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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.

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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