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The Toll Sports Take on Mental Health

We, as sports fans don’t often realise just how seriously the players take themselves.

For us, sports are an escape. It’s a cause for us to get behind, because we love the game.

But for some of the players, their motivations stem from the opposite end of the spectrum.

They play because it’s their livelihoods. Many players join professional clubs straight out of high school.

We see it every year in the AFL, where the majority of players who are selected in the annual AFL Draft are 18 years old.

Many are then required to move away from their hometowns and families for an unknown period of time, without much if any prior notice.

As fans, we don’t truly understand how surreal that must be.

Imagine one day, you have to leave everything you know and love behind for a new job with people you’ve never met before, in a town you have never been to before.

It would be quite daunting.

Then, there are some who don’t even finish year 12 prior to starting their professional sporting careers.

For example, Richmond Football Club’s Jack Higgins decided against going through year 12 at school in his bid to become a professional player.

Higgins recently underwent brain surgery to repair a brain bleed and is on the road to recovery and hopefully, he’ll return to the field in 2020.

But so far, his career has been a success, establishing himself as a regular member of the Richmond seniors side. In time, he’ll become a seriously good player.

But let’s take a moment to think about what would happen if, for whatever reason, his career didn’t work out.

He has no VCE education and no university degree.

It would mean he’d have to go back to school or to university and almost start from scratch.

With that in mind, the pressure to consistently perform would be palpable. Completely unenviable.

One too many mistakes could be the end and for some, they would not know where to go. That kind of mammoth pressure would take its toll.

These players give their all to the sports they play. They live and breathe it. It’s their way of life. It’s their job.

When you’re at work, there’s always pressure to perform and get your duties done. You feel awful when you don’t do your job properly, knowing that there could be consequences.

When these players dip in form or succumb to injuries, they feel they are unable to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

And that can seriously impact upon their confidence.

We’ve seen players take breaks away from sports to focus on restoring their mental health, which is both nice to see and also devastating.

We want to see them strutting their stuff at the highest level, but we also hope that, above all else, they stay healthy in both a physical and mental way.

In recent times, Victorian cricketers Nic Maddinson, Will Pucovski and Glenn Maxwell have taken breaks away from the sport to look after themselves.

Maddinson and Maxwell have both represented Australia at different forms of the game, while Pucovski has been touted as one of the highest potential players in the country.

But that is partly why they are taking these breaks.

They know what level they can play at or what level they will play at in the near future.

But under that pressure, combined with the minority of people on social media who lack any form of empathy, they lack the self-confidence they need to be able to play to the best of their abilities.

Speaking of social media, it can be a brutal place at times.

When players don’t perform at the standard they feel are required, some people are very quick to blast them from the safety of their keyboards.

They say these things without any thought to how a player is feeling off the field or how they may respond to those comments, whether that’s verbal or not.

A great soccer example is that of former Arsenal club captain Granit Xhaka.

Ever since his arrival at the club from German club Borussia Mochengladbach, the Swiss international has faced criticism from fans for what they see as a lack of ability to ‘make it in the Premier League’.

Those fans became irate when he was named club captain ahead of the 2019/2020 Premier League season.

His performances were still viewed upon as poor and many fans felt those on the substitutes bench would do a better job.

This all came to a head during Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace on October 28.

Xhaka was substituted out in the 60th minute and the fans were quick to let him know how they felt.

He then told the fans where to stick it and quickly went down the race. He is yet to return to first team football nearly a month on from the incident. There are even rumours he may leave the club in the January transfer window.

Clearly, the Arsenal fans had struck a chord with Xhaka, forcing a reaction out of him that was extremely uncharacteristic.

Who knows how much of an impact this has had on him and his mental health?

Imagine a large contingent of people began berating and badmouthing you online because you were underperforming at your workplace.

You never know how a player is feeling deep down. You can make assumptions, but you never truly know.

Mental health a serious issue and way too many lives have been lost to it.

During times like these, when so many people need help for issues they can’t resolve on their own, we need to come together.

 

 

Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

Pararoos captain Ben Roche: “Football has the ability to start important conversations”

Ben Roche has played 54 times for the Pararoos – Australia’s only national team for people with cerebral palsy – and captained the team around the world. He spoke to Soccerscene about what the Pararoos have done for him, the future of the team after the exclusion of the sport from the Paralympic Games, and how the footballing community can further embrace the squad. 

Q: How has the exclusion of 7-aside football from the Paralympic games impacted the Pararoos?

Ben Roche: For us, it almost instantly had an impact. Obviously, for the young kids pushing to want to play for the Pararoos, their attention has turned to other sports, and for Pararoos players who are in the program who had the ambition to be Paralympians have chosen other paths, which means you can lose key players and things like that. We’ve had to work hard to grow the game and we are probably in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in, in ensuring that we qualify for the World Cup.


Q: Funding has been an issue for the Pararoos, where does most of it come from?

Ben Roche: We don’t actually receive government funding anymore, we used to get a little bit from the Australian Sports Commission, which was cut in 2015 because of their winning edge policy, which means if they don’t think you’ll win a medal funding will be cut or limited. Since then we have survived off donations through the Australian Sports Foundation. With the work of Football Australia, they set a fundraising page and we try to raise $200,000 plus each year to go towards getting a team to a tournament, a couple of camps, and hopefully a national championship to identify the next generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any sustainability for us, we are always pushing to raise those funds and take the program to the next level. 

Q: It is a pretty horrific way to fund Paralympic sport, isn’t it?

Ben Roche: Yeah, it came to light this week that the Paralympians don’t get any funding if they win a medal, like the Olympians who win do. The Paralympians don’t get anything for doing the exact same amount of work if not more, and that isn’t the way it should be.

Q: What brought about the change in funding?

Ben Roche: The Australian Sports Commission at the time, they have to allocate across sports, and they probably saw that the sports might be better allocated to individual sports which they thought could secure more medals, whether that is athletics or swimming, I don’t know. For me I am a big believer in football being the game played around the world, and cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability for children in Australia. For me that is perfect, you’ve got the world game and the most common physical disability, what a perfect format. We’ve worked really hard to get that message out there and show what the power of football can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from poverty, or having a disability, or having a different background, football has the ability to start important conversations. For us that is where our messaging comes into it, our goal is to create inclusive opportunities for people across the country. Not just for cerebral palsy and things like that, we want to lead the way for inclusive football in all versions of the game. 

Q: How Important has football been to you?

Ben Roche: It has shaped everything I’ve done. I joined the Pararoos when I was 12 years old, and it has taken me around the world. It’s been really eye-opening in terms of that, but it has also put me in front of role models with cerebral palsy and other disabilities who have successful careers, families, social lives, and all those kinds of things. Being able to see that at a young age really shaped who am I today, and gave me the confidence to go and do the things I’m doing. I love football so much that I’ve been working in it, I was working for Football Australia as a team manager because I wanted to be in and around football, and it’s something I am extremely passionate about.

Ben at his first tournament with the Pararoos in Argentina.

Q: How important is it to have visible role models like these growing up?

Ben Roche: It’s massive, for me it was meeting those role models that shaped me. I launched a few programs across the country for people with disabilities, and the conversations I get to have with kids, and the conversations I get to have with the parents as well, the amount the community means to them is huge. For me to see someone who has faced similar challenges doing great things is the best thing I could have come across. By us having a successful Pararoos program we can hopefully empower and not only support these young kids that may want to play football but support them in their careers and everyday lives.

Q: Could the wider football community better embrace the Pararoos? 

Ben Roche: I don’t blame them for not doing so, we weren’t really a common name and still aren’t among the football community, which has been a big push for us to put emphasis through social media and get our messaging out there, to include us in conversation along with the Socceroos and Matildas. I hope that when people do get to see it, it’s something they can get behind. The game is quite fast-paced, it can be high scoring, really physical and we don’t hold back. I’d love to see the Australian football community embrace it more – and I’m not saying they don’t – but the more we can get them behind us the bigger reach we can have.

Q: What is the future of the Pararoos program in Australia?

Ben Roche: COVID has made the last couple of years tricky, just in terms of being able to fundraise for the program. For us we are really interested in taking it to the next level, to not only further develop the men’s program but a women’s program too, which more information will come out for in the next couple of months. We are looking to really create more opportunities throughout Australia, not only have our state teams which are filtering into nationals but also launching academies and programs that will feed into inclusive opportunities. On top of that hopefully we can keep having important conversations around disability.

If you want to help support the Pararoos you can donate through their website.

Creating upside: Four lessons for Australian football from US investors in Europe

It is often said that the United States has the biggest and best sporting market in the world.

According to the latest number from Forbes, the average value of a franchise in the National Football League (NFL) is $3.48 billion USD, a 14% increase on 2020.

In the NBA, the average franchise value is $2.202 billion USD, having steadily risen year-on-year since 2015 which was the first year that the average value crept over the $1 billion USD mark.

Even in the much-maligned MLS, the average franchise value is a cool $550 million USD up from $319 million USD in 2019 – a remarkable 72% increase.

So, with such a booming sports economy on their own doorstep, why are American investors turning to European football?

That was the question The Athletic Football Podcast hosts, Mark Chapman and Matt Slater, sought to answer in the latest episode of their podcast.

In two revealing conversations with US sports investors Michael Kalt and Brett Johnson, there were some potentially interesting lessons for Australian football to learn.

Kalt, who rose to sporting fame as part of the investment group that helped transform the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Rays in the MLB, now leads consortiums investing in European football clubs with current investments in AS Nancy in France and Oostende in Belgium.

Johnson is co-owner of Ipswich Town and also the owner and director of Phoenix Rising Football Club, which plays in the second tier of US football.

So, what do they like about European football?

Why don’t they invest the same sizeable funds into MLS teams?

What can Australian football learn?

Below we highlight four key lessons.

Upside Counts

The majority of clubs that Kalt and his consortiums look at investing in are loss-making businesses.

They don’t make money.

So why, when you have significant investment capital and can invest in a booming domestic sports market, do you choose to take your money to Europe and put it in loss-making clubs?

For Kalt, there are three things a club has to have to prove its investment value.

  1. Asymmetric Upside via promotion or European qualification
  2. Room for commercial improvement
  3. Training profits (EG: Player Transfers)

On the first point, Kalt explains the uniqueness of promotion and relegation and continental competition created pockets of value in Europe that offered much lower costs of entry in Europe.

“Can you buy them when you’re up underlying your downsize risk, meaning you’re not paying full price for a club that is recently promoted or in the top league or coming off European competition and you’re paying full price,” he said.

“If you look at the clubs we bought, we’ve bought clubs like Nancy, historically a club that has been in Ligue 1 and bounced back and forth. It has the infrastructure of a Ligue 1 team. It should be a first division, mid-table club, so there’s headroom there and not a lot of downside risk.

“That’s the sort of situation we look for, where there is an asymmetric upside, either through promotion or European qualification in a smaller club where we think we can compete in the top four or five teams.

On what he termed, “Training Profits”, which most readers would refer to as player transfers, Kalt thinks it’s incredible that a club could generate a sizeable portion of its overall value simply by trading players.

“This is a massive mover in this,” he said.

“When you create that value in American sports, the only way to really monetize it on the player basis is to make like exchanges. To say, I have a player that has demonstrated his worth and the market will pay way more for him. He’s got three or four years left of club control … your only path to monetization is to keep that player and hope the club plays better and people show up and you generate more revenue in the stadium.

“Or you go and try and trade the player for younger, more controllable talent and hope that that talent does the same thing.

“In Europe, you create value, and the market comes to you and says ‘okay, today we’re willing to pay ‘x’ for that player, and, by the way, that ‘x’ might be some significant portion of what you played for the club!’

“That system, combined with analytics to create that value, which is how we started looking at this … is why it’s so intriguing.

“You reinvest some of that back into the club and you can reduce your downside.”

Europe’s football culture and ecosystem are, obviously, significantly more developed than that of Australia or the United States.

But what is interesting to take from the conversation is the factors that make for a worthwhile investment for Kalt and his ilk.

They want to invest in clubs that have room to grow.

None of this is to suggest that the incorporation of promotion and relegation in Australia is going to send a flood of overseas investors ready to throw their money at ‘B-League’ or National Premier Leagues clubs.

But it does inherently create potential upside in investing in the secondary tiers of Australian football, particularly for local investors.

We have already seen in the most recent round of A-League expansions that there was potentially a lot of money left on the table by unsuccessful bidders looking for a way into Australia’s top flight.

The implementation of promotion and relegation could unlock similar pockets of value in Australia.

The addition of a domestic transfer market will also go a long way to increasing the upside of clubs in the A-League and potentially below.

Franchises Limit Upside

When discussing MLS specifically, Kalt believes one of the major obstacles facing the growth of MLS was to be the American attitude of, generally, not being as interested in watching sports that are not “the best”.

But perhaps the most interesting thing Kalt had to say about the investment value of MLS franchises is that their value was largely being grown by the expansion of the competition and the prices being paid for new licenses, dragging the value of the existing licenses up by association.

“Valuations five, six, seven years ago you had a 50 or 60 million cost of entry, which – candidly – still seems a little high given the economics of these clubs,” he said.

“But when you see these club trading at 200, 300, 400-million-dollar valuations, it’s hard for me to get my head around and I know it’s hard for a lot of people in the business to get their head around.

“I think a lot of it, historically, was justified on, ‘well, you buy in now because the next expansion franchise is going to be worth ‘y’’.

“But you’re not going to have a league with 60 clubs, so you’re running out of the ability to do that.”

This sounds alarmingly similar to the A-League, where hopes for the growth of the sport are so consistently pinned on expansion.

They might equate to growth for the value of A-League licenses and the value for the investors who own them, but it’s not enough alone to drive true value in football.

MLS’ One Big Tick

It wasn’t all bad for the MLS. Kalt had to give credit to the MLS for at least one thing.

Infrastructure.

“The amazing thing that they’ve done is that they’ve created the infrastructure for soccer in the United States that never existed before.

“They’re not just sticking teams in and hiring a bunch of over the hill stars and having them play in football (NFL) stadiums and hoping they can sustain it.

“They’re doing the right thing and the league is sustainable, whether at half-billion-dollar franchise valuations is a more debatable proposition.”

This is a crucial lesson for the A-League.

Over 15 years into this journey and there remains embarrassingly little football-specific infrastructure.

There has been some good ground made in recent years by some clubs, but overall, after 15 years one gets the feeling there is very little to show for all the investment made in the A-League.

We’ve had some great seasons, some great matches and some great players grace the league…but if the league collapsed tomorrow, what proof would there be that the A-League and its clubs actually existed?

This has to be urgently addressed.

Gratification Bonus

Another reason cited as key for both Kalt and Johnson in their investment in European football was the sense of gratification of investment in clubs and their surrounding communities.

Now let’s not get carried away. No one is suggesting for a second that these investors aren’t backing in European football for humanitarian reasons.

They’re in it because they see value in their investment.

But can they make themselves feel good about making money in the process?

Well, that’s a bonus. The benefits for the community, however, can be very real and tangible.

Research from 2019 shows Manchester City’s involvement in the title chase with Liverpool was worth £220 million to Manchester’s economy.

According to the think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), spending on match-day tickets, merchandise, and hospitality can boost a city’s economic growth by 1.1 percentage points.

At the lower level, Ipswich Town co-owner Johnson felt there was a great sense of satisfaction to be taken from investing in the surrounding community.

“It’s critical to be engaged with the community,” he said.

“I view [these clubs] as beacons. In England, these communities live and die by the success of these clubs and it’s been painful for these fans have been watching this beautiful asset punch below its weight class.

“It’s not just enough to win, you have to try and make improvements broadly.”

A big part of Kalt’s model was being able to choose clubs with room for improvement because it would be easier to keep the fans onside as things improved.

“Coming into a club that is perfectly run as the next owner is not a situation I would ever want to be in,” he said.

“You want to come into a situation where there’s headroom … you want to have some goodwill built in.

“We’re going to stabilise this, and you know your club is going to be around in a year.”

The question for Australian football is, how do we create value and the feel-good factor around our clubs that encourage the investment they require?

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