproductive not to; the better the relationship with the PFA, the better for everybody. 

You’ve mentioned the AAFC is no longer campaigning for the benefits of a second-tier, it’s now about advocating the specifics of a particular model. Your final report, released in February, states you favour a national tier with 12-16 clubs, while also considering the merits of a conference-style system, and a ‘Champions League’ model. Could you please discuss why you favour the national tier?

Nick Galatas: Anter Isaac, Klienmann Wang and James Johnson’s new management team will look at these things and potential variations in some detail, and they’ll come to a view with our input and that of others. We’re confident that ultimately, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve been ahead of the curve on this, we can reform the NPL by not having a national second tier comprised of 100+ clubs around the country, but to reform it and make it organic and have a more linear system involving clubs along a spectrum.

There’s loose talk about what certain models might look like or be considered, but I’m not actually aware of any other model having been formally proposed. They’ve not been fleshed out anywhere, so we’ve really adopted an approach that looked at clubs’ capability and asked them ‘where will you thrive best?’ Where we’ve landed, having considered various options, is the model we’ve identified.

Everyone has this knee jerk reaction: ‘Australia is a big place, and it’s not that populous, why don’t we look at a conference model?’ I think that’s in our consciousness because of the United States, and maybe Brazil, but these places are populous with stacks of clubs, and that doesn’t apply to Australia. The US can reasonably have east/west divides in their competitions, but in Australia what would you do? Is it north/south, east/west? We say, you lose more than you gain. You’ll save some travel time and cost if you do that, but you’ll end up splitting Melbourne and Sydney, and that’s where the great revenue driver would be.

So we see that as counterproductive in order to make a small saving. We know travel is a big expense, that’s life, and some of our ambitions of what we can achieve are tempered by that, but we just have to do it differently and sustainably.

Your report states your favoured model ‘provides for football professionalism to be attained, rather than unrealistically imposed’. Have you considered any growth policies to bridge the gap between semi-professional and professional clubs, or is this a matter for the clubs themselves?

Nick Galatas: It won’t be our direct responsibility, as we’re the representative body. But what we’re expecting is clubs not currently operating to capacity due to restrictions placed on them by the NPL will be able to grow to their potential. This, remember, was one of the clubs’ principal frustrations when we came together as the AAFC: some of the smaller clubs struggled with second tier obligations imposed on them, and some of the bigger clubs struggled with restrictions. Each state was slightly different, but there was an NPL structure rolled out across the country that didn’t cater to the specific challenges and realities of different regions properly. It also imposed a purpose on NPL clubs to serve the A-League level clubs, rather than letting them be the best they can be.

We’re saying this competition will be a platform and a home where they can thrive, as opposed to where they are now, not thriving. That’s ultimately what we’re for. There’s been all sorts of silos in this country: ‘You’re an A-League club, you’re an NPL club, a state league club…’. That designates the level of people you attract, fans and sponsorship, administrators, which is limiting instead of enabling.

If you’ve got an ambition and an avenue to realise it you’ll attract different people, you’ll tap different resources, and you’ll grow. As these clubs grow within this competition with national exposure there will be interest in it, and we expect broadcast interest, and that escalates and feeds back on itself. We just want to put the bones in place and encourage and enable it to grow, and if everybody works together for it to grow we’ll have a really good competition from where clubs can bolster the A-League, both by way of expansion initially, and beyond that to replenish the top tier with promotion/relegation.’

The A-Leagues are currently driven by their representative body in the APL. They are operating under a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ mantra, as seen in the ownership structure of the Newcastle Jets.
The AAFC are shooting for a more organic means of operation, so if the NSD is up and running, do you see the AAFC as still having a role and a guiding hand in proceedings? Or is your ultimate goal to dissolve the body, given the successful implementation of the natural flow of clubs?

Nick Galatas: We are constantly reviewing our function and aims. The clubs established the AAFC as a representative body that wanted to seek a voice, to enable the clubs to better streamline the national second tier so they could all find and operate at their true level. In a sense, our role will evolve, and what it evolves to, I don’t know. But if the clubs gain voting rights within the member federations, which is currently indirect at best, then one might argue we’ve gained a voice at that level, and have been successful.

Secondly, if there’s a NSD and the clubs are in that and they’re represented there, then they’ve got their voice within that environment. So if you address those issues, then what we change into depends on what emerges, and what the new environment is. But we would be a failure if down the track clubs are still wandering about the place saying ‘we want a voice’. So, as we progress and establish a voice for the clubs, we will have genuinely achieved much, so we’d need to genuinely review what the NPL clubs would then want from us, and we’d then see ourselves as evolving over time.

A-Leagues and PFA partnership with GoBubble Community aims to silence social media hate

A-Leagues

A-Leagues and Professional Footballers Australia have announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with GoBubble Community, a discrete automated solution that hides hateful comments on social media channels.

In what is believed to be a world first, the social media channels of an entire sporting league (all A-Leagues clubs and players) will be shielded from abusive, derogatory, harmful or offensive language, thanks to the roll out of GoBubble Community’s technology.

Launched late last year, GoBubble Community uses machine-learning based software that monitors social media accounts in order to identify and deal with abusive, derogatory, harmful or offensive content.

With hate speech increasing across platforms, this partnership effectively puts safeguards in place to protect the wellbeing of A-Leagues footballers, as well as the community of managers who run the official club social media channels.

A-Leagues CEO Danny Townsend:

“Football has a unique power to connect people from all walks of life, and we want the A-Leagues to be the most welcoming and safe place at every level – in our online communities and in real life.

“There is no place for online abuse in our game, and this move is part of our duty of care to players and our fans. GoBubble Community’s technology shields anyone who follows player, club and league accounts from seeing harmful abuse and keeps our communities safe.”

PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill:

“Social media is a powerful tool that allows players to connect and positively engage with fans, promote their careers and clubs, and share their development as people on and off the pitch.

“But their presence on these platforms unfortunately exposes them to hate and abuse which has no place in our sport or society. This partnership with GoBubble Community continues our commitment to addressing the issue of online harm in partnership with the APL – and ensures we protect the wellbeing of our players and encourages positive experiences online.”

GoBubble Founder Henry Platten:

“GoBubble Community is proud to be working in partnership with A-Leagues and Professional Footballers Australia, as they make a powerful stand to eradicate online hate and discrimination through the use of our innovative software.

“The A League is taking the lead to roll out use of this technology across all clubs, and we now hope to see this approach replicated by sports governing bodies across the globe. This powerful step will protect teams, players and communities from online abuse, and promote a positive and supportive virtual experience across their social channels.”

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant:

“These days we often find the cheapest seats in the house are behind a keyboard, with players being subjected to terrible online abuse in the course of doing their jobs. Back in November last year we met with some of the biggest sporting codes in the country and pledged to work together to do more to protect players, coaches and support staff from online abuse.

“I think it’s great to see the A-Leagues and PFA making good on this pledge and taking a proactive approach to protecting their athletes. eSafety will continue pushing the major tech companies to embed Safety by Design into their platforms so that sporting organisations don’t need to take matters into their own hands to keep their players safe on these platforms.  And as always, eSafety is also here to help and all Australians can report serious online abuse to us at www.esafety.gov.au.”

This announcement follows a successful trial between February 25 and 26 by A-Leagues and PFA, using GoBubble Community’s software on the Twitter profiles of Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners – the clubs participating in the Pride Cup Double Header.

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