Only the brave – Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend’s greatest challenge

When Danny Townsend was appointed CEO of Sydney FC in August, 2017, he could never have envisaged the pressures which Australian football would be confronted with in 2020

A national competition in the A-league which has its very survival threatened had been losing public support for the last few years.

Now a major dispute with the P.F.A over players’ wages, conditions and entitlements, the diminution of television and commercial backing and an uncertain starting date for the next season, have made this year the worst in the fifteen year history of the competition

Danny Townsend is a creative thinker but he will have to apply all the know – how gleaned in the formation and growth of his brainchild international company, Repucom, to combat the forces at work against the prosperity of the A-League and his own club.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Danny Townsend discusses the hurdles the game is facing and attempts to provide the answers to overcome them.

ROGER SLEEMAN

You completed the double on August 30. What is the aftermath for Sydney FC?

DANNY TOWNSEND

It was a fantastic achievement in surpassing Sydney City, South Melbourne, Marconi and Melbourne Victory as the club with the greatest number of titles in national competition so it’s something we can all look back on with pride.

ROGER SLEEMAN

What were the pros and cons of finishing the season?

DANNY TOWNSEND

For the game it was important to resume the season after the COVID-19 interruption.

Particularly for our club, so the players could complete the mission to secure the Double and go back to back Champions.
Also, continuity was important because the wider community and football supporters needed something to inspire them given the difficult times brought about by the pandemic.

Certainly, it was a positive winning the Double in these difficult times.

ROGER SLEEMAN

At the moment, coverage for the game on tv, radio and print media is next to nothing.
Your thoughts?

DANNY TOWNSEND

This is disappointing but COVID-19 has created an inflexion point for the game to rebuild and examine media and many other issues.
We have a strategy and all stakeholders in the code from the FFA, the Professional Leagues and down to the grassroots must play an important collaborative role in rebuilding the game .

We’ve always talked about high participation rates and interest in football – we have the numbers and enough support to justify having coverage on the front and back pages every day.
However, this has never been capitalised on and it’s a clear failing in the game to date.

Now is the time to do something about it – we have no choice.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Do we have the right people on the Board of FFA and executive talent in the organisation to take the game forward?

DANNY TOWNSEND

The people are there and in James Johnson we have a CEO with the right credentials who unfortunately has taken up his position at a particularly difficult time.  It’s not just up to the FFA  but we must separate the Professional Leagues.

These organisations need to be entrepreneurial and hire the most talented and innovative people.
There are plenty of good people in football but we need to be bold and take some risks.

There should be a mixture of competencies which allows the game to move forward as a collective.
It isn’t about one single board member or executive but about senior figures in the game working together to achieve the necessary outcomes to take the game forward.

Fortunately, Sydney FC Board members provide me with the support to do the job I want and critically, I have the best people around me to make it happen.

ROGER SLEEMAN

How much longer will it be before the A-League clubs become independent from the FFA and will the current incumbents led by Greg O’Rourke still administer the competition?

DANNY TOWNSEND

The FFA has indicated to the clubs they support the process of an independent League.
However, there are processes to be followed which will ensure the separation is carried out in a professional and orderly manner.

I can’t really comment about how the unbundling will take place and what it will finally look like.
Nonetheless, Greg O’Rourke demonstrated great initiative in getting the competition back and running again after the COVID-19 layoff.  Many people on the periphery have no appreciation for the operational and commercial challenges the League faced and to finish the season was a significant achievement by Greg, his team and all the clubs.

Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend – Image Sydney FC

ROGER SLEEMAN

You ran a multinational success story in Repucom for twelve years. What can the game learn from your business experience?

DANNY TOWNSEND

You need the best people to execute your strategy like you require the best players on the pitch to win trophies. We’re in a competitive marketplace vying for recognition with other sports and entertainment mediums.
Therefore, we have to work harder and become more creative and innovative in our work. At Repucom we had a good solution but we had the best people to bring it to life.  In Football we have the best game and we just need talented people to capitalise on the opportunity.

In the past the game has probably been guilty of complacency, particularly in our failure to link grassroots with senior football.
The grass roots really need to be tapped into because it’s a huge marketplace which is already aligned with the sport.  We are in the entertainment business and we need to think like that when we think about the Professional Leagues.

ROGER SLEEMAN

How can the game attract more funding from business and government?

DANNY TOWNSEND

Once again, it’s about creating value and the private and public sector will respond.
By selling the health and wellness benefits of the sport, we should have access to more government grants.  Our sport is comparatively poorly supported by state and federal government compared to our counterparts, so we need to set that straight.

Also, the success in winning the Women’s World Cup should be leveraged to unlock the scale of our game to the community and in turn the private sector. In the past 3-4 seasons, Sydney FC has made giant strides, but we can only do so much. Being a big club in an ordinary competition isn’t going to help our club grow further.

Being a great club in a great competition is really going to set the pathway so we must work as shareholders in the game to grow a better competition. For the League to prosper, it’s a must for other clubs to perform better on and off the pitch.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Steve Corica brought a number of young players through the ranks last season.
Will this be the continuing trend or will marquee and overseas players still be sort after?

DANNY TOWNSEND

The rationalisation of the competition and the current CBA negotiations are affecting our cost base so naturally there’ll be more of a reliance on domestic talent to drive results on the pitch. The club has invested in a five-year program for the Academy and a few players have already gone overseas to ply their trade.

Nevertheless, foreigners have a place in the game eg: Cameron Devlin who trained next to Brandon O’Neill and Milos Ninkovic every day became a much better player before moving to Wellington and Trent Buhagiar has learnt a lot from Adam Le Fondre in the past two seasons.

However, young players shouldn’t believe they have a sense of entitlement to make the grade because nobody gets a guaranteed starting place at this club or any other club.  The foreign player market has shifted so I still think you will see quality and high profile foreign football talent in the A-League and W-League into the future.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Do you agree the media concentrates too much on off the park events, rather than what is happening on it?

DANNY TOWNSEND

I agree with this statement, so the game has to do a better job of controlling the narrative.
In the absence of reliable communications, the game suffers so information flow is essential to prevent the media from filling in the blanks.
All stakeholders in the game must communicate clearly and more often to achieve a fair balance in reporting.
Currently, only one side of a story is being publicised so let’s assist the media in producing more accurate stories based on better quality transparency whether the news is good, bad or ugly.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Where do the CBA negotiations currently sit?

DANNY TOWNSEND

The CBA is currently on pause as clubs are working with their respective playing groups. The cuts mentioned in the media aren’t correct as individual club contracts and situations are all different with the mix of contracted and uncontracted player’s conditions varying widely.

Critically, all clubs want to look after their players but they also have a fiscal responsibility to ensure the club’s survival.  This is not a burden that lies solely with the players as cuts need to be unilateral across all functions of football which will recalibrate the game’s cost base.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Is it true that James Johnson will intervene if the current stalemate is not resolved?

DANNY TOWNSEND

The FFA and James Johnson have offered support to help the situation if necessary.
However, there are two parties involved in these negotiations. The clubs who employ and pay the players and the players themselves via the PFA.

The FFA as the regulator can get involved but James Johnson is doing the right thing by letting the parties work through the process as adults to try and find a suitable outcome.  I remain very confident that will be the result.

Simon Pincic talks upgrades at Somers Street and future of Melbourne Knights

Knights Stadium facility upgrades are almost complete with new irrigation and drainage systems, perimeter fencing, turf for pitches 2 and 3 and an inaugural small-sided pitch 4.

Knights Stadium is one of the most iconic grounds in Australian football and has a storied history dating back to 1989, highlighting the longevity of the Knights’ success in Victorian football.

In an interview with Soccerscene, Melbourne Knights President Simon Pincic discusses the progress at Somers Street from its start in January, the clubs view on improving the women’s teams and how the Knights continue to focus on youth development at all ages.

The upgrades were confirmed in early January are part of a big plan by the Knights to ‘provide a leading sporting facility in Melbourne’s West.’

After the announcement of the upgrades in January, how are the developments coming along at Somers Street?

Simon Pincic: We’re now most of the way there, getting through the final stages and we hope the bulk of this project is completed by the end of next week.

It started out with doing a bit of pitch work just to make our playing surfaces better and we kind of adapted and evolved from what was a six week project to now a four month project.

We ripped up the existing surfaces then added drainage and irrigation to both pitches, levelling off the pitches then finishing it off by installing the turf.

Pitch 3 is down by the end of next week. It’s the training ground and now we’re able to make that a full size, community ground for the u18’s NPL side.

We were also able to add in a small-sided pitch for our younger age groups, so the u8’s and 9’s can play there.

In addition to that there is new perimeter fencing around those pitches, added footpaths, and then the final touch is installing new lighting for Pitch 3 but that probably won’t be until next year when we are planning on upgrading the lighting on Pitch 2.

The early stages of pitch works back in January.

The upgrades and your previous statements at events suggest there is an emphasis on youth development for the Knights. Has that been a big discussion point for the Knights board members?

Simon Pincic: The club have always prided ourselves on giving our juniors a chance. Every season or every second season we tend to push one or two of our junior players to the senior squad. They don’t always make it at the senior level, but we give them a couple of years in that space.

Recently we had [Luka] Kolic pretty much play two entire seasons as an 18 and 19 year old and then went on to sign for Melbourne Victory. As proud as we are of that sort of stuff, we think we can do better with the younger age groups.

Really putting a lot more emphasis into that real grassroots level so from the youngest ages of three to six and starting teams from the u7’s where we really drive home skill development and that sort of stuff.

The goal is trying to develop these players so we can have a crop of ten or twenty that come in from the u7 level and majority of them are still there when they get to the u18 or u23 level so instead of just poaching talent from elsewhere, we can utilise the players from our own set up.

Newly appointed Senior Men’s Head Coach, Ivan Franjic. Photo by: Mikko Robles/MKFC

What is the focus on women’s football now with the increased participation across the country? Is that a priority for the Knights?

Simon Pincic: With the youth set up, it’s not just with the boys but with the girls as well. We haven’t had much luck with that recently when we lost our senior women’s side a couple of years ago and we’re working on improving some facilities for them as well.

Part of the project includes adding girls and women’s changerooms and putting a big emphasis next season on growing the number of junior teams that we’ve got.

With these upgrades, we can have elite level facilities for women in the west which doesn’t exist at the moment so hopefully within a few years we can build that up, have most age groups and build an elite pathway for the girls to follow.

The stadium seems to be a part of a long-term goal to be one of the biggest clubs in the country. Are there any future ambitions for the club and the stadium that the Knights are focusing on?

Simon Pincic: We’ve got a master plan that we started around the start of Covid and have been campaigning for quite a while.

The southern end of our stadium will be flattened, the terracing behind that southern goal, which faces pitches two and three, will be removed and the new club house will be built there with some new terracing and stadium seating behind there.

Also the removal of the old clubhouse and the installation of the new synthetic pitch which is all part of a grand plan.

We obviously need a small amount of funding to get that started and we will breakdown how we complete these tasks and work around any issues.

There will be refurbishments to the clubrooms, changing rooms and stadium terracing to ensure we can host the bigger matches like the Brisbane Roar one again in the upgraded stadium.

There is quite a grand plan there and this year we are taking that first step to completing that clubroom plan.

Shedding the light on Germany’s unique 50+1 ownership model

Football in Germany enjoys widespread popularity due to its top-tier play, the highest average attendances in world football, affordable ticket prices, and a vibrant fan culture. A significant factor contributing to this is the 50+1 ownership rule.

Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke famously once said in 2016 via the Bundesliga website:

“The German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club, and if he gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.”

The 50+1 rule safeguards this – the rule refers to the requirements that club members hold 50 percent plus one additional vote of the voting rights to ensure a majority. Essentially, it means that clubs, and consequently, the fans retain the final say in their management, rather than external influences or investors.

According to the German Football League (DFL) regulations, football clubs are prohibited from participating in the Bundesliga or the second division if external investors hold the majority control.

Essentially, this means that private or commercial investors cannot take control of clubs and implement measures prioritising profit over supporters’ interests. The regulation protects against irresponsible owners and preserves the democratic traditions of German clubs.

Historically, German football clubs were non-profit institutions managed by member associations, and private ownerships was entirely prohibited until 1998. The introduction of the 50+1 rule that year helps explain why debts and wages are kept in check and why ticket prices remain significantly lower compared to other major European leagues.

It should be noted that clubs have adapted to these changes in different ways, resulting in various forms of member ownership. Many Bundesliga teams are legally structured as limited or joint-stock companies, established as subsidiaries of the main club, which often includes other sports departments and/or women’s teams, to manage the men’s first team. Some of these companies are even publicly traded. Clubs in leagues below the DFL-regulated Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 also follow similar approaches, partly to ensure compliance in the event of promotion.

Using Bayern Munich as an example, the shareholders of the men’s first team (FC Bayern München AG) are the members’ club (FC Bayern München e.V. – 75%), Adidas (8.3%), Allianz (8.3%) and Audi (8.3%). With Bayern’s now 300,000+ members being the largest membership of any sports club in the world, it is not difficult to comprehend why they are one of the well structured football clubs in the world, by primarily being debt-free which German clubs are.

In Germany, discussions of financial issues or Financial Fair Play violations are virtually non-existent, whereas news of economic struggles and FFP sanctions is common in other European leagues.

German football fans have turned their passion for football and for their clubs into power and forcing change whenever they are not content with a decision such as when the DFB confirmed that Bundesliga football would be televised on Monday night, fans boycotted the initial Monday night matches, it was then cancelled by the DFB.

While private investment could elevate German football to new heights, the fans are opposed to it.

It’s the fans and their principles that make football in Germany so special. The 50+1 rule may appear outdated in the modern era, but it’s a model that many fans have advocated for in other places. Football is for the fans, and in Germany, things are as they should be.

The 50+1 rule would greatly benefit the decisions and the structure of football in the Isuzu UTE A-League men’s and Liberty A-League women’s with all the controversy that has plagued the game over the years. If there is transparency and communication between member fans and the clubs hierarchy, it would put the priority of fans to the top as they are the most important aspect of where the revenue comes from and would improve the decision making process.

For members of an A-League team, they are essentially ticket holders with some additional rights and privileges that non-members lack. However, these do not involve any participation in the club’s management.

From the football landscape in Australia where the fans are often unhappy with the relationship between them and their club’s ownership, German football seems to have got that blend working positively.

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