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The future of the professional game in Australia: One-on-one with Sydney FC CEO and APL Managing Director Danny Townsend

Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend is one of the key central figures tasked with revitalising the A-League and the W-League.

Speaking with Soccerscene, the recently appointed Managing Director of the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) believes the professional game in this country is at a critical juncture, as the representative body looks to secure a new TV deal to underpin the future of the sport.

“It’s a crucial deal for the game,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about being able to provide us with some financial security, but importantly also provide us with the right amount of reach for our game. I think we need to have all of the ‘media pipes’ on into the future, as we sort of re-invent the leagues.”

Townsend admits an agreement is set to be struck within the next 4-6 weeks and whilst a summer season for the A-League looks likely, the former Sydney United midfielder would not commit to it whilst discussions with broadcasters continue.

“We are working through that process at the moment; you’ve got to play when you are most commercially viable,” he said.

“What’s really important for this sport is having a sound financial framework around the game. That will mean we need to play when we are most valuable and the market will determine when that is. Equally, we will need to look at a lot of different factors around what it will do for other revenue streams in the game.

“It’s not just about the TV deal, it’s about attendances, memberships, sponsorships and all of those factors need to be considered when you set your calendar.”

The current on-field product of the A-League this season has been the best it has been for years, with the Sydney FC CEO outlining a few reasons why he believes that is the case.

“It’s been an amazing season so far,” Townsend said.

“The matches have a quality that we probably didn’t expect coming out of COVID.

“I think the 5-sub rule has helped, being able to change potentially a third or more of your team at any given time during a match just throws up a degree of uncertainty in games, which has just been interesting.

“I also believe the youth has been a major factor. The amount of quality young players coming into the competition this year – it’s a by-product of the COVID pandemic, which has influenced the financials of the game and meant that clubs have probably had to have a look to their own development pathways more than they might have done in other years.

“The proof is in the pudding. Players like Alou Kuol, Kusini Yengi, these guys that are being unearthed are phenomenal talents and they are great for our game.”

Sydney FC CEO and APL Managing Director Danny Townsend

The attractive product on the park this year doesn’t take away from the issues off the field. The A-League currently doesn’t have a naming rights sponsor since Hyundai exited a 15-year partnership with the league last year. It’s a problem which the APL’s new managing director believes will be addressed in due time.

“I think you’ll see more once we start to roll out the APL strategy, we are seeing a huge amount of corporate interest in what we are doing,” Townsend said.

“I think you’ll see those current vacancies filled pretty quickly.”

Crowds are down this season for a multitude of reasons, one of those being the after effects of a global pandemic, but Townsend realises the game has to do better with engaging fans of the sport.

“I think what we’ve got to do is reconnect and connect,” he said.

“What I mean by that is there are a lot of people who have been involved in football over a long period of time, who don’t support the A-League or W-League. We need to reconnect with those people.

“We need to embrace our multicultural heritage; the sport was built on immigration and those cultures that come together to play the world game. Ultimately, the beautiful thing about our code is that we are the number one sport in the world. We need to be the number one sport in Australia as well. I think that’s going to come with unity, bringing people back into the game and connecting with those already in the game.”

The APL will focus their energy on a digital first strategy to connect the close to 2 million participants in Australia to the game, with Townsend explaining it will allow the representative body to understand who those people are, know their preferences and serve them with appropriate content and information to link them with the sport.

Unique identifiers such as active support will also be prioritised, with the hope being to bring the level of support back to the golden years of the A-League.

“When I bring mates of mine who are Rugby League guys or Rugby Union guys along to a Sydney FC game, they are blown away by the atmosphere that’s created by the active supporters,” Townsend said.

“It’s something we have to embrace. It’s not simple because there are other stakeholders involved that contribute to how they are managed, but we need to reduce the barriers of entry for people who want to be a part of active support.”

Unifying the sport is a key point in the APL’s overall mission for the game and Townsend claims the representative body is supportive of a national second division, as long as there is a sustainable financial framework around it.

“We are about growing football. I’m still yet to really engage with anyone involved in a national second division to understand what their plan is, but where we can we want to help,” he said.

“We are up for working with the NPL and helping them grow the consumption of their content. They’ve got NPL.TV which is a fantastic initiative. How we work with that, with APL and our content, is important in bringing that unity back to the game.”

 

 

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Macarthur FC announce ALAND as major partner

Macarthur FC

Macarthur FC has announced ALAND as a major partner for the next two seasons.

ALAND is one of Sydney’s largest and leading private groups working within development, construction, finance, and property management.

Established in 2002, ALAND has delivered more than 3,800 dwellings in Western Sydney, and currently has more than 1200 homes under construction.

In what comes as a boost for the club, ALAND’s logo will feature on the front of the Bulls during their Australia Cup campaign and upcoming 2022/23 Isuzu UTE A-League season.

Macarthur FC Group CEO Sam Krslovic acknowledged the partnership as a great fit for both the club and ALAND.

“We’re thrilled to be linking up with ALAND,” he said in a statement released by the club.

“We have an ambitious vision for the club and we believe ALAND will be a key partner on this journey.”

ALAND Founder Andrew Hrsto added he was delighted to be supporting the Club as it continued to make its mark.

“Football was always a big part of my upbringing – it was culturally very significant and a lot of Socceroos came from where I grew up, so it’s a real privilege to be getting involved in this way,” he said via Macarthur FC.

“We’re excited to be getting behind this young club and watch it grow from strength to strength. The passion the people of the South West have for their football, and their community is infectious, and we look forward to a long and successful relationship.”

FIFA Technical Expert Karl Dodd: “We need to have a holistic approach to our development”

Karl Dodd

Karl Dodd’s proficient understanding of the nature of football on and off the pitch is unlike many others. Having undergone a playing career spanning the old National Soccer League, A-League, Scottish Premier League, National Premier Leagues Queensland and Hong Kong First Division, Dodd has focused his time since retirement in the early 2010s on mastering his skills and resilience as a coach.

A true believer in knowledge as power, Dodd’s professional post-playing career has seen him take on roles as Head of High Performance at Brisbane Roar alongside two separate stints at the Newcastle Jets, whilst also tackling the challenges of leading Guam’s men’s national team and his current role as a Technical Expert for FIFA.

Having spent the last few months recharging himself after some time away from the local game, Dodd speaks to Soccerscene about his aspirations to embody a generalist professional approach, his learnings from his time as head coach of Guam, and the current state of Australia’s football development system.

You’ve had an incredibly varied career in the footballing world, having started off as a player and then transitioned into coaching and consulting. Was it always an aspiration of yours to challenge yourself in multiple ways rather than just sticking to one field?

Karl Dodd: I got some advice early on in my career to have more of a generalist approach. That’s why my studies have probably taken me across varying domains so that when I am a head coach or in charge you have a good understanding of the environment and the staff that are underneath you. I just found with my playing career that there was always a disconnect between head coaches or assistant coaches and what other staff did. That was the main reason, I just wanted to know as much as I could to be well-informed as a head coach.

How do you reflect as a whole on your footballing journey so far?

Karl Dodd: I think it’s one that has been pretty expansive. I’ve been to lots of different places and early on playing was about experiencing as much as I could and different cultures and countries. And then as a coach it was getting into the hardest places where I could learn the most. It’s a new journey where you’re developing yourself to a new point as a coach, and I didn’t want to go where things were easy.

I wanted to go where it was really going to challenge me so that I could handle whatever was thrown at me – and I think that’s where I’m at. After recent coaching experiences I feel that – and I don’t want to use the word ‘bulletproof’ – because I’ve been in some of the most challenging places, I’m in a good place. And reflecting on it, I’m glad I did that because now I can handle – especially with the Australian landscape where you’ve got to wear multiple hats and work in low-resource environments – those situations.

You spent over three years as Guam’s National Team Men’s Head Coach. What was that experience like for yourself? What did you learn from it?

Karl Dodd: For me personally, it’s a test of your values and who you are as a person because you get challenged every day when you go to a foreign place and you’re trying to implement change. That was a big one in terms of who you are and who you want to be from a football point of view.

Some of the best learnings came from being involved in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and having Japan – who have a really big push in trying to win the World Cup and being the first Asian team to do so – hold a lot of conferences where they invited experts from all around the world. When you’re sitting in rooms with Carlos Queiroz – who was the head coach of Iran at the time – it’s a massive eye-opener listening to these experts from England, France and Croatia explain their development policies or curriculums and how they go about things. You just get exposed to so much more. I think also understanding the international calendar, that was something I wasn’t really across but it makes you think differently as a club coach. Like ‘what players am I going to sign’? ‘Am I going to see those young boys if they have tournaments this year’? There’s a lot more to it and that was an important eye-opener being exposed to a totally different environment. From a match perspective, the pressure to win and tactics behind each game is very different to club football. For smaller nations, winning a qualifier is massive to future games being played in that four-year cycle.

What was that experience like taking in the values and perspectives of these experts from leading footballing nations?

Karl Dodd: It made me realise just how narrow-minded we are in Australia. I believe we’re very ‘big fish, small pond’ possibly because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world. The fact that Japan wants to invite all of the countries and confederations to these meetings and conferences to try help each other develop and grow without ego and with the intent of ‘how do we become better’ was really interesting and enjoyable.

How did you go about implementing your values and desired style of play on the Guam Men’s National Team? It seems like it required a lot of adapting to and with?

Karl Dodd: It certainly was. We get taught here [in Australia] that you have a philosophy and way to play but it might not fit in with other countries. The playing style in Guam was totally different so you have to compromise because you want to get from this playing style that they’re currently doing – which may be a risk-mitigative one where they park the bus – to a ‘total football’ style where you’re trying to play football and have a go against other teams rather than reducing the scoreline.

There’s a process to that and you’ve got to find an entry point. Those players and the community and the coaches have to come along with that. If you go in too high, they won’t know, because a lot of them don’t know what it looks like and they don’t know what your playing style looks like. So, you’ve got to explain that and where we’re at and how we’re going to transition across and that takes time. It’s not just a one or two-year process, that’s a decade-long one because those kids have now got to come through. There’s a lot to it in terms of trying to implement a new style, but also a way of operating which was a good challenge as well.

Currently you’re a Technical Expert at FIFA, what does that role entail?

Karl Dodd: I was asked to come on board in the women’s game and it’s been really enjoyable. We’re working with a lot of Member Associations or countries in setting up a lot of women’s football development programs. For example, we’re working with New Zealand with their league development as they’re trying to create a new women’s league, same with Mexico and Singapore. There’s a lot of strategy behind it which is massively enjoyable because you can’t be a one-trick pony, you’ve got to go in and be adaptable in order to understand where they’re at and what are the cultural barriers or what are the limitations and how do you overcome this. That’s what we’re working on plus just growing the professionalism of the women’s game.

Throughout your journey you have no doubt experienced a variety of football cultures and technical approaches. Comparing your experiences overseas to here, what is Australia’s development system lacking and what are its positive aspects?

Karl Dodd: To be honest, maybe I’m biased here, but I didn’t think there was too much wrong previously it just needed some fine-tuning. Perhaps more from a coaching side in terms of methodologies and the way it has gone, but I think we threw out our main strengths which is our physicality and also our mentality.

I think we need to have a holistic approach to our development, not just the football training. We go off on tangents and go too far and forget about the other stuff. Maybe there’s a lot of misconstrued information from the sports science field where it feels like the focus is all about monitoring, rather than the fundamentals of building the capacity of players. If we want to get players overseas in to the top leagues – Japan train 8-10 times a week and our players at the same level are training four times a week and one of them is an ice bath – we have to build the capacity of a player in a safe-manner. Otherwise, how are we ever going to compete with these top European or Asian nations? There’s too much focus on recovery rather than the periodisation or the building of a capacity of a player in a safe-manner. And that’s probably been lost, but that’s just one example. Again, having a holistic approach to the development of a player is key and we just go off on tangents too much instead of doing the basics well and then adding to it.

For many Australian football fans and casual sporting fans, there is arguably a degree of misunderstanding about the time and planning it takes to nurture a country’s growth as a football nation. What do you feel is essential for Australian football to get right over these next few years?

Karl Dodd: Well, that’s the hard thing because there’s no real quick fix. The reality is the situation we’re in is because of what’s happened in the past. What we need to get right is that we’ve got to start somewhere getting it right, you’ve got to start implementing a holistic approach but then it takes time for players to come through that process. If you’re looking for a quick fix, I don’t know how we’re going to do that. The only way is exposure. The more games the national teams can play the better, but then that comes down to a cost and availability of players, doesn’t it? It’s the million-dollar question.

I think one of the main things is getting the right people involved at all levels of Australian football rather than repeating the same dysfunctional processes. If you’ve got people involved that probably shouldn’t be there and those that don’t have a good enough understanding, it will keep going around in circles. It’s why you find a lot of good people aren’t involved because some find it difficult to have the current system and way of doing things challenged. You want a progressive system that’s going to be one of the best in the world, rather than remaining stagnant.

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