2020 has been a challenging year for all sporting administrators due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Stuart Hodge is the current CEO of Football NSW and has held the position since June 2017.
In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Hodge shares his thoughts on the notable events of the year gone by, the opportunities the Women’s World Cup will bring, a national second division and the future plans for Football NSW.
Q: We’ll start by speaking about the recent Australian Coaching Conference. Could you just expand a little on the process and preparation of organising an event like that virtually…and are there any plans or a strategic focus to host other industry events like that in the future?
Stuart Hodge: Yeah look obviously the impact of COVID this year has forced a re-think in many industries on how they deliver on conferences. For example, our state coaching conference in 2019 was held at Valentine Sports Park and was sold out with 400 coaches in attendance. We had some fantastic presentations made in person, but obviously with COVID and the restrictions in place we took the opportunity to explore a virtual coaching conference this year.
It really allowed us to open up our coaching conference to a much wider audience and at the same time, we were able to attract an incredible calibre of speakers from around the world. Having Arsene Wenger present was a fantastic coup for us.
In the end, we had over 1800 people register, so our ability to be able to deliver education in this space was enhanced by the choice to do it online. The great thing is that those registered can go back and re-watch those sessions, so it’s not only a fantastic opportunity to be engaging with it on the day, coaches can go back in a few months’ time and refresh their learnings.
We had terrific support from the FFA, Football Coaches Australia and some of the other state member federations, with people from different parts of the world registering and involving themselves in that conference.
It gives us a real potential to drive this forward and use the platform now to potentially look at doing other types of conferences, such as Football and Law, Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Capability Building projects for clubs…there’s a whole heap of possibilities now that we can explore from our experience.
Q: 2020 has been a tough year for most, how has the organisation been impacted (both positively and negatively) and what did you personally find the most difficult about the COVID situation?
Stuart Hodge: The most difficult (aspect) was the unknown. As people have said, there was no playbook for this. There was no manual you could pull out and say ‘these are the steps you need to follow’. It was unprecedented.
It was having different impacts in different states and so really the challenge of everyday, working with government and stakeholders on trying to understand where things were going to head…and trying to predict the future, was very difficult.
Some of the positives to take out of it I think, was the great spirit shown by the football community in coming together and working collectively to get football back onto the park.
We were having a tremendous amount of engagement with our associations, our NPL clubs and other stakeholders. There was just such a fantastic spirit of cooperation.
When I have gone out and about and spoken to some club presidents of community clubs, they said it was so important for football to be played, especially for young people, and for the many people who went through difficult times, football was that release. The physical and the mental health value of playing football was absolutely vital.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous efforts of volunteers, who implemented all of the COVID safety measures. Volunteers, who always do a fantastic job, were asked to do more and they stepped up and were fantastic.
On another positive note, we also launched our NPL.TV platform and is now up to over 25,000 subscribers who are registered to the service.
On the negative side, it was a very challenging time for everyone involved. For Football NSW, all of our stakeholders and employees it was difficult. We did have standdowns, there was a lot of uncertainty.
Q: In regards to the recent Football NSW vs Football QLD State of Origin series, what do you see as the benefits of this initiative?
Stuart Hodge: It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1800’s for NSW and Queensland to play each other in football. It’s a treasured rivalry and from my understanding the last time it was played before this was 2003. I think there’s a tremendous pride in playing for your state. We see it happen in Rugby League, when the Blues play Queensland, it’s such an amazing occasion.
We believe, the quality of our NPL is fantastic and also believe in the pride of representing NSW. We think it’s a great concept to bring back for our senior players. There’s been a great reaction from them. We had a fantastic jersey presentation with Rale Rasic in the build-up, and also Robbie Farrah. You can see it means a lot to the players, it’s another level.
It’s a tradition that was unfortunately lost and as a sport, we’ve decided to embark on a history and heroes project. We want to start recognising those who have contributed to the game at all levels and all aspects. Historically, football has not done enough of that. So this match was part of our push to start recognising the traditions of the game. The history project will also start to look at the naming of assets to appropriately reward those heroes’ service to the game.
Q: With the winner of the FFA Cup now getting a half spot into the Asian Champions League, do you think this will incentivise NSW member federation clubs to further lift their standards and professionalism across the board?
Stuart Hodge: It certainly provides a wonderful opportunity. But obviously in order to be eligible for that, the clubs need to meet certain requirements by the AFC. This does offer an incentive for clubs to look at what those requirements are and how they can develop and grow in order to meet those levels.
It’s a great chance to play off for that ACL spot, but not only that, because you would have had to win the FFA Cup to get there, which obviously no NPL club has done yet and is a huge achievement in itself.
I applaud the FFA for this incentive, to really try, in many cases, and lift the profile of the FFA Cup. I think it’s a fantastic competition, we see some great matches especially those involving member federations clubs against A-League clubs.
You really see how much it means to those federation clubs when the results go their way, and the large crowds that come along to see a Sydney club play against one of the Sydney A-League clubs.
The way they (FFA) have broken the competition into zone areas for the Round of 32 I think is also going to create some more of those derby games which are a fantastic aspect of the tournament.
Q: What’s your overall view on a national second division with promotion and relegation, is it currently realistic?
Stuart Hodge: I think everyone in football would ultimately like to see a second division with promotion and relegation. It’s something that is very unique to our sport and we see it happening all over the world. But, it has to be with the right circumstances all put in place. I think having the discussion around the second division is healthy, similar to the FFA Cup, the notion that a second tier may come at some point is also important to inspire those aspirational clubs to continue to grow and develop.
Q: How big of an opportunity is it for girls playing football in New South Wales to witness a Women’s World Cup in their backyard?
Stuart Hodge: The Women’s World Cup will provide an incredible legacy opportunity for the game of the football, even beyond just girls. We’ve seen when the Matildas have played in NSW, the superb crowds of boys and girls coming to watch them.
I remember going out to Penrith Stadium, when the Matildas played Brazil, it was sold out with a fantastic atmosphere.
It’s incredible to see how the Matildas are just embraced here in NSW, they are so popular here for boys and girls. The Women’s World Cup is going to take all of that to a whole new level. I think the opportunities that will present for the game, not only for inspiration purposes for new players, but also encouraging those in the game to embrace a World Cup on home soil. It’s a once in a life time chance.
Q: Should this help with factors such as facilities in the future, due to the expected participation boom?
Stuart Hodge: It’s time for football to capitalise on this. We are engaging with the NSW Government and they are a tremendous supporter of major events. It’s about promoting a legacy for the game.
In the past, the government have provided legacy programs off major events which have included facility funding, funding for programs and more…and it will be important to connect with them in that process.
We know that facilities are a challenge for our sport, in NSW and around the country. We have a lot of football projects and facility investment that is required (to deal with the expected participation boom). The Women’s World Cup gives us an amazing platform to really advocate for our cause.
Q: Overall Stuart, what are your goals and vision for the organisation in a post COVID setting?
Stuart Hodge: We have the XI Principles that the FFA have set out, and gives some guidance and direction for where the game may head. We just have to be positioned well to capitalise on the legacy of the Women’s World Cup and use that to benefit all of the game.
Coming out of COVID we want to make sure our associations are strong. We’re embarking on an NPL improvement project which will look at the next three years and how we can boost the governance and the structures of the competitions, in order to maximise those factors.
Football NSW will continue our player development programs and really look at how we can contribute to plugging the performance gap that the FFA has identified.
Finally, continuing to support and grow community football through investment is a high priority of our organisation.