Western United CEO Chris Pehlivanis: “The biggest challenge we have in our game is infrastructure”

Western United have had a tumultuous start to life in the A-League. After weathering the start of the pandemic, Chief Executive Officer Chris Pehlivanis talks to Soccerscene about his involvement in football, building a stadium and the future of the A-League.

Q. How did you first become involved in football?

Pehlivanis: I started playing football when I was five years of age. I was the middle child of three boys, and we all played for a club called East Bentleigh Soccer Club. That was our first taste of it, and I continued to play until the age of 18 where I unfortunately had a knee reconstruction at 17 and again at 18. I started refereeing for about 13 or 14 years and became a sports administrator, worked at FFA, then at the AFL and now at Western United.

Q: When the did the opportunity to be involved with Western United first arise?

I was working at Essendon Football Club, I was CFO (Chief Financial Officer) there for eight years. The people who won the bid, I had a relationship with them, and during their journey they identified me as someone they wanted to bring into the organization. I was really interested in the project, there was more than just a football club, and as such it was really appealing. You don’t get the opportunity to work with a startup or work with an organisation where you get the chance to build the foundations, the culture and build something special. We are two years into this journey and loving every moment of it.

Q: What have you learned from your time with WU throughout the Pandemic?

Pehlivanis: The pandemic was challenging for everyone – for us, it was especially challenging when we were trying to build a new brand, and bring in new fans on the journey. Not being able to physically connect with people and share experiences in the beginning, we lost that. In our first season we played finals, and we didn’t get to enjoy that with our fans, which was heartbreaking for me.

That was a missed opportunity and then you go into the second year, and the matches are stop start – fans had to be resilient with games moving venues left, right and centre – we haven’t been able to get into the community like we planned to, visit schools and clubs in the west, take Western United to the west.

All those things have been challenging, but at the end of the day we are a club holds important values, and we are going to find ways to activate everything we are trying to do, be more resilient and go on this journey. The club isn’t about one or two years, it’s about what we are going to build for the next 20 years.

Q: Has there been any unforeseen challenges?

Pehlivanis: There are always challenges in any startup, and there are always the challenges of people, there are always challenges of players, staff and when you bring a group of 100 people together for the first time. The pandemic has clearly been the most significant. The ability to work in an environment where we play in purpose built stadiums, I think has been the biggest challenge we have to face and that is why we are building a stadium.

It has really highlighted in our state that we don’t have enough purpose built stadiums that create good atmosphere needed to connect with your fans. It is something we continue to work on, and something that challenges us, but this is something that will be fixed in our journey as we continue to build our stadium.

Q: Are boutique purpose built stadiums the future of Australian football?

Pehlivanis: I think so, definitely. It is the atmosphere, we live it and breathe it. When you get to a stadium and it is purpose built for your code there is nothing better. It allows us to activate in a manner that our fans want, so I think it is the future of our game. We need to work with all the key stakeholders, government, and private investors to ensure that we create enough assets, and that is the legacy we want to leave behind. Not only us as Western United, but with the Women’s World Cup coming to this country. The biggest challenge we have in our game is infrastructure, at grassroots level and at senior level. Our game is the best game in Australia, but it lacks infrastructure. As soon as we can get government investment, and private investment into those areas, its only going to mean better things at those levels.

Artwork for Wyndham Stadium

Q: Is the plan to play at AAMI Park for next season?

Pehlivanis: We are working on a solution, and that is our intention. We will still go to Ballarat and Tasmania as part of existing deals, and they are opportunities for us to expand our brand. The majority of the games will be hosted at AAMI Park, because that is a purpose built stadium in Melbourne that caters to A-League games.

Q: How important is the new TV deal to the continued success of the A-League?

Pehlivanis: This is the best game in Australia, it just needs the right investment. Channel 10 has backed our game, and it is a really good message to the community. My view is that the game is in a good place, and what it needs is a partner that will back it. What I mean by that is a partner who will invest in the product, invest in the brand and marketing, and invest in everything other than what is on the pitch, because we will invest in what is on the pitch and ensure it continues to grow.

I think they are ready to grow the game with us, they’ve done it with the Big Bash and the racing, by sticking around and investing in them to turn them into spectacles. I’m really excited by Channel 10 and where we are going, but ultimately it’s going to need everyone to work together to get our game to where it needs to go. For Channel 10 to support on us on this journey sends a really clear message that the next five years of this deal will be really special for the game and help us take it to the next level.

Q: How important will next season be to engage with fans?

Pehlivanis: We’re still on the journey to our forever stadium, and the reality is that every year it is important we continue to grow our brand, our market and build a genuine connection with our fans – these people are our family. Our aim is to turn every football fan, and any potential fans that lives in the west, into a Western United supporter and member. That doesn’t happen overnight, we need to take these people on a journey with us. But we’re patient, and we have time. We want genuine fans that fall in love with Western United.

We are in our third year, we need to keep embracing these challenges and opportunities to enter new markets and connect with people before we get into our new stadium. That will be the time where we showcase our brand at its optimal level. Everything we do for these first few years is foundational, and that is why it is important we continue to work closely with the community and be successful on the park. Our commercial partners are strong, and continue to grow, and without their support we wouldn’t be able to continue to grow. We are going into the season this year with most of our partners re-signed, which is something that didn’t happen in our first two seasons.

From our point of view, we are excited about the upcoming season. We think the game will go to another level, and we are on the verge of some really big announcements regarding coaches and additional players in the squad. The next year will be a really big opportunity to continue growing and build on those foundations.

Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley: “It isn’t a national competition without a Tasmanian team in it”

Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley has been in the job since August 2018, and has had plenty of work cut out for him during a turbulent time in Australian football. He spoke to Soccerscene about his involvement in football, Tasmania’s A-League ambitions, and the future of the game in Australia’s smallest state.

Q. How did you become involved in football?

Bulkeley: I’ve been involved in football all my life, I started playing when I was about six or seven in the Hills district in Sydney. I played football probably until I was about 35, and was involved as a volunteer coaching juniors and seniors. I studied a sports management degree when I finished school and worked for about 10 years in cricket. The opportunity came up for an opportunity with Football Federation Australia in around 2005, and I took that role on and was with the national body for almost eight years. I had some other roles in between before coming back into football in this role. 

Q. What challenges has Football Tasmania faced in recent years?

Bulkeley: We’ve had similar challenges to everyone else in relation to COVID, The interruption of the season, and the need to reconfigure what we had planned to do. We were able to get away a season that was roughly two-thirds of a normal season, we didn’t play all of the normal games. We did get most of our players who ended up playing after the break, which was a good thing. When we did return it was a pretty good season. What our clubs found was that they had good interest, good attendance on game days. People enjoyed themselves, and after that lockdown, it was in a sense even more important people had football to forward to and bring themselves together again. What it did impact was that the National Boy’s Championship didn’t go ahead, so that cohort of players didn’t have that opportunity last year, which was disappointing for them with a bit of gap in their development.

In terms of other challenges, one of our challenges that has been fairly well documented is around facilities. We are the biggest participation sport in Tasmania in terms of team sports, but our facilities have not kept up with that demand. They are dated, they are all a similar age and until recent times that haven’t provided suitable amenities for females in particular, both in terms of the number of change rooms as well as their design. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years working with all levels of government and our stakeholders to try and unlock more funding in football and had good success with that. There have been commitments of $30 million-plus, maybe closer to $40 million after this last state election, and we are starting to see the fruit from that – better facilities, and more across the state.

Q. Has engaging with state government and politicians been a challenge?

Bulkeley: It has been a challenge, and I think that is because we haven’t been as coordinated as we could have been in our approach, and being able to put forward a needs-based business case on why football needs better and more facilities. We are the biggest sport, we are bursting at the seams, and have facilities that aren’t fit for purpose. On one hand, it was challenging, but on the other the case sort of speaks for itself in terms of outcomes in recent years.

Q. Is a boutique rectangular stadium an aim for Football Tasmania?

Bulkeley: Absolutely, as far as I know, we are the only state capital that doesn’t have a rectangular stadium of any kind. When we have high-level games, including the Western United games, they’ve been played on ovals which as you know isn’t as good of a spectator experience for everyone. It’s really important for our ambitions for having our own A-League and W-League teams, which we are confident will happen. The Liberal state government has been very supportive in recent times under the leadership of premier Gutwein, in terms of supporting those ambitions, and has been very positive around a rectangular stadium. We know that would be very important in terms of that missing link for sport in this state. 

Q. How important would it be to become the first football code to launch a professional team in Tasmania?

Bulkeley: I think it’s just important full stop that we have that pathway opportunity. One of the big benefits we see having a team will provide for males and females in that opportunity locally to play at the highest level in this country without leaving the state. We’ve still got people as young as 14 and their families having to decide to relocate, with half of them staying and half of them going, so this provides a local opportunity for those more aspirational players. Then obviously being the biggest team participation sport it provides that local high-level football opportunity for people to go and watch to get behind. We think we have the football community to support it, but also think it adds value to our community by providing local heroes for our young people to look up to.

Q. What hurdles does Football Tasmania in launching an A-League team?

Bulkeley: It is tied to further expansion to the A-League, and from everything that has been communicated from the APL (Australian Professional Leagues), that will occur. Then it’s working on the infrastructure part of it, ensuring we have government support, and that we work with club owners and put the case for having a Tasmania team forward as a strong environment for a further team to be based. It would add a lot to the competition, and our view has always been that it isn’t a national competition if it doesn’t have a Tasmanian team in it. 

Q. What challenges does Football Tasmania face going forward?

Bulkeley: I think one thing we have worked hard on, in the last period of time, is collaboration. We have and are committed to working very closely with our clubs and associations on the aspirations of football. We know we can only do it together. We’ve made some really good inroads in the infrastructure area. We are working hard on other areas of the game, continuing to grow the game, the female side of the game. We have the highest proportion of female participation of anywhere in the country of almost 29%, which we are very proud of but want to keep building on that. We want to keep providing more opportunities around coach education and development, and similarly with refereeing. So there are lots of opportunities and challenges for us to embrace, but we know we need to work together with our clubs and associations to do that.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S2 Ep 5 with Gary Cole interviewing Catherine Cannuli

Football Life Podcast Cannuli

Catherine Cannuli has recently been appointed as Head Coach of the W-League team at Western Sydney Wanderers after spending a number of years as Assistant Coach after she finished up her playing career at the Club.

Cath had a terrific playing career as a junior and senior player, becoming a 15-year-old first-team player at Marconi before also playing W-League football with Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, as well as receiving four caps for the Matildas.

Her coaching career began at Southern Districts with the Raiders before quickly adding the U14’s and eventually the Technical Director role. Catherine is open in discussing how great the Association have been in helping her grow and develop as a coach and in allowing her to juggle her coaching role at WSW whilst learning to understand the demands of full-time coaching.

We discuss the impact that Alen Stajcic has had on her career as both a player and a coach as well as how he helped her ‘fall back in love with the game’ after she walked away from the game and the national junior teams.

In her role as TD with Southern Districts she is focused on helping players love the game first as well as trying to fit in more games and training sessions to provide more learning opportunities for players and coaches.

It becomes very evident that Catherine wants to leave a legacy for the W-League program at Wanderers where all players, coaches and staff are full-time.

Please join me in sharing Catherine Cannuli’s Football Coaching Life.

Will Melbourne City eventually move all of their games to the south east?

Melbourne City were the benchmark in the A-League last season, lifting the Premiers Plate in May and eventually the Championship in late June.

It was their first taste of A-League success after years of hard work on and off the pitch.

The club has invested heavily since City Football Group (CFG) took over the Melbourne Heart in 2014, initially building a $15 million City Football Academy in Bundoora, in the city’s north, which has housed the club for the past few years.

In what seems like a strategic investment however, the club revealed late last year that they will move from their Bundoora headquarters and relocate to Casey Fields in Melbourne’s south east.

Earlier this month, the club announced construction had begun on the new elite City Football Academy facility within the 84-hectare Casey Fields Sporting Precinct.

“The first stage of construction includes the central elite training pitch, with its 115m x 115m hybrid grass surface, and is due for completion by the end of 2021. The new pitch is adjacent to the site’s existing four full-sized pitches – one grass and three synthetic – which will be primarily used by the Club’s Academy teams and for City in the Community programs, as well as for City of Casey school and club programs.

“The next stage of construction will see the development of Melbourne City’s new two-storey administration and high-performance building at Casey Fields, currently in detailed design phase. Construction on that phase of the facility is due to commence in the coming months, with completion estimated for mid-2022,” a Melbourne City FC statement read.

Stage three of construction will look to implement a 4000-capacity mini stadium in a significant space in the precinct.

With the club’s A-League players to officially begin training in the facility in August, recent developments in regards to the possibility of a 15,000-capacity stadium in Dandenong may see the end of the team playing all of their games at AAMI Park, in the years to come.

The Victorian Government has already pledged $100,000 in funding for a feasibility review and development of a business case to build the 15,000-seat boutique stadium, with the City of Greater Dandenong also set to match that contribution.

According to Cranbourne Star News, The Greater Dandenong Council is lobbying for $110 million to build the stadium, which will also host festivals, concerts, rugby matches, alongside hosting future Melbourne City games.

While of course at this stage there is no guarantee the stadium will be built, Melbourne City head honchos may have to grapple with the idea of permanently leaving AAMI Park behind, the stadium they have hosted games at since their inception.

With Victory ditching their deal with Marvel Stadium to move all their games back to AAMI Park next season and Western United set to play the majority of their games at AAMI for at least the next two seasons, the 30,000-capacity rectangular stadium is not short of regular football content.

If the proposed stadium does get the go-ahead, City may look to move all of their home matches to Dandenong, and alongside their new academy location, this can prove to be beneficial in establishing a clear geographic identity.

They will have a stronger presence in the local areas and will have the chance to better connect with the local football community and grow their membership base.

City should also still have a reasonable chunk of members who live in the south and south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, with a report from 2018 stating 28% of their members came from those areas.

Adversely, a move away from AAMI Park has the possibility to alienate members and fans who may not want to travel to the proposed stadium for reasons such as proximity.

Sharing the home games between the stadiums could be a viable option, but also brings on the challenge of not having a singular home ground, as well as match scheduling conflicts.

A big call from City administrators may need to be made in the end and not all members and fans will be pleased.

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