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Football has invested considerably in VAR and fans had better get used to it

Rarely a weekend of football goes by these days without a monumental kerfuffle around everyone’s favourite technological official VAR.

The weekend just passed saw Liverpool FC the beneficiary against Manchester City, when a supposedly qualified and experienced referee waved play on despite the ball appearing to strike the Red’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s arm whilst defending in his own area.

The mysterious individuals in control of the VAR system reviewed the incident. They confirmed the on-field officials’ version of events and before City fans could hit the keyboard to let rip at the most hated aspect of modern football, Liverpool had scored at the other end.

If it wasn’t so serious, it would be comical.

Was it an important decision? Of course it was. Did it alter the outcome of the match? Who knows? What is certain is the fact that governing bodies appear to be backing the technology and their investment in it, at the expense of the integrity of the game.

The official explanation from Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) read as follows.

“The VAR checked the penalty appeal for handball against Trent Alexander-Arnold and confirmed the on-field decision that it did not meet the considerations for a deliberate handball.”  

Whilst it is always comforting for fans to receive open and transparent responses from the powers at be, this particular example borders on the absurd. Alexander-Arnold’s arm is in the most unusual of positions. In fact, try walking down the street with your arm held out in the manner in which his was and you will receive some very odd looks.

The PGMOL may wish to placate disgruntled fans with a united front that aims to quell discussion, however only the gullible will be falling for their lip service. The unnerving reality remains that the events that played out soon after kick off at Anfield on Sunday afternoon would have led to a penalty on every other day.

On this occasion, a blunder was made. Another referee, at another ground, in another country and in another league, may well have awarded the spot kick. Just a fortnight ago, Louis Fenton of the Wellington Phoenix was adjudged to have hand balled in the area and the referee pointed directly to the penalty spot.

Wellington play in the A-League, Australia’s top tier of professional football. Fenton appeased his team mates immediately, suggesting that once the footage was viewed by VAR, the decision would be reversed, as the ball had made clear contact with his chest before glancing the arm.

Whilst the footage supported Fenton’s version of events, once again, the decision stood and the player proceeded to use some rather blue and poorly chosen words in his post-game interview.

The facial expressions of those sitting on the Phoenix bench said it all, as did Pep Guardiola’s rather comical hand shaking of the officials at the completion of Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over the English champions.

Both reactions lie at the core of the issue when it comes to VAR; the perception that it is a farce and has the potential to harm football from within.

Contentious handball decisions have always brought much debate and conjecture in the game. Yet the inconsistent application of the rules that exists when the extra layer of officialdom is called upon does nothing more than breed distrust in the fans and potential illegitimacy in results.

When the Hawkeye technology currently being used in the Premier League to rule on-offside play is added to the mix, it is little wonder fans are roaring their anger from the rooftops.

It is not just the furious, one eyed supporter calling for change, despite many feeling as though their club has indeed felt the wrath of VAR. Respected players, commentators and pundits right across the globe have had enough of the trivialities of off-sides being awarded based on what appear to be the most minute of margins.

They have grown tired of incidents being reviewed for sometimes up to three or four minutes before a decision is confirmed and, like all of us, are completely bamboozled by many of the adjudications made.

Whilst it is easy for the official post-game statement to be drafted in such a way as to artificially confirm the decisions made by on-field officials, the footballing world sees well through that façade.

What chance a governing body concedes a little ground, admits to an over reliance on technology and shows the courage to downsize its role in the game? Very little I would say and that could be a dangerous path to tread.

Merseyside Derby reaches two million viewers on Amazon

Just over a month since their debut as a domestic broadcast partner of the top-flight English Premier League, Amazon has already been a hit with fans.

The Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton peaked in popularity as the match reached approximately two million viewers, according to online media outlet Digiday.

That number is comparable to the amount of people using pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports when the two clubs previously played each other in March.

To put into perspective how Amazon has taken off, Sky announced earlier this week that Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City in November drew an average of 3.36 million viewers, a figure that made it the third most-watched Premier League broadcast in the network’s history.

With Amazon already close to what Sky is achieving, it goes to show where the future of broadcasting may be heading.

According to Digiday, the US technology giant’s first year as a Premier League broadcaster was relatively well received by advertisers. Major brands such as Coca-Cola, Duracell, Heineken, Mercedes Benz and Papa John’s joined on as partners, though buyers have concerns about the data they have received from the streaming platform thus far.

Amazon did not release its viewing figures publicly, while agency executives reportedly received reporting on their specific campaigns from the company this week.

Digiday reports that Amazon’s starting prices offered to advertisers were a cost per thousand impressions of UK£50 (AUD$94) for a broadly targeted adult audience for ‘Tier A’ games, UK£45 (AUD$84) for ‘Tier B’ and UK£40 (AUD$75) for ‘Tier C’ matches. These are understood to be two to three times the price of ads that Sky has sold for similar Premier League games, although in both cases the final prices were subject to negotiation.

When it came to ad performance, the buyers who spoke with Digiday gave a mixed verdict, with below – by as much as 30 per cent – and above expectation impressions reported against Amazon’s initial forecasts.

Going forward, buyers told Digiday that they would like to add access to Amazon’s first-party data, and the option to add their own tags to ads for attribution purposes.

Despite reaming coy with its viewing figures, an Amazon spokeswoman said the 3rd and 4th December were the ‘two biggest Prime sign-up days in UK history’, adding that ‘millions’ of customer streamed the live broadcasts, without clarifying the exact figure.

James Johnson set to shake-up FFA structure

New Football Federation Australia (FFA) CEO James Johnson says addressing how the organisation can adapt to constant change will be one of his biggest priorities.

Speaking in front of media for the first time since his introduction to the CEO role, Johnson has come with a plan to transform the FFA into an organisation fit to handle any challenge that comes its way, both in a local and international scale.

Here are some of the key points that Johnson made as part of his introduction, where he discusses how the FFA needs to signal its intent as it aims to become a leading and respected organisation in the global world.

Related Story: FFA’s appointment of James Johnson is promising but where in the world does he start?

He outlines where he thinks FFA is at today and what he’s seen.

“The FFA has been through a very challenging period, which in our history in football has been the most transformational we’ve been through,” he said.

“In 2018 we went through the congress reform – during my time at FIFA I got to see many of these all over the world and know what sort of transformational change come as a consequence of these reviews.”

“We’re also in the midst of the unbundling of the A-League and this is a step in the direction of professionalisation, it means the Australian football governance framework is becoming more sophisticated.

“We also need to look at the domestic environment we’re operating in, as a football community and we’re shifting to a model where stakeholders are participating in a meaningful way more so than in the past.”

Having spoken about the need for change, Johnson outlined the specific plan and vision that will build towards a more sustainable future for FFA.

“I’d like to see the FFA become a really unified organisation,” he said.

“The FFA needs to connect the game together, including the stakeholders, government and commercial partners.

“This is a role the FFA can play, and should become a football first organisation and drive the football agenda.

“The third theme is the organisation transforming from something local to one that thinks globally.

“We need to acknowledge this is a global sport with many opportunities and learnings that we can bring back to the Australian game.”

Australian football has seen some complex and pressing issues over recent years – as Johnson commences his duties he is aware of some key topics that need addressing.

“We need to finalise the unbundling of the A-League,” he said.

“We need to find a governance model where both the league and FFA need each other to both grow.

“There’s many good examples that exist out in the global world of football and I’m hoping I can bring this experience back to add value in these discussions.

“We’re obviously bidding for the Women’s World Cup in 2023, this is an ongoing process and part of it with a decision in June.

“This is another immediate priority and we need to look at how we best position ourselves as a leading candidate to win the Women’s World Cup hosting rights.”

Perhaps one of the biggest talking points in Australian football is the desire for a national second division that pits National Premier League sides against top-flight A-League opposition.

Johnson confirmed that it is in his interest to introduce this and are going through a process about how the competition structure would change.

“We don’t have a second-tier competition but these discussions are happening,” he said.

“I don’t see any reason why we cannot have a second tier competition.

“I’d like to look at the FFA Cup and also the NPL and how we grow these products.

“One learning that I’ve had being involved in the Champions League discussions is that every year a great competition like the Champions League is reviewed and discussed with stakeholders at the table trying to make the competition better every year so it continues to grow.

“I’d like to have a look and discuss women’s football – this is a real key priority now all over the world.

“You’ve got FIFA, UEFA and big European clubs all investing in this area, so how do we on this side of the world be a major player in the global discussions of women’s football, I think that’s something we need to look at.

“I’d also like to look at the pathways and how we ensure that we open access to all parts of Australia.

“Are the registration costs too high – can we find mechanisms such as training reward or solidarity mechanisms to ensure that clubs all over the country are incentivised to develop players.

“This is something that I’d really like us to look at and debate in the near future.”

Source: https://www.ffa.com.au/news/watch-james-johnsons-first-media-conference-ffa-ceo

LaLiga’s growth rests largely on match day experience, is Australian football watching?

Discussions around football attendance figures in Australia are constant.

One school of thought suggests that the challenge of drawing new people towards both the A and W Leagues and enhancing the appeal and reach of NPL competitions across the country is far from being met.

Another cites a more general trend in many sports, where the physical presence of fans has become far less important than what it once was; with broadcasting and streaming rights seen as the most critical factors in providing both exposure and revenue.

It could certainly be said of sports like tennis, golf, and test cricket, where events are often played in near empty venues. Marquee match-ups draw big numbers yet general run of the mill events continue to offer top prize money despite the often ghost-like fan presence.

Football in Australia does not have the luxury of vast television audiences, contracts or streaming services to generously fund the top Leagues or in turn, the game at the grass roots level.

What the game does have is a solid base of over 100,000 A-League club members, passionate support at NPL level through the traditional and community based clubs and a current boom in women’s football that stands to bring more income and growth to the game as a whole.

Without the significant financial investment enjoyed by some international competitions, Australian football should emulate one of the biggest leagues in the world and focus on fans; without them, there may well be nothing left on which to cling.

Spain’s top two leagues are showing quite clearly that enjoying immense media exposure across the globe and possessing massive television contracts need not come at the expense of growing attendance and bums on seats. In fact, improving the match day stadium experience has been a cornerstone of their approach over the last decade, with much success.

If LaLiga’s numbers indicate anything, it is that primal support lies at the very core of growth and subsequent ratings and corporate interest. Australian football’s challenge is to look closely at the model that LaLiga employs and take the best bits of it in order to improve our domestic product.

2019/20 statistics indicate a 1.53% increase in attendance across the top two leagues in Spain. If the trend continues for the remainder of the season, it will be the sixth consecutive increase. Total attendance grew from 13.1 million people in 2013/14 to 14.8 million in 2018/19. Should this season’s numbers hold firm, LaLiga’s top two tiers will surpass 15 million fans for the first time.

No doubt the quality in Spain creates a more conducive environment for growth than many other leagues across the globe, Australia in particular. However, any thoughts that much of that growth stems merely from the presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is currently being disproven.

Messi is still brilliant, yet ageing and more often injured, whilst Ronaldo is long gone. The league continues to surge forward despite both realities. It is thanks to astute management, planning and a focus on improving the match day experience of fans, rather than an unhealthy dependence on a couple of world class superstars whose days were always to be numbered.

Whilst both Barcelona and Real Madrid remain strong, the growth has led to the increased competitiveness of Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Getafe FC. Clubs like Valladolid, Osasuna and Grenada have had their moments in the sun already this season whilst Villarreal and Valencia have also threatened the top six; with inconsistency proving their Achilles Heel.

As a result of that depth, competitiveness and visibility, LaLiga is surging. The governing body of Spanish football respect and enjoy the EPL, Bundesliga and Serie A, yet aim to make their product the second most watched league around the globe.

It is a bold endeavour and one based on providing a magnificent fan day experience for local people that draws them into grounds at an ever increasing rate; no doubt a lesson for the Australian game.

Removing itself from cavernous stadiums and offering affordable ticketing to encourage attendance during the summer months, should be high on the ‘to do’ list of the newly independent A-League. Putting the next broadcast deal aside and making football fun for Australian fans is paramount in a current climate where many feel over-charged, over-policed and under-valued.

The extra money now available at the top tier should be used to build the game from the local level; forging connections, establishing more feeder clubs and engaging with communities.

Adding ‘bright sparks’ into middle management does little for the domestic product. If LaLiga’s growth and success teaches us anything, it is that large stadiums and television deals are not the ‘be all and end all’ when it comes to growing the game.

What is far more important is giving people a compelling reason to go to a football match.

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