When the Matildas crashed out of the Women’s Asian Cup and the Socceroos dropped points to China in a crucial World Cup qualifier, Australia’s football public descended into a familiar tailspin of existential angst.
The following weeks have seen attention turn back to our domestic leagues, and the hand-wringing has continued. Now over three months into the Australian Professional League’s first full season in charge of the A-League Men’s and Women’s competitions, discontent regarding the game’s new broadcast era has grown to a chorus, while VAR remains a frequent point of contention as is a National Second Division and Domestic Transfer System.
APL Managing Director Danny Townsend, who is transitioning into the CEO role within the organisation, sat down with Soccerscene to discuss their position on the multitude of issues facing the game.
What’s your thoughts on behalf of the APL about Paramount+ and how they’ve fared across the first three months of your partnership?
Danny Townsend: We’re really happy about the relationship we have with ViacomCBS and Paramount+ as a collective. They’ve been really supportive from the moment we did our deal, and as with all new relationships, as you increase new production capabilities and they’re setting up new streaming platforms for live sport. It’s going to come with teething problems and we’ve seen those.
Is Paramount+ a minimum viable product (MVP) like KEEPUP, given it’s rather rudimentary offerings of user functionality?
Danny Townsend: I wouldn’t say MVP because Paramount+ was designed for episodic viewership of movies and other programming, not for live sport. So what they’re trying to do is land a live sports proposition within a streaming environment that wasn’t set up for that, and that’s why you’re missing some of those functional elements that you might have on a more established live sports platform like Kayo or Optus Sport. Paramount’s product roadmap is very much to have those functions in place sooner rather than later.
Can we expect the ability to pause and rewind matches, or stream them on demand while still live as increased functions on Paramount?
Danny Townsend: Their communication strategy is their own. I think our commitment to our fans is to keep them informed and be transparent where possible – that’s the way we like to operate and lead an organisation. It was imperative that we got out and reacted to fan sentiment to provide some background on why we are where we are, and what we’re doing collectively to move it forward. For a lot of the streaming services around the country and across the world in their first season, it’s going to throw up some challenges. No doubt we’ll overcome them, and they’ll be a distant memory once things are rocking and rolling.
The APL have been on the front foot recently regarding your relationship with Network 10. There have been issues regarding the forced implementation of ad breaks, are we starting to see changes here?
Danny Townsend: We had really productive meetings with Ten, and they’ve been great in partnership to react to things that we’ve collectively felt wasn’t sitting right. You’ll see a different process around that insertion and hopefully that’s one that is far less intrusive and maintains the flow of the game.
We’re now three months into a deal that has free-to-air components. Has the APL benefited, or will this take longer to quantify?
Danny Townsend: Has it been successful? Absolutely. Our collective reach that we’ve managed over the first 11 weeks has been far greater than the sum of the parts over the last three seasons on the previous broadcast platforms. As with anything, I wouldn’t say we’re ecstatic about the size of the viewership against what we planned for. But we’ve moved away from a broadcast arrangement that was in place since the inception of the competition, so when you move things to a different platform it’s going to take a bit of time for fans to adapt. That adoption will no doubt come, and we’ve just got to work with Ten to drive the exposure of the competition and the league to ensure all our fans know where to find us.
The AAFC has released their ‘final report’ into a National Second Division and have said they’re going to roll in 2023. You’ve mentioned that they are yet to engage with you on the matter, so would it be fair to say the top tier and potential second tier are existing separately at this point?
Danny Townsend: They are separate, and we’ve made it clear to the AAFC that we’re here for consultation if they’d like our input. We’ve said from the beginning we are about unifying the game, not the opposite, despite some consistent rhetoric in the marketplace from some people. We want to see what’s best for football, and we want to help the NSD be successful because that’s great for football in this country. We’re here and willing, we’d love to understand the plans more and we’d love to see how that orientates around our A-League youth competition.
Does the APL have a list of requirements of what you’d like if the AAFC were to come to you regarding stitching two competitions together?
Danny Townsend: Not specifically. What we’d like to see is their plans in detail, and also if they have any questions around what we think we can help them with. They are the basic consultation points that you start with and from there you can really dig into specific areas and identify the logical place to start.
James Johnson said Football Australia may make ‘aggressive decisions to start implementing a Domestic Transfer System’, and also believes the transfer system and the salary cap can co-exist. Is it the case you haven’t been part of the consultation process around a Domestic Transfer System?
Danny Townsend: It depends how you define consultation. We received the initial 100-odd page report that laid out some of their thinking around the DTS, but it was vague in terms of the specific mechanics that would impact the professional clubs and the players. Our request was for more detail – that hasn’t happened as yet, but we expect it to happen shortly given James’ desire to move quickly.
What is the APL’s position on the salary cap at this point?
Danny Townsend: We have a five year Collective Bargaining Agreement, and out of respect and commitment to the PFA that’s only just been negotiated prior to any release of a DTS strategy. Any conversations with the FA around a DTS must be done in a tri-party fashion with the PFA, ourselves and FA. We’re always open to having those conversations.
The VAR hit a new low recently. Have we moved to a point where the clubs would consider moving on?
Danny Townsend: We did see a new low and the FA came out on Wednesday and took responsibility for the situation, which was important. But long-term, or even shorter term, we have to go through an assessment process of where it’s at. It’s been around five years now, we pioneered it in many respects in Australia, and it’s never really been perfect.
There are a lot of stats that support it’s retention. I think there are 40-odd decisions a year overturned correctly that have impacted outcomes in matches. If those 40 decisions had resulted in outcomes that were incorrect, I’m sure there would have been a fair degree of uproar as well, so I think sometimes those things are glossed over.
Nevertheless, you always need to re-evaluate things. You need to look at ways to either move forward in a more effective manner, or move away from it entirely, and that’s the position we are in. One thing’s for sure, we’ve got to action something. We can’t just sit back and listen to the vitriol that followed that match and do nothing about it.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the APL was considering an application to Football Australia to have the A-League’s visa player quota changed to a 4+1 rule to include a designated AFC player. If that’s correct, where is the application at?
Danny Townsend: We didn’t suggest we’d make an application to Football Australia. We did suggest that we were looking at an Asian player strategy that would allow us to incentivise clubs to bring Asian players into the A-Leagues, largely to connect with the migrant populations that exist all over Australia that at the moment don’t connect to the domestic competition, and probably support football in other countries. That was really the nub of it, but if we were to go down that path it would require a consultation and request from Football Australia to change that five foreigners rule. At the end of the day the rule is five foreigners – if we were to change that to 4+1 that’s really something for the APL to manage and drive.
On top of engaging with communities here, could that be something that’s used to package up the competition and generate revenue through selling broadcast rights to Asian markets?
Danny Townsend: That’s going to be key to the strategy. The primary reason would be to engage domestic & new Australians, but the upside you get out of your broadcast rights into those markets would definitely be a bonus. We didn’t see a huge impact on the Japanese rights when we had Keisuke Honda in the competition. To be frank, I think there are markets in South-East Asia that we would definitely benefit from having those players in the A-Leagues.
There have been calls from the public to professionalise the A-League Women’s competition in recent weeks, or to at least expand its length. Is this a realistic proposition, and if so where does that funding come from? Could that be through the use of the recently acquired SilverLake investment, or through raising capital from elsewhere?
Danny Townsend: It’s a range of things. The funding for it is not going to come out of one single area. The clubs have been investing in women’s football for 12 years now and have been at the forefront of the development pathway for the Matildas. The APL as a function of those 12 clubs remains committed to continuing to improve the standards and grow the competition, both from the number of teams, but importantly the number of games per season.
‘We know it comes with significant cost, and we need to find ways to drive more commercial returns out of the women’s game to make it more financially sustainable. The government needs to play a role in that. They’ve committed funds to Football Australia for women’s football that’s largely been spent on the Matildas, and none of which has really flowed down to the national women’s competition. But it’s for the APL to go out and lobby the government, much like Football Australia has done. We have to continue to invest and make sure the A-League Women’s is up there with the top three women’s competitions in the world, as we believe it should be.
You’ve recently mentioned that an A-League fantasy product was on the way, but that attention may have been turned by the NFT space?
Danny Townsend: This is an emerging proposition all sports need to engage with and develop an understanding of, especially with the pace it’s moving at. One thing we’ve noticed through the fantasy process is that NFTs, or tokenisation, of fantasy competitions is coming to the forefront. What we don’t want to do is build an analogue fantasy product knowing there is a digital one right around the corner. We were way down the road on a fantasy product to launch this year and we’re still committed to doing that, it just may be a different form to include a degree of tokenisation.
Given the competitive nature of fantasy competitions and the financial aspect of tokenisation, does that then take the product towards a form of gambling?
Danny Townsend: No, it’s basically about buying a token or an NFT that relates to a certain card in that fantasy competition that gives you more benefits than a standard card unattached to a token. There’s various different ways in which it’s applied but it’s certainly not a form of gambling.
What about more traditional means of peripheral media to push the game into schools and promote engagement with younger markets, such as matchday programmes or A-Leagues trading cards?
Danny Townsend: It’s about picking a strategy and going hard with it. We’ve been really clear that we wanted to get into a digital first, direct-to-consumer space with our fanbase, which is why we’ve invested so heavily in KEEPUP. That’s at the MVP stages and about 20% of the utility and capacity that it will be by the end of the phase two build later this year.
Trading cards and how they play out will be more likely to be digital. Matchday programmes in a physical sense aren’t the future. To an extent, print media is something we want to dive into because there’s still a significant number of our fans that are more traditional in media consumption and we can’t ignore them. It’s finding that balance to really drive the digital strategy and still service those that may not be as engaged in digital.
Finally, while KEEPUP is in the MVP stage, what can be done for the rest of this season so the game’s most engaged or casual fans can understand when games are on?
Danny Townsend: Even I’m struggling with the ever-changing fixture list! Our plan is about considering the user experience and by the time we have a second phase launch prior to the finals series, a lot of the bugs and functionality that aren’t quite working will be addressed so the functionality of the MVP is world class.
At the moment it’s far from that. We have a lot of plans to bring utility into it, such as fantasy, which a football consumer is looking for, but we’ve got to get the MVP right, and there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes since we launched it. The back end of it is being moved around in order to facilitate the user experience change. A huge amount of work is being done and you’ll start to see gradual shifts in the way the platform is working, and by the end of the season we’ll have it in a good place. We’ll have that functionality that we know will drive more engagement and have the digital experience improved.